Indonesian voters show off their ink-stained pinkies (a sign that they have already cast their ballot) in Menteng, Jakarta, on Wednesday (17/04). (Antara Photo/Wahyu Putro A.)

Peaceful Election Suggests Exaggerated Fears of a Country Split in Two

BY : MUHAMAD AL AZHARI

APRIL 17, 2019

Jakarta. On Wednesday, Indonesia proves to the world that after a lengthy and often heated presidential campaign it is still more than able to hold its first simultaneous presidential and legislative elections—the biggest and most complex one-day elections in the world—without much hiccups.

Competing to win the hearts of 192.8 million registered voters this year are incumbent president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who has been running on a platform of economic reform and infrastructure drive, and former Army general Prabowo Subianto, an ally of Islamic parties and hardliner groups.

Fears that identity politics—which both the Jokowi and Prabowo camps have used to leverage their power—might have created deep ruptures in one the world's biggest democracy now seem to have been unfounded.

In memory: members of Islamic Defender Front (FPI) prayed in front of Jakarta municipality in 2017 demanding for legal prosecution of Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy against Islam. (BeritaSatu Photo/Danung Arifin)
In memory: members of Islamic Defender Front (FPI) prayed in front of Jakarta City Hall in 2017 demanding for legal prosecution of Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy against Islam. (BeritaSatu Photo/Danung Arifin)

It's Not Islamic Fundamentalism vs. Tolerance, It's Pure Politics!

Asad Ali Said, a senior figure from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)—the world's largest Muslim organization—has dismissed the idea that Indonesian Muslims have been polarized between liberals wanting to maintain the country's religious tolerance and conservative Muslims aspiring to see an Islamic rule, even a caliphate.

He said that what has happened during the sometimes brutish presidential campaign is "pure politics."

He also pointed out that this was not the first time Islamic populist ideas have been used by politicians to curry support.

"I get many political scientists from overseas coming to me. It often feels they want me to say a conflict is happening between Indonesian Sunni and Shia Muslims. I tell them no, it is not happening. Our long-maintained tradition to respect diversity is stronger than that," Asad said. 

Asad's organization NU claims a membership of more than 60 million Indonesian Muslims.

Around 99 percent of Indonesian Muslims are followers of Sunni Islam. There are only around one million Indonesian Shia Muslims (0.5 percent of the total Muslim population), most of whom live in the big cities.

Asad said Western media make a big mistake when they assume that tolerance and diversity in Indonesia are being threatened by increasing political tension.

"When people talk about intolerance, what's the parameter? Also, there has been a misunderstanding that has spread around the world, that Indonesian Muslims want to implement Islamic rule. That's just an exaggeration," said Asad, who was also a former deputy chief of Indonesia's Inteligence Agency, known as BIN.

He said Islamic values have already been adopted into Indonesia's national ideology, the Pancasila, and its 1945 Constitution.

M. Najih Arromadloni, the secretary general of the Indonesian Syrian Alumni Association (Alsyami), said the argument that there is a battle of Islamic statehood versus tolerance in Indonesia is a "simplistic way" of seeing what is really happening in the country.

"It is reckless to use that argument. We know in Prabowo's camp there are some who support the idea of an Islamic state, there are some hardliners, but I don't think Prabowo is the kind of person who will agree to that project. This is just about riding the wave in politics," Najih said.

Najih's own Alsyami has been active in combating political indoctrination by preachers in mosques around the country.

During the eight-month long presidential campaign, some critics have voiced concerns that political campaign had infiltrated mosques, including those in government offices and state-owned companies.

"You might be surprised, but believe me, Indonesians are a lot more tolerant than what may have been reported by foreign media. One or two cases do not represent the entire nation," he said.

Populist identity politics was predicted to be a determining factor in the 2019 presidential election after the fall of Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, who was a key ally of Jokowi and a renowned reformist, in the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election. 

Not only did Ahok fail to get reelected, he was also charged with blasphemy against Islam and sentenced to two years in prison.

"Ahok's rise was too fast. His political career peaked at a time when wealth disparity remained huge, and he wasn't wise with his words, especially over sensitive matters," Asad said.

Ahok
Protesters demanded Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, who was a key ally of Jokowi and a renowned reformist, to be prosecuted for blaspheming Islam. (Antara Photo)

Deep Social Wounds

In the aftermath of the elections, Najih warns that Indonesia's political elites should try to calm people down. Any violent clash will leave a big rip in the fabric of Indonesian society.

"The political elites should forget their traditional rivalry. It might not seem possible now, but the Democratic Party can join the government. Gerindra [Prabowo's party] was also once in coalition with PDI-P [Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, Jokowi's backer]," he said.

The Democratic Party was founded by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who in this election has sometimes been seen as a reluctant supporter in Prabowo's camp.

"Politicians should wise up. We all know that violent clashes at grassroots level can lead to a deep wound," Najih said.

One of the last and bloodiest social conflicts in Indonesian history happened in 1998 when riots broke out in cities around the country after New Order dictator Suharto was forced to resign after more than 30 years in power.

In May that year, looters ransacked shops and properties owned by Chinese-Indonesians. An investigation by a fact-finding commission (TGPF) found that at least 52 Chinese-Indonesian women became victims of gang rapes during the Jakarta riot, but none of the cases ever went to trial.

Muslim scholar Komarudin Hidayat also echoed Najih's comments. He said Indonesia's political elites, public intellectuals and scholars must work together to push for a reconciliation.

"Indonesia has everything to lose if there are people who want to spoil the elections. Whoever wins is the best child of Indonesia," said Komaruddin, who was speaking in a forum attended by NU chairman Said Aqil Siroj and Abdul Mu'ti, the secretary general of Muhammadiyah, the country's second-largest Muslim organization.

Both organizations are known for their liberal stance, even though Muhammadiyah scholar-turn-politician Amien Rais has famously made a turn to the right

Komaruddin said after the elections, Muslims in Indonesia will start their fasting month, which he said is a perfect momentum to forget about political differences.

So far, voting around the country ran smoothly and no major incident was reported. Authorities, including the police and the military, have stayed true to their promise not to tolerate any attempt at provoking violence and spoiling the peace. 

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