Jokowi turns to Islam-nationalism to preserve Indonesia's diversity
By Endy Bayuni Editor-in-Chief The Jakarta Post, Indonesia
Irrespective of the result, the Jakarta gubernatorial election next
Wednesday will leave a bitter aftertaste that could have consequences on
the political landscape in the rest of Indonesia. The election is
already billed as the ugliest, most divisive and most polarising the
country has seen.
Religion and, to a lesser extent, race were issues that were widely
exploited in the election. Rivals trying to unseat the hugely popular
incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, virtually forced Jakarta voters to
decide whether a non-Muslim and an ethnic Chinese, hence a
double-minority, could be allowed to govern the sprawling city of 10.5
Whether Basuki or his challenger, Islamic scholar Anies Baswedan,
wins the run-off, the religious bigotry and racism that the election
raised will likely linger on, or even spread further afterwards.
Pluralism - or the notion that this nation of 250 million made up of
diverse ethnic, racial and religious groups and languages could live and
coexist peacefully - looks like it is in serious jeopardy now, unless
someone saves it.
President Joko Widodo has stepped up to the plate, and he may have
taken his cue from Indonesia's first president Sukarno by combining
several ideologies into one. In his particular case, it is Islam and
Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population,
has defied the myth that democracy and Islam are incompatible by holding
four peaceful democratic national elections since the downfall of
strongman Suharto in 1998. Now Mr Joko, who is also known as Jokowi,
must show that Islam and nationalism are not only compatible, but also
that the two can work together to preserve national unity.
Jakarta is considered a political trendsetter and the whole nation is
watching the election to get a sense of how deep a role religion now
plays in national politics. Not that Indonesia needs more of it.
Religious intolerance is already on the rise in recent years, with many
minorities becoming the target of attacks. The ugly election campaign in
Jakarta is bound to put more pressure on the religious minorities and
further strain on overall interfaith relations.
Two big demonstrations in Jakarta, in November and December, that
were ostensibly aimed at stopping the re-election of Governor Basuki
were part of a persistent campaign to push Islam into the centre of the
political stage and then drum up support for whatever agenda their
sponsors have, includingsyariah to replace the law of the land and an
Islamic state down the road.
This is making not only the religious minority groups restless, but
also many Muslims who don't necessarily agree with the Islamist agenda.
Although nearly 90 per cent of Indonesia's population are Muslims,
Indonesia is not an Islamic state, a decision its founding fathers
consciously made upon independence in 1945 to placate religious
minorities like Christians and Hindus, particularly from eastern
Indonesia. These eastern provinces would have happily opted out of the
new republic and formed their own independent states if the former Dutch
colony had gone Islamic.
Indonesia's secular status has since survived many tests, including a
series of armed rebellions and terrorist attacks in the name of Islam.
But now the battle by the Islamist proponents is primarily being waged
in the public space. With the help of the Internet, which has created an
open marketplace for ideologies, this fight has become about winning
the hearts, minds and soul of the people.
President Joko is leading the campaign to stop or reverse the rise of
Islamism. He does so by raising the spectre, rightly or wrongly, that
the nation's unity is at stake because its key underpinning, pluralism,
is being attacked by those who want to turn Indonesia into a theocratic
state. And he does so not by tackling Islam head on, but rather by
embracing the religion without losing sight of the bigger interests of
preserving the unity of this very diverse nation.
He is combining Islam and nationalism into a single, powerful force for national unity, development and prosperity.
This is reminiscent of the founding father Sukarno who, as a
26-year-old revolutionary thinker, penned an article in 1926 about
synthesising Islam, nationalism and Marxism, which he saw as the main
political pillars for the independence struggle. These three are
competing ideologies, Sukarno wrote, but their combination would portend
for a force that the Dutch colonial rulers could not stop. After
independence in 1945, Sukarno tried to rally the three pillars together
again, this time with disastrous and fatal effects. The communist party
was crushed for good and Sukarno lost power in 1966.
Mr Joko is not as academically inclined, but he can be as astute a politician as Sukarno was.
His campaign in recent months has taken him to meet top leaders of
the military - the main force to preserve national unity - to secure
their support and loyalty, telling them that he is fighting against the
forces that are undermining the Unitary State of the Republic of
He called a press conference during his visit to the headquarters of
the special forces, saying that in his capacity as Indonesia's
commander-in-chief, he could deploy the country's most fearsome and
revered military division anywhere in the country to quell any threat to
the state's pluralistic status.
He has met leaders of the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, the
country's two largest Islamic social organisations, to get them on board
his NKRI campaign, and to make their leaders publicly denounce the
forces that threaten national unity and get them to say that all Muslim
citizens have the obligation to support the state and its policies.
These two organisations, with their massive influence among Muslims
in Indonesia, have been responsible in developing the more tolerant and
moderate version of Islam in the country, and in the past have been
counted on to fight against the rise of radical Islam. And now Mr Joko
is turning to them once again.
Has the President done enough to stop the creeping Islamism in
Indonesia? Time will tell. And somehow, the Jakarta election, whichever
way it goes, would also be a telling factor about which direction
Indonesia is heading.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits
Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'Jokowi turns to
Islam-nationalism to preserve Indonesia's diversity