Religious Tension on the Rise in Indonesia
Despite strict campaign laws designed to prevent religious and ethnic conflict, religion is an increasingly divisive factor in Indonesia’s current elections. The former Governor of Jakarta’s recent release from prison after completing his sentence for blasphemy accentuates these divisions.
On April 17 Indonesia holds elections for President and Vice-President, for the legislature, and for a host of other offices. In order to help preserve harmony, Article 280c of the 2017 electoral law prohibits all candidates from insulting others on the basis of race or religion. Even President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has been reported to the Elections Supervisory Agency under this section for his comments in the second Presidential election debate criticizing his opponent Prabowo Subianto's vast land ownership.
Grace Natalie is an ethnic-Chinese Protestant and founder of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), which is aiming its appeal at millennials. At a November 11, 2018 rally, one attended by Jokowi, she told the crowd to oppose discriminatory local laws based on “the Bible or sharia,” and said that “religion-based bylaws victimize women.” Almost immediately, Eggi Sudjana, a Prabowo supporter, accused her of sowing division, and perhaps committing blasphemy. She was questioned by police for seven hours about these accusations.
There are repeated attempts to portray the President as anti-Muslim. On February 25, three Indonesian housewives were arrested because of an online video which claimed that, if re-elected, Jokowi would ban prayer and make gay marriage legal. The video, now shared many thousands of times, showed two women in hijab headscarves telling an old man that Jokowi would end the call to prayer, force women to remove their hijab in public, and legalize gay marriage. Police spokesman Trunoyudho Wisnu Andiko told a press conference that the arrest was "a preventive measure because this (video) could potentially trigger anxiety and conflict.”
Into this mix came the January 24, 2019, release from prison of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (BTP), an ethnic-Chinese Christian formerly known by his nickname Ahok. In 2017, while Governor of Jakarta, the country’s capital, he was convicted of blasphemy after a doctored version of one of his speeches was posted on the internet. After massive demonstrations around his trial, he was sentenced to two years in prison. The trial and verdict created major divisions in the country.
At first, BTP sought to make his release as low-key as possible. He asked his supporters not to hold a rally at his release, and he left the detention center quietly through the back door. His lawyer said that he would not seek a quick return to politics and might instead pursue avenues in business or the media.
However, on the very day he was released, BTP visited the home of Megawati Soekarnoputri, ostensibly to congratulate her on her birthday the previous day. Megawati is the head of the PDI-P, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the largest political party in the country, and she is one of the country’s most powerful politicians. A few days later, BTP formally joined the party.
BTP added that he was willing to campaign for his old friend Jokowi and for his Vice-Presidential candidate Ma’aruf Amin, who are supported by the PDI-P, and was even willing to share a campaign stage with the latter. This is especially remarkable given that, in 2017, Ma’aruf was Chairman of the semi-official Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and in that capacity had accused BTP of blasphemy and called for him to be arrested. He was also a key witness at the trial and testified that BTP was a blasphemer.
Jokowi had selected Ma’aruf as his running mate in order to shore up his own Islamic credentials and head off criticism from more conservative Muslim groups. But Ma’aruf also seems to be shifting his stance. He now states that he regrets his previous trial testimony, and that BTP had been imprisoned. He has also advised the MUI to steer clear of politics.
BTP’s and Ma’aruf’s actions have exposed divisions among the Islamist activists who had originally pushed for BTP’s imprisonment. Prabowo is generally seen a garnering most of the support from Islamist groups, but the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Crescent Star Party (PBB) announced it would instead support Jokowi/Ma’aruf. This led to splits in the party, with one PBB cadre remarking that it would “help Jokowi and the party who supports the blasphemy convict.” There have even been rumors spread amongst Islamists that Jokowi would replace Ma’aruf with BTP, though that would be legally impossible.
Meanwhile, Prabowo has courted more radical Islamist elements. One of these is Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders’ Front, which has used intimidation and violence against those it claims are un-Islamic. He had been one of BTP’s major accusers, and helped organize massive demonstrations demanding his imprisonment.
But Rizieq has had his own legal problems. He was himself investigated for blasphemy after reports that he denigrated the Holy Trinity. He was as well questioned concerning alleged insults to the official state ideology of Pancasila and to Indonesia’s currency, by saying that new banknotes featured hammer and sickle symbols. He was also investigated under the Pornography Law after allegedly sending sexually explicit WhatsApp messages. In 2017, he fled to Saudi Arabia to escape these investigations and, because several of the inquiries are unresolved, he has remained there ever since.
In June 2018, Prabowo visited Rezieq in his exile in Mecca in order to get his endorsement, and promised to allow the FPI leader to safely return to Indonesia should he win. In turn, Rizieq has supported Prabowo’s candidacy, telling his supporters that if they wanted homosexuality banned they must vote for him. In February 2019, the chairman of the Habib Rizieq Shihab Center, Abdul Ramadan, declared that “[Rizieq Shihab] said that if Prabowo won, he would go home,”
Major Muslim voices, including Ma’aruf, have criticized this politicization of religion. Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s, and the world’s, second largest Muslim organization, has lamented that “Politics is now a matter of life and death that breeds political war and fanaticism [...] Politics is no longer regarded as an issue of worldly affairs, which allows room for differences. It is now associated with faith, which is absolute.” The organization is planning to mobilize its members to campaign for wasatiyyah (religious moderation) in an attempt to undercut religious extremism. Similar statements have come from Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’ largest Muslim organization.
But, for the moment the minority but louder voices working for religious polarization are gaining influence. The election campaign is increasingly tense.
Paul Marshall is Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Washington DC.