Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Understanding the 212 Movement

April 17, 2018 | 12:04 pm
Anti-Ahok demonstrators rally in Jakarta, October 2016. (Antara Photo/Rivan Awal Lingga)
Anti-Ahok demonstrators rally in Jakarta, October 2016. (Antara Photo/Rivan Awal Lingga)

Jakarta. The religiously charged rally that drew hundreds of thousands to central Jakarta in December 2016, has shown the great impact of religion upon politics and arguably marked a shift on the national landscape of power.

On Dec. 2 — from which the mass demonstration took its numerical "212" tag — Muslim groups came to the streets demanding the arrest of then Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama on blasphemy charges. It was the third anti-Ahok rally since October and the largest demonstration in the country's history.

The rally and its participants became known as "the 212 movement" formed to defend Islam. They proved successful and managed to bring down Ahok, who was  found guilty in a controversial trial and sentenced to two years in jail in May last year.

Some of those involved in the rally — who usually refer to themselves as "212 alumni" — remain vigilant, ready to spot all activities they perceive as an attack on Islam and publicly protest them.

How did this movement emerge and who are its members? "After Ahok: The Islamist Agenda in Indonesia," a report published by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) on April 6, examines the movement and its components.

Here are some highlights from the study.

Birth of 212 Movement

The movement emerged from the Islamist opposition to Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, who was running for governor of the Muslim-majority capital city.

When former Jakarta Governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was elected president in 2014, his deputy, Ahok, automatically became governor for the remaining three years.

"But Islamist organizations were deeply unhappy, arguing that only a Muslim could govern other Muslims," the report said.

The 212 movement gained momentum when a doctored version of Ahok's speech from September 2016 – in which he made a reference to a Koranic verse – went viral and resulted in charges against him.

After the incident, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa, which said that Ahok's words were blasphemous. This led to the formation of the National Movement to Defend the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), which in October started to organize demonstrations against the governor.

Who Are the Organizers?

IPAC identifies several groups that make up the 212 movement:

  • the Salafi-modernist network led by Islamist preacher Bachtiar Nasir,
  • conservative traditionalists, represented by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) led by Rizieq Shihab,
  • Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI),
  • Wahdah Islamiyah led by Zaitun Rasmin,
  • the Indonesian Muslims Forum (FUI) led by Muhammad al-Khaththath,
  • religious chanting (zikir) groups.
Referring to the movement as a "tactical alliance," IPAC observes that the Salafi network and FPI are the most important components of it, even though they have little in common both theologically and strategically.

Salafi Groups

Salafism is a a form of Muslim fundamentalism, a revivalist movement harking back to the purity of the earliest practitioners of Islam (the "ancestors," or "salaf" in Arabic).

There are two Salafi groups singled out in IPAC's report, the one led by Bachtiar Nasir and the other by Zaitun Rasmin of Makassar-based Wahdah Islamiyah.

They are both rooted in the educated middle class and rely on grassroots activism. Both call for further Islamization of Indonesia. Neither of them, however, seeks to introduce Islamic law or transform the country into an Islamic state.

"He is more tolerant of practical politics than many Salafis, seeing democratic political participation as a necessary evil to achieve Islamist goals," the report said, referring to Bachtiar.

Bachtiar's network and Wahdah Islamiyah "believe in non-violent social transformation from below, through education and dakwah [proselytism]."

According to IPAC, Bachtiar's influence has significantly increased through his role in the 212 movement.


FPI boasts a mass following and high capacity to mobilize – its leaders claim millions in members across the archipelago.

The organization advocates the formal application of Islamic law and is committed to restoring the so-called Jakarta Charter, which during the constitutional talks in the 1940s was eventually dismissed to prevent the country from becoming a religious state. The charter obliged Indonesian Muslims to live in accordance with Islamic law.

FPI is also known for forming various kinds of alliances with political parties and candidates.

Many of its members derive from Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which makes them more traditionalist than members of Bachtiar's group.

"Many traditional practices that are rejected by Salafi-modernists, such as the celebration of the Prophet's Birthday [Maulid], are enthusiastically carried out by FPI," IPAC said.

While FPI is known for thuggery and vandalism in religious garb, it has also been engaged in humanitarian work, including relief aid for victims of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh.

Fracture in the Movement

A number of factors led to the collapse of the 212 unity, including fights over religious and theological practices, personal rivalry and pragmatic choices in nominating political candidates.

In April last year, Rizieq moved to Saudi Arabia amid a police investigation into allegations of his pornographic exchange with a female supporter. These charges also weakened the FPI's position and strengthened Bachtiar instead.

According to the IPAC report, bitter competition between their leaders also deepened the already big differences between the traditionalists and Salafis.

IPAC argues that both Bachtiar and Zaitun may become increasingly powerful, because their work is focused on changing norms and values through religious education.

"They have a very clear agenda to Islamize Indonesian state and society from the grassroots," IPAC said, adding that the group's efforts could lead to greater state involvement in the sphere of morality and citizens' privacy, as well as increased importance of religion in policymaking.

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