Johannes Nugroho: Identity Politics in Indonesia Remains Ambiguous


MAY 11, 2017

In the lead-up to the 1999 general elections, the first after the fall of former President Suharto, slogans counseling voters to separate religion and politics, such as, "In matters of religion I listen to the kyai [cleric] but in matters of state, I listen to my conscience," were commonplace. Curiously, no one took offense. By contrast, in the current climate of sectarian politics, such slogans would probably provoke protests from hardline Islamic groups, 19 years after Indonesia’s experiment with democracy. The irony is all too real.

Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Arief Hidayat recently said at a court hearing: "The development of the modern state saw the rise of two categories in its relation to religion: states which are wholly secular and those with a state religion. Indonesia, however, is neither."

While Indonesia’s ambiguity in this respect is not unique  the United Kingdom with its crown-sponsored Church of England is an obvious example  ambiguity could be best described as a national characteristic and indeed preference. Take the recent upsurge of Islamic identity politics and its manifestations, especially during the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Religious and ethnic sentiments were on full display as Christian, Chinese Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama, or "Ahok," was criminalized for blasphemy against Islam. The case against him was so dire that it managed to unify Muslims who turned up irate in their hundreds of thousands and even millions at a string of public protests demanding his incarceration. It is not surprising that faced with such intransigence, he lost the election to a relatively inexperienced rival.

Analysts and pundits have offered different verdicts on this phenomenon. Some forecast doom and gloom for pluralistic democracy in the country as public opinion veers towards the religious right. Others have dismissed the disturbing outpouring of sectarian hatred as a byproduct of the battle between political elites not above exploiting religious and racial sentiments to score political victory.

Yet the reality, like most things in Indonesia, is somewhat ambiguous and in all probability mercurial in nature. There is no doubt that political Islam has successfully used the Jakarta election  particularly the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) and its leaders, such as Rizieq Shihab  to leapfrog into sudden political prominence.

Radical groups such as FPI are no longer on the fringes of power play. There is also no doubt that the excesses of sectarianism on display throughout were abetted by political elites who provided the perfect avenue through which pent-up religious and racial biases could be legitimately expressed.

Nevertheless, the rise of political Islam as represented by the radical groups has not been without challenge. Ahok’s defeat has already produced civil defiance from his supporters, many of whom sent floral displays to City Hall to express their solidarity with the governor in defeat.

Recently we have also seen public rejections of Islamist groups in the country, notably public protests against Rizieq Shihab’s scheduled talk in Surabaya, the mass rejection against the opening of the FPI branch in Semarang and Salatiga in Central Java, as well as the declaration against intolerant groups by the Dayak community in Kalimantan. The government has also jumped on the bandwagon by declaring its intention to ban the fundamentalist organization Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia through a court verdict.

Despite the multi-pronged challenge, it must be admitted that sectarianism exists and thrives within Indonesia. Without the religious and ethnic sentiments and hatred already present in society, the elites could not have possibly conjured up the recent commotion. It was if anything a wake-up call, especially in light of past government disavowals of sectarian tensions.

By the same token, due to long held taboos on the public discussion of topics relating to ethnicity, religion, race and community groupings, members of the Indonesian public may also be in denial that sectarianism lurks in their midst even when the evidence may point to the contrary.

Such taboos, drummed into public psyche during President Suharto’s 32-year rule, have only resulted in further segregation of different religious and racial groups in Indonesian society, with each living in their own community with minimal contact with the others. This is especially true in urban centers like Jakarta.

At the same time, as the urban Muslim middle classes grow in numbers and stature, their aspirations will also become more prominent in politics. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center between 2008 and 2012 found that 72 percent of Indonesians support the idea of Shariah law. This particular statistic has been rightly questioned by a few analysts because, again, the picture is probably more nuanced, and ambiguous.

The majority of Muslims in Indonesia would, in principle, support what their religion teaches them, including Shariah law. This is why most would answer in the affirmative when questioned about it. At the same time, many may not feel comfortable with the fundamentalist interpretation of the Shariah, including whether hijab is compulsory for women or if corporal punishment should be part of normative law. At present, only the semi-autonomous province of Aceh has installed Shariah as part of its legal system.

The tendency to put up a good show of support for Islam also explains the huge turnouts of anti-Ahok protests in Jakarta. Once convinced that the governor uttered blasphemy against Islam – after all many clerics at mosques say so  most Indonesian Muslims would have been socially obligated to turn against him, if only to prove their religious credentials.

This would also explain why, as a number of surveys conducted around the Jakarta election suggest, that although most Jakarta Muslims thought the governor had done a good job, religious reasons compelled them against re-electing him.

However, it does not translate that most Muslims in Jakarta, or Indonesia, would support the adoption of Aceh-style Shariah. An important reminder lies in the electoral tallies. Since the dawn of Reformasi in 1998, Islamic parties such as the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), Crescent and Moon Party (PBB) and the National Development Party (PPP) have never succeeded in securing a majority in any national elections so far.

PKS may have done well electorally in a number of regional elections, but nationally the more secular parties, such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar Party have been consistently more popular with voters.

While the establishment of an Islamic state or khilafah is almost certainly inconceivable for the foreseeable future, it does not mean that the march towards a more "Islamic" legislation program is off the menu, especially in the areas of public morality. Yet in a nod to burgeoning Muslim identity politics, it is inevitable that pluralism and minority rights will be given a backseat.

At the heart of the rise of political Islam in Indonesia – in its most conservative form  is the perceived notion by ordinary Indonesians that Western-style democracy has failed to usher in utopia. Many of them supported the toppling of Suharto 19 years ago because they believed democracy would deliver them a better deal. With corruption and social injustice still running rampant under democracy, it has definitely become easier for Islamists to argue that the Taghut  a Koranic term for tyrants who set themselves up as false Gods – is ill-suited for Indonesia.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos