Over the past four years, the government of Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has been conducting a concerted and systematic campaign of repression against Islamists.
This may be welcome news for Indonesia’s western partners — especially Australia, where surveys repeatedly show that many fear Indonesia’s perceived rising Islamic conservatism and militancy.
But Australia and other nations should be concerned by Indonesia’s anti-Islamist policy because it erodes human rights, undermines democratic values and could well lead to a radical backlash against what is seen as growing state antipathy towards Islam.
Some explanation is necessary about who these Islamists are and what action is being taken against them.
Generally, the term ‘Islamist’ is used to describe Muslims who seek to make Islamic law and values a central part of public life and the structure of the state.
It can refer to a wide range of groups, from those who form parties and contest elections in a democratic system to militant jihadists who use violence to achieve their ends.
The Indonesian government often sees Islamists as being ‘extremists’, including in this category not only terrorists and supporters of the Islamic State, but also members or sympathisers of legal Islamist parties and community organisations that have broken no laws.
So-called ‘trans-national Islamist’ groups are especially regarded with suspicion — these have their origins in or draw inspiration from Middle Eastern or South Asian movements, and are seen as bringing ‘alien’ and fundamentalist influence into Indonesia.
A good example of this is the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which has been registered since 1998 and part of governing coalitions for 11 of the past 22 years. PKS has an impeccable record of playing by the rules of the democratic game, and yet many of its members are subject to repressive and discriminatory measures by the state.
State repression can take many forms. Public servants, academics and teachers whom state security agencies deem to be active in suspect Islamist groups can be put on ‘watch lists’ and warned by their supervisors that their religious or political activities are unacceptable and that their careers will suffer if they don’t alter their behaviour.
Similar processes are occurring in state-owned enterprises and private corporations. Some Islamists have been removed from strategic positions or denied promotion. Many ministries have introduced vetting for recruits to screen out those holding Islamist views.
Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Islamists have been targeted in this campaign.
Few are given any specifics of their supposed ‘wrongdoings’. The purpose appears to be to pressure Islamists to either relinquish their beliefs or desist from openly expressing their views and organising within workplaces.
Why is the Jokowi government, which claims to uphold principles of tolerance and pluralism, undertaking these actions?
Most of the parties in Jokowi’s ruling coalition, and particularly his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), have come to see Islamism as posing an existential threat to Indonesia and its tradition of constitutional religious neutrality and social inclusiveness.
They regard Islamists as divisive because they are seeking to privilege Muslims and Islamic law within the state and society, thereby repudiating the principles upon which the nation was founded.
This view is shared by mainstream Islamic organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and its allied political parties which are part of the ruling coalition.
President Jokowi and the governing parties were especially alarmed in 2016–2017 when Islamist groups mobilised hundreds of thousands of Muslims on the streets of Jakarta in protest at the Chinese Christian governor’s allegedly blasphemous remarks about the Qur’an.
The governor, who had seemed set for a sweeping victory prior to the blasphemy accusations, was soundly defeated in the April 2017 gubernatorial election and later jailed for two years.
This event convinced many in government that concerted action was needed to roll back a rising tide of Islamism. Indeed, more than a few ministers believed that if Islamism was not contained and negated during the remaining years of Jokowi’s presidency, then it would become too powerful to control.
The validity of this view is questionable. Certainly, conservative expressions of Islam are gaining ground in Indonesia, just as conservative religiosity is rising in many other Asian states and Western nations.
But this has yet to take on a coherent political manifestation. Many conservative Muslims eschew practical politics and no Islamist party has been able to win more than 8 per cent of the vote in any of the last four elections.
Yes, Islamists did bring down the former non-Muslim Jakarta governor, but that case involved blasphemy, which always generates intense — but usually short-lived — emotion and fervour on the streets. Since then, the Islamist movement has strived but failed to repeat the success of 2016–2017.
Worse still for Islamists, the presidential candidate around whom they had coalesced in the 2014 and 2019 elections, Prabowo Subianto, did an abrupt about-turn after last year’s election, joining the new Jokowi government as Defense Minister.
This has left the Islamists dispirited and in disarray. So, it is hard to make the case that Islamism is imperilling Indonesia’s political system.
If Indonesia does value tolerance and diversity, it should accept the legitimacy of Islamist discourses and associational activities.
Most Islamist views contravene no laws or regulations. Cracking down on Islamism in fact squeezes civil space and makes Indonesia less democratic.
Australia’s government, given its longstanding promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam in Indonesia, ought to be concerned by the anti-Islamist campaign.
At a time when many on the political right in Australia rail against what they see as disparagement of or restrictions on the rights of conservative Christians in their own country, they should also advocate for similar rights to be extended to other conservative religious communities in Indonesia as well, including Islamists.
Tolerance of religious diversity should be a marker of mature and robust democracies.
This article first appeared on the "East Asia Forum" blog, and is drawn from the author’s new paper "Jokowi in the COVID-19 Era: Repressive Pluralism, Dynasticism and the Over-Bearing State" forthcoming in the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies.
- Asia Media Centre