Indonesia: Islamists Won't Take No for an Answer
When Indonesia gained its independence in the 1940s, a struggle took place to determine the nation’s shape and identity. Some were determined to follow the Western model of parliamentary democracy, considering it most appropriate to the multicultural and multifaith reality of the nation's population. However, some among the almost-90% Muslim majority wanted an Islamic State, based on sharia law and its detailed enactments.
The multicultural pluralists won the day, and Indonesia adopted a system built around multiple parties and regular elections. In response, Islamists launched a twelve-year rebellion, which cost thousands of lives and imposed great strains on the political and economic fabric of the new nation.
One particular bone of contention was what became known as the Jakarta Charter, a simple seven-word statement saying Muslims in Indonesia should follow the dictates of sharia law. Although there was initial agreement to include this in the Constitution, at the last moment it was excluded. But the Charter’s devotees have long dreamed of resurrecting it as they’ve worked toward transforming the country into an Islamic state.
In the ensuing decades, successive Indonesian regimes have largely suppressed Islam as a political force, relegating it to social, cultural, and religious contexts. But in 1998, with the fall of the authoritarian military ruler, President Suharto, the nation was transformed, for both good and ill. On the positive side, the end of his New Order regime produced an era of democratic reform, triggering the emergence of dozens of political parties and a dramatic openness to public debate.
However, Islamists, who are no friends of free speech when they are in charge, took advantage of the liberties that others provided to build their power base. Within two years Islamist parties in the Indonesian parliament attempted to put the Jakarta Charter into the Constitution, but they failed.
And there were other setbacks. In four elections since the fall of Suharto – elections that were largely free and fair – Islamist parties struggled to win more than 10% of the popular vote, with most Indonesian voters choosing to give their support to parties pursuing a nationalist secular agenda or more moderate Islamic programs. By the time of the 2014 Parliamentary elections, Islamist groups had come to realise that they were not going to achieve their agenda through Parliamentary means alone.
So, to complement the political efforts of their Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), they have established a number of militant social movements, such as the Islamic Defenders Front, whose tactics are inclined toward intimidation and harassment and, in certain cases, outright violence against their perceived opponents. A case in point is the challenge to Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, the incumbent Governor of Jakarta.
When Ahok assumed the Governorship of Jakarta in 2014, his appointment immediately attracted vociferous opposition from Islamist activist groups. For one thing, he is an ethnic Chinese in a country where anti-Chinese sentiment can be as nasty as historic anti-Semitism in Europe. And the idea of Indonesia's most populous city and capital being led by a Chinese governor was galling.
Furthermore, Ahok is a Protestant Christian. Again, the idea of Jakarta being led by a non-Muslim was anathema. So, it took little time for Islamist spokespeople to quote verse 5:51 from the Qur’an, which instructs Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as allies – easily reinterpreted as not to take Jews and Christians as leaders.
So when Ahok began his re-election campaign in mid-2016, his simple statement in one gathering criticising Muslim opponents for using Q5:51 against him caused an uproar. Islamists saw this as a historic opportunity both to bring him down and to shake the very pluralist foundations of the modern Indonesian state. Islamist individuals working together moved quickly to level charges of blasphemy, accusing him of insulting the Qur’an. Under intense pressure, the Indonesian police felt obliged to take these charges seriously, and now Ahok is embroiled in a drawn-out court case, fighting for political survival.
The charges have attracted huge international attention, with the clash between a Chinese Christian politician and radical Muslim opponents being the stuff that feeds a sensation-addicted media. However it really represents just a small scene in a multi-act play.
The key sub-text relates to the ongoing campaign by Islamists in Indonesia to win the nation for Islam in the most conservative sense: a nation with a Muslim believer President, with Islamic institutions shaping the structure of state, based on Islamic law and all that it means for privileging Muslims over non-Muslims.
Islamist warriors for this cause lost the early debates in the 1940s. They were pushed off the political stage from the 1960s to 1990s. They failed to assert their agenda in the parliament during Indonesia’s era of reform in the 21st century. They now have an opportunity to score a point by bringing down a non-Muslim ethnic minority leader in Indonesia's largest city, aiming to replace him with a conservative Muslim.
If one does not admire their agenda, one can certainly admire the tenacity and perseverance of Islamist groups in Indonesia to pursue their goals. They simply will not take no for an answer.