The sentencing of Jakarta’s former governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and ethnic Chinese, to two years in prison for alleged blasphemy is a cause for serious concern not only for religious minorities and tolerant Muslims in the archipelago, but also in the global fight against terrorism and Islamist radicalism. For, there is perhaps no better narrative to counter the growing Islamist extremism in the world than that of the moderate and tolerant practise of Islam in Indonesia.
The southeast Asian country is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and has not allowed Saudi Arabia’s intolerant Wahhabism to take root. It’s not only tolerant and plural, but also a large functioning, stable democracy unlike any other country in the Muslim world. It’s a country whose religious expressions are not a top-down phenomenon.
Under the authoritarian President Suharto's New Order regime from 1966 to 1998, Indonesia was equally moderate and tolerant but without religious freedom. Islamist groups were not allowed to function. While the process of Reformasi (reformation) that began after the fall of Suharto opened the gates for radicals to preach their versions of Islam and Islamist ideologies, the roughly 250 million people in the archipelago have largely shunned Wahhabism for about two decades.
However, Ahok’s conviction and sentencing based on a video that showed him speaking out of context about a verse in the Quran, could be a turning point for the country. It represents the biggest breakthrough in the ongoing efforts of the Indonesian cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, who mobilised massive protests against Ahok, to turn the country towards conservatism.
It’s not surprising that Shihab, who leads the radical organization Islamic Defenders Front, locally known as FPI, is currently in Saudi Arabia. He fled Indonesia to avoid his arrest after a pornography-related case was filed against him. Ironically, his group has been opposing prostitution, gambling and bars to cleanse Indonesia of “sin.”
The FPI, which targets liberal Muslims, Ahmadiyah and Shia mosques, churches and embassies of countries that it perceives to be hostile towards Islam, was founded in 1998. It has managed to gain about 200,000 members. The number is miniscule compared to the membership of moderate and pluralistic Muslim groups Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which oppose attempts to spread Wahhabism in Indonesia and claim to have 50 million and 29 million followers respectively. However, the head count estimates or claims are neither a major concern nor any consolation.
Despite being seen as a negligible minority, Islamist groups have been able to flout local laws by physically attacking minorities and collecting protection money from the entertainment industry. More importantly, they have now been able to cause the defeat of a popular official, Ahok, by making his religious and ethnic identity an issue in the recent gubernatorial election. Furthermore, they managed to get the court’s endorsement of their narrative of blasphemy, which includes the assertion that non-Muslims should not be allowed to comment on the Quran’s interpretation. In the verdict against Ahok, a judge quoted a verse from the Quran (Al-Maidah 51) which purports to suggest that Muslims should not elect non-Muslim leaders.
After their success in discounting the leadership of an otherwise efficient official by using the religion card, radical Islamists are now expected to target West Kalimantan governor Cornelis M.H., who is also a Christian. But they are not likely stop there. The radicals are also likely to try to influence the 2019 presidential election. They vehemently oppose President Joko Widodo, who is popularly known as Jokowi and is moderate and pluralistic. FPI leader Shihab has claimed that Jokowi is avenging the sentencing of Ahok through the pornography case.
The 2019 election is the main concern currently. For, the radicals are apparently eyeing nothing less than political power, though through parties that have been supporting them. And this could also have a bearing on how democratic Indonesia remains. For it’s the authoritarian politicians and parties that need the support of groups like the FPI to compensate their lack of popularity and track record with the use of religion.
Hard-line groups like the FPI have put consecutive governments since 1998 in a conundrum. Governing parties and lawmakers have long debated whether such groups should be banned, but they have erred on the side of caution by allowing them to function due to fears that such an action could force radicals to become terrorists. Now, there is an added possibility of unrest and instability if these groups are proposed to be outlawed.
However, with the strength and networks of the NU and Muhammadiyah, it is not impossible to build consensus among the people for banning hard-line groups. As an alternative, the Jokowi government can also adopt a policy of zero tolerance towards radical group vis-a-vis law and order and also deal strictly with officials in the police and the military who help such groups.
The sooner it is done, the better it is for the future of Indonesia, and the world.
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.