Jakarta. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said on Monday (03/07) that Indonesia remains a model of moderate Islam, countering critics who point to mass rallies by radical Muslim groups and the jailing of former Jakarta governor, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, for blasphemy as evidence that its reputation is crumbling.
"Pluralism has always been a part of Indonesia's DNA," Jokowi told Reuters in an interview at the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta. "Despite many challenges, Islam in Indonesia has always been a force for moderation."
Indonesia's Pancasila state ideology includes national unity, social justice and democracy alongside belief in God, and enshrines religious diversity in a secular system of government.
Hardline Islamist groups were banned under the authoritarian regime of President Suharto, which ended in 1998, but they have gained ground in recent years, emerging from the fringes of society in the world's biggest Muslim-majority country.
Religious and political tensions spiraled at the end of last year when Islamists led protests by hundreds of thousands in Jakarta against Ahok – a Christian of Chinese descent – who was charged with insulting the Koran.
Ahok, an ally of Jokowi, lost his bid for re-election to Muslim rival Anies Baswedan in April after months of agitation against him by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).
In May he was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy.
Jokowi said Indonesia was "still a model" of pluralism and noted comments on Saturday by former United States President Barack Obama – on a personal visit to the country where he spent some of his childhood – that its history of tolerance must be preserved.
"It is very important here in Indonesia, the United States, Europe, everywhere, to fight against the politics of 'us and them,'" Obama told a conference in Jakarta.
Careful Line on Homosexuality
The targets of hardline Islamic groups have included the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, many of whom have been driven underground by police raids.
Except for the ultraconservative Aceh province, where Islamic law is enforced and two men were publicly flogged last month for gay sex, homosexuality is legal in Indonesia.
But Jokowi's own defense minister has branded homosexuality a national security threat and last week a leader of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-largest Muslim group, called for a boycott of Starbucks because of the international coffee chain's pro-gay stand.
The president trod a careful line on the question of LGBT rights, saying that "Indonesia remains a tolerant nation" whose constitution guarantees that everyone's rights are respected and protected.
But he added: "We are the largest majority Muslim country, so Indonesia has its own religious norms, unique values and also cultures that must be respected."
Islamic State Has No Place in Indonesia
The muscle-flexing of hardline groups has fed fears that Indonesia will become fertile ground for Islamist militants.
The attempt in May by a small army of Islamic State-allied fighters to overrun a city in the southern Philippines has been widely seen as a bid by the ultra-radical group, on a backfoot in Syria and Iraq, to establish a stronghold in Southeast Asia.
Philippine officials have said there were Indonesians and Malaysians among the fighters who attacked Marawi City, where a battle with government troops has ground on for six weeks.
"ISIS has no place in Indonesia," Jokowi said, using a popular acronym for Islamic State.
He noted that Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines had agreed to joint maritime patrols to prevent militants moving across their islands, and said he discussed cooperation on a phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last week.
"Our security and intelligence agencies continue to work hard to combat this threat. We are also continuing to promote the values of moderate Islam and when I talked with President Duterte last week I said that 'your problem is my problem,'" Jokowi said.