Indonesian presidential candidates duel over who’s a better Muslim

An election poster of the Jokowi-Amin alliance. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

An election poster of the Jokowi-Amin alliance. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

JAKARTA — On Saturday evening, thousands of men and women cheered as rock band Radja played at the last public rally of the incumbent Indonesian president Joko Widodo at Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno stadium. Widodo, a well-known metalhead and Metallica fan, laced this musical campaign with ‘sholawatan', traditional songs of praise and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad.  

A week before, at the same venue, his rival, Prabowo Subianto, organized a mass prayer for his supporters, many of them Muslim clerics. The Rizieq Shihab of the moralist radical group, The Islamic Defenders Front, addressed the crowd via a video message from Saudi Arabia.

Indonesians will vote in their presidential election on April 17, and religion is a rallying point for the major political parties.  Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, joined hands with the 75-year-old conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, to fight Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno. The duo is supported by over 10 Muslim organizations, including the disbanded extremist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which wants Caliphate in the country. 

Jokowi is off to Mecca for a visit before the elections Wednesday. So is Uno, but media reports said he will also be making a special visit to Indonesian Islamist scholar Rizieq Shihab who lives there in Saudi Arabia.

A secular country with over 260 million people, more than 85 percent of them Muslim, is slowly turning conservative. Religious groups of all kinds – mainstream, regressive and fundamentalists – seem to influence the electoral choice of the people. So politicians too are turning to religious groups for their support, experts say.

"Religious identity has become something very important in contemporary Indonesian politics,” Bandung-based political scientist Hikmawan Saefullah said. “There is an attempt by conservative religious groups to assert the idea that Islam should play a key role in Indonesian politics. Politicians are simply playing to the gallery.”

Merchandise for Amin. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

Merchandise for Amin. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

Even Jokowi, who won the last election as a “liberal” and “progressive,” is now turning towards a religious icon in Amin.  Being a senior leader of the mass Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and quasi-state body MUI (Indonesian Ulama Council), Amin is like a certificate showing proof Jokowi is a “good” Muslim. In fact, in one of the recent poll campaigns, Amin claimed that Jokowi is also a santri, a student of an Islamic boarding school.

“Even though Jokowi is politically secular, he has worked at co-opting religious identity as a political tactic in order to both fend religious-based attacks from his opponents, and also to help secure support and votes from mass religious organizations,” said Indonesian observer Ian Douglas Wilson, a lecturer at Australia-based Murdoch University.

Indeed, instead of challenging the growing influence of conservative and reactionary Islamists in the society, Jokowi is becoming an active participant in the game. He joined hands with a man who is against the spirit of democracy. “As the head of the MUI, Amin had issued a fatwa [in 2005] opposing religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism which has had a negative impact upon Indonesia's progressive Islamic landscape,” Wilson pointed out.

Amin is also the same man who had sent Jokowi’s close friend and former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnamato, a Christian, to prison for blasphemy by testifying in the court two years ago. One of the main reasons for bringing Amin into his fold is to dispel rumors spread by the opposition camp that he is not a pious Muslim and will ban azan, the amplified call for prayer from mosques, if voted to power.

Amin’s granddaughter Syaikha Aulia runs his election outreach to millennials. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

Amin’s granddaughter Syaikha Aulia runs his election outreach to millennials. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

“Every time, people say, Jokowi is not a pious Muslim, he will ban azan if voted to power again, we have to say, that’s not true, he is a good Muslim,” Amin’s 29-year-old granddaughter Syaikha Aulia said. “Even his mother is a good Muslim, she prays five times a day.”

Aulia is running Jokowi-Amin’s campaign to millennials. 

Amin may have managed to convince moderate Muslims to vote for Jokowi, but hardliners aren’t just going to Jokowi because of Amin. 

“Conservative hardliners are not convinced if Jokowi supports their aspirations or his alliance with Amin is just a poll tactic,” Saefullah said. “They are with Prabowo because he promised them that he will guarantee their political aspiration.”

Even though Prabowo didn’t pick up Salim Segaf or Abdul Somad as his running mate, as suggested by Rizieq’s Islamic Defenders Front and other conservative groups, the president of the Islamist party PKS (Justice and Welfare Party) called Uno a “post-Islamism santri,” meaning he is devout but doesn’t exhibit signs of piety. The fact is, Uno, a wealthy businessman, studied at a Catholic school.

Interestingly, a lot of young men and women, support the Prabowo-Sandiaga pair for their immense fan following of the FPI and HTI. These groups have called for a ban of same-sex relationships. There is an increase in moral policing on the streets, night clubs and social media asking the youth to be good Muslims. Hijrah, also called hejira (referring to Prophet Muhammed’s flight from persecution), communities have popped up across the country to help young Indonesians leave all the vices of life, read the Quran and become pious.

A poster of Tabligh Akbar praying for the Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno alliance. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

A poster of Tabligh Akbar praying for the Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno alliance. Photo by Sonia Sarkar.

Political observers believe, the Islamists of Indonesia started emerging stronger during the 2014 presidential elections. There was a smear campaign against Jokowi, then governor of Jakarta, questioning if he is a genuine Muslim. He won with a margin of about six percent after a hard-fought campaign, but the Islamist groups never fell silent.

Soon after Jokowi left his post as governor to take up the presidency, his deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, was to assume office. But Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, faced huge resentment from large sections of people. Islamists led a vitriolic campaign against him in 2016. The Friday sermons at the mosques were full of hate speech and people were actually threatened not to vote for Ahok. 

The anti-Ahok demonstrations gave birth to the “212 movement”, which had Amin at the helm issuing a fatwa against Ahok saying that his citation of a particular Quranic verse during his election campaign defamed Islam. During his election campaign for governor, Ahok had said people were deceived if they believed that the Quran prohibited Muslims from voting for non-Muslim politicians. Ahok was sent to prison for blasphemy for “degrading Islam.” The anti-Ahok movement of 2016-17 led to the formation of the 212 Alumni Brotherhood (or PA212) and the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwa of Ulama (GNPF-U). After serving two years in prison, Ahok was released in January 2019, which angered many Islamists.

The Islamists were also not happy to see Amin joining hands with Jokowi. Jokowi tried to consolidate mainstream Islamic parties and organizations to split the Islamist coalition that made the 212 movement successful, analysts say.

Prabowo sought support of the hardliners instead. In September 2018, the conservative Muslim body Ketua Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Ulama (GNPF-U) held a conference where Prabowo signed a 17-point Integrity Pact with Muslim scholars and activists where he promised to uphold religious values, pay attention to "religious people's interests" and guarantee the return of cleric Rizieq Shihab, who was chased by the Jokowi government over a pornography case, though the police later suspended their search.

Prabowo’s has been hobnobbing with Islamists for many years now. As a former army general, he was known to be a member of the green military faction, with generals who were close to, and supported, Islamic groups. The red-white faction of the military comprised generals who took a neutral position, not siding with either Islam or the state.

Now the Jokowi-Amin pair is also trying to win votes from Islamic groups. They are promising religious education institutions will be given the responsibility of providing “national character education.”  Also in the works is a special “santripreneur” program, an initiative between Islamic boarding schools and the business sector.

“Ma’ruf Amin’s approach is extremely progressive,” a Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) official said. “His purpose is to give education and empower the youth.”

Interestingly, the Prabowo-Sandiaga pair has also promised to increase the quality of religious schools in the country, establish a haj-focused financial institution and even negotiate with the government of Saudi Arabia to allow Indonesia to build its own accommodation there for pilgrims. Plus, it has asserted, if voted to power, it would protect religious leaders, groups and Muslim clerics, citing their significant contribution to win the country’s independence.

But Wilson feels, all this is an attempt by Prabowo to tell people he is a pious Muslim, and he would dump the extremist Islamic groups later.

“If voted to power, it is unlikely Prabowo will grant hardliners the kinds of concessions they are hoping for,” he said. “After the elections, these groups may have to look at developing another set of alliances with political elites if they wish to remain politically relevant.”

Sonia Sarkar is an Indian journalist who writes on South and Southeast Asia.