One group seen as dangerous by the government is the recently disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local chapter of pan-Islamic movement Hizbut Tahrir, which denounces democracy and dreams of establishing a global caliphate through a bloodless revolution.

Is Indonesia’s Unity Threatened by Hardline Turn?


AUGUST 17, 2017

Jakarta. As Indonesia celebrates its 72nd anniversary on Thursday (17/08), hardline Islamist groups in the largest Muslim-majority country seem to be tightening their grip on society. Their ability to mobilize masses, marginalize minority groups and engender narratives of intolerance, poses a serious challenge to Indonesia's long-standing model of religious moderation and secular, democratic tradition.

In one of the most notable recent developments, the hardline groups scored a victory for their Muslim candidates in Jakarta's gubernatorial election in April. According to many observers, the poll was tainted by one of the most divisive and polarizing campaigns in the history of the country, where 87 percent of the 250 million population identify themselves as Muslims.

Don't Go West

Now that the Jakarta election is over and Indonesia is heading to its next presidential vote in 2019, everyone is looking to see how the administration of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo can stick to a pluralist course and uphold the country's tradition of religious tolerance, while maintaining high approval ratings among Muslims.

According to Asad Ali Said, one of the most influential figures in the Nahdlatul Ulama — the world's largest Muslim organization, which claims a membership of more than 60 million — hardline Islamist groups have been gaining ground with growing resistance against what they call "Western values," and more aggressive religious preaching, or "dakwah," at the grassroots level.

Asad said Indonesian Muslims are increasingly vocal against Western values. In their anti-Western discourse what is seen as "values" is equated with hedonism and materialism, alcohol consumption, "free sex" lifestyle, acceptance of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT), and freedom of speech. Coupled with resentment of social and economic inequality, this rhetoric gives a lifeline to Islamist groups to win the hearts of their Muslim brothers.

"Freedom of speech without proper control can easily end up with people committing blasphemy. The West says blasphemy is okay, but here it is not. This was why a large number of mainstream Muslims turned against Ahok," said Asad, referring to the infamous blasphemy case against Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama.

Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy for alleging that his political rivals had been quoting a Koranic verse to discredit him. The Chinese-Christian former governor was sentenced to two years in jail after he lost the gubernatorial election.

'Detain Ahok' reads a poster held by hardline Muslim protesters at a demonstration in Jakarta on May 5, during Jakarta Governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama's blasphemy trial. (Reuters Photo/Beawiharta)

The series of anti-Ahok rallies, some of which turned violent and disrupted the capital city prior to the election, according to political observers had shown cracks in the country's unity.

Indonesia's controversial 1965 Law on Prevention of Abuse of Religion and/or Blasphemy is criticized by human rights activists, who since decades have been calling for its abolition. In 2010, a group of activists, politicians and authorities on religious affairs, including former President and NU chairman Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), called for the law to be reviewed. The Constitutional Court, however, rejected all points raised in their petitions.

In Muslim countries, blasphemy is one of the most sensitive issues. Accusations of blasphemy can be used by anyone to target opponents. When they come from a party representing or claiming to represent religious interests, the labeling as blasphemer may not only force the accused into a legal vicious circle, but also ignite angry emotions of the masses, leading to intimidation and even destruction of life, as it had many times happened in other states (such as Egypt or Pakistan) that have anti-blasphemy legislation.

Incitement to violence triggered by accusations of blasphemy comes not only from non-state actors, but also from the religious establishment, which often remains impune due to the authorities' reluctance to intervene or, sometimes, the utilization of the judiciary to silence intellectual dissent or political opposition.

Asad, a former deputy chairman of Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency (BIN), said he did not rule out the possibility that sneaky politicians took advantage of Ahok's blasphemy case to capitalize on identity politics to win the hearts of millions of Muslims in the capital city. "In 2019, they [politicians] will use [religion] again," he said.

Islamic scholar Ahmad "Buya" Syafii Maarif, former chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second largest Muslim organization, expressed grievance about the use of religion as a political commodity.

"Politicians sell religion and God for their own sake," he said, adding that the best gift for the 72nd anniversary of Indonesia's independence would be the willingness of politicians to resist from utilizing narratives of intolerance and radical groups in their power plays.

"The nation must immediately awake," Buya said.

Economic and social inequality makes the situation even more difficult by fueling the frustration of citizens and posing a threat to the country's stability.

"I am really worried, because the economic [growth] is likely to make the gap wider."

Grassroots Bound

According to Asad, at the grassroots level hardliner Islamist groups, like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) — notorious for its illegal, often violent raids on entertainment venues — have been staging more public dakwah to create stronger bonds with conservative Muslims across the country, often peppering their speeches with rallying cries demanding social justice.

Some preachers, known as "ustadz," who are FPI sympathizers, members or executives, often derive from NU and Muhammadiyah.

NU and the FPI both have roots in the Shafi'i school of thought (madzab) of Sunni Islam, with similarities in the interpretation of the Koran and hadiths — sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which are secondary to the Koran, but still important in shaping Islamic doctrine.

Asad did not deny the FPI's links with the NU — which in contrast to the hardline group has become the global face of Indonesia's pluralistic and tolerant Islam. He said leaders of both organizations are close with each other.

"I can call Habib [Rizieq Shihab, FPI's leader] anytime," he said, adding that in the 1950s the NU was pushing President Sukarno's government to implement Islamic teachings based on the principle of "amar ma'ruf nahi munkar" ("prescribing what is right and prohibiting what is wrong"), which would have given law enforcers a legal basis to conduct raids on individuals or groups suspected of immorality.

Interestingly, the Nahdlatul Ulama itself was founded in 1926 upon the traditionalist Javanese Muslim leaders disapproval of Wahhabism — a puritanical movement which since the early 20th century has been endorsed by Saudi Arabian rulers.

Meanwhile, Slamet Maarif, a spokesman for the Islamic Defenders Front, told the Jakarta Globe that to endear themselves to other Muslims, FPI has created a special division to provide emergency assistance to those struck by disasters or facing oppression in Indonesia and overseas.

"We have our social aid arm called Hilal Merah Indonesia [the Indonesian Red Crescent], which provides social assistance to Muslim brothers who are facing unfortunate conditions such as disasters and wars," he said.

"The most obvious proof [of our involvement] was when tsunami hit Aceh. If we talk about facts, please see which mass organization deployed the biggest force [to help]? Just ask the TNI [Indonesian Military], ask the Acehnese. We were there. But did media cover it? They didn't. Well, God has His own plans for those who do good deeds," said Slamet, who chaired the presidium of the organizers of the Dec. 2 rally, known as the "212" protest, against Ahok.

The Teuku Umar Mosque in Lhok Bubon, Samatiga, Aceh. The mosque was damaged but not completely destroyed during the 2004 tsunami which devastated the area. (Antara Photo/Syifa Yulinnas)

HTI: Radical or Subversive?

In Indonesia, radical Islamic teachings find their outlets in education institutions, mosques and religious groups. One group seen as dangerous by the government is the recently disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local chapter of pan-Islamic movement Hizbut Tahrir, which denounces democracy and dreams of establishing a global caliphate through a bloodless revolution. Its sympathizers have founded the Lembaga Dakwah Kampus (Campus Dakwah Body).

In a move that tested Jokowi's popularity among Muslims, the government banned HTI in July, arguing that the organization follows an ideology that contradicts the values enshrined in the country's state ideology of Pancasila.

The ban on HTI is seen as a bold move by Jokowi, since politicians, both in urban centers and in the regions, often rely on the influence wielded by HTI members. After banning HTI, the Jokowi administration said it will disband other organizations that oppose Pancasila.

HTI and other conservative Muslim groups have since requested the Constitutional Court to examine the government's regulation, arguing it is undemocratic and unconstitutional.

Komaruddin Hidayat, rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta, said organizations like HTI should be classified as "radical groups," although in Indonesia and in many other parts of the world "radicalism" has often been reduced to mean violent actions by religious groups.

"If someone is a radical, it means he or she holds very extreme views," the prominent Muslim scholar said.

According to Komaruddin, when radicalism is manifested in a political ideology it becomes subversive.

"Ideologically speaking, the idea of establishing a caliphate can be compared with promoting communism. It is an ideology that attempts to unite people from different countries and eliminate territorial boundaries. When this kind of ideology starts to develop and gains acceptance, two things can happen: the state disbands the group [which promotes it], or the group dismantles the state," he said.

Divided Unity

Indonesia's 'Bhinneka Tunggal Ika' (officially translated as 'unity in diversity') is now facing deep divisions and conflicts within the nation. (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside)

Indonesia is also home to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians and followers of numerous other religions. In the national motto — "unity in diversity" — many see the importance of recognizing religious, cultural and ethnic plurality to hold the country together based on the principles of equality and democracy.

In 1945, when Indonesia's constitution was prepared by the Investigating Body for the Preparation of Indonesian Independence (BPUPKI), one of the most crucial issues raised was the role of religion and the status of Muslims in the future state. The BPUKI, which comprised Muslims and non-Muslims, rightists and leftists, liberals and conservatives, was dominated by two groups: secular nationalist and Islamic nationalists.

On June 1, 1945, one of the BPUPKI members, who later became Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, proposed Pancasila, the five principles which were to become the official ideology of the independent country: belief in God, nationalism, humanitarianism, democracy and social justice. Soon, however, a demand was made by the group of Islamic nationalists that the state be based on Islam.

Eventually, a modified version of Pancasila, called the Jakarta Charter, was accepted. It contained the obligation for Muslims to follow Islamic law. The addition was controversial and, a day after the declaration of independence, Vice President Mohammad Hatta was requested by Christian delegations from the eastern regions of Indonesia to remove it. The words were withdrawn after a consultation with Muslim leaders.

Since the independence, the debate on the position of Islam in Indonesia's pluralistic society has been recurring, especially after the fall of General Suharto's regime in 1998, when Islamic parties were allowed to return to the political scene.

In 1946, in a bid to ease Indonesian Muslims, Sukarno established the Ministry of Religious Affairs to deal with issues like the pilgrimage to Mecca, religious courts, marriage affairs, mosques and Islamic education.

Muslims' special privileges did not stop there. Under President Suharto, in 1975, the government established a clerical body called the Indonesian Ulema Council, with board members representing all major Muslim groups such as the NU, Muhammadiyah and smaller ones, including Persis, Al Irsyad, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, and even HTI and the FPI.

The councils produces fatwas (rulings on religion-related matters) and advises Muslims on contemporary issues.

While mainstream Muslims consistently shun Islamic law, or shariah — arguing that Indonesian culture is markedly different than the culture of Saudi Arabia, and that most Indonesians reject its often severe and cruel penalties, including stoning to death, cutting off limbs and decapitation — the struggle to push its implementation has apparently been successful, at least in several regions.

In a journal written by Elizabeth Pisani and Michael Buehler (2016), titled "Why do Indonesian politicians promote shari'a laws? An analytic framework for Muslim-majority democracies," it is estimated that more than 440 shariah-based ordinances were passed in the country since 1999, when the central government gave a greater power to provinces and districts to make their own laws.

Aceh, the province that often makes headline news for its implementation of shariah, has special shariah police officers to enforce the religious law. Although rights activists have been expressing concerns over human rights violations in the province, there is apparently nothing the central government can do to stop the practices due to Aceh's "special region" status.

Hardline organizations of the FPI kind dream to introduce shariah in the whole country. According to the FPI spokesman quoted earlier, the organization will never stop its advocacy for the implementation of Islamic law, which they claim will be in line with Pancasila and the spirit of unity.

"We have been in communication with our friends from political parties to pursue this," he said.

'Silent Majority' Criticized

Indonesia's "silent majority" (tens of millions of moderate Muslims) has been roundly criticized for being lackluster in responding to provocations from radical groups.

A daughter of Gus Dur, Yenny Wahid, who serves as executive director of the Wahid Foundation, said the silent majority should engage more in politics to oppose radicalism.

"We can't allow public discussion to be controlled by radicals, by their hate speech. You need to fight back," Yenny said during a discussion on religious relations in the United States and Indonesia, in Jakarta on July 31.

According to Yenny, moderate Muslims must take up the task of providing alternative views on important national issues, not letting Islamists dominate the airwaves and social media.

The problem has been, she said, that radicalized Muslims tend to show more commitment to their cause, which gives them the drive to influence others and gain more followers. In contrast, members of the silent majority have been less than forward in defending their moderate religious outlook.