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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Zehner: Ini Tidak Bagus

Hard-line Islam threatens Indonesia’s secularism and pluralism.

We rarely hear about Indonesia in the same context as many other majority-Muslim countries. Yet with about 227 million adherents within its borders, Indonesia has the most Muslims of any sovereign state. Indonesia has had, in its 68-year history since its independence from the Dutch, a strong record. It has had a tradition of tolerance, state secularism and moderate Islam. However, these features of Indonesian society are faltering. Hardline Islamism is rising, and the success of the archipelago’s secularism and pluralism are, as a result, at risk.

Indonesia is the birthplace of Islam Nusantara, an over 500-year-old Sunni theology. Born out of the interplay of Hinduism, Buddhism and traditional Islam within the archipelago, it advocates a nonviolent, inclusive form of Sunnism. Islam Nusantara is still very much present today and has defined the current state of Indonesia’s moderate Islam. The Nahdlatul Ulama, a movement claiming 50 million members, continues to push the theology’s agenda.

When considered alongside Indonesia’s relatively stable democracy, Islam Nusantara can be largely held accountable for the small numbers of Indonesians who have gone to fight for the Islamic State. Indonesia is thought to have only 392 citizens currently fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whereas France, with a quarter of the population, has seen 1,700 escape to Syria and Iraq. It is also, in large part, responsible for the ability of Indonesia — a state comprised of a cocktail of ethnicities — to function when other multiethnic states fail. This moderate form of Islam has seen Indonesia through stable times.

But Islam Nusantara is being eroded. This April, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly referred to as Ahok, attempted to hold on to his position as Governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s largest city. The election did not go smoothly. Ahok, both ethnically Chinese and a Christian, was an easy target for hard-line Islamists. The critical point came when Ahok made the sensible remark that the words of the Quran should not have prevented Muslims from voting for him. The Islamists, led by the Islamic Defenders Front, claimed that Ahok’s remarks insulted the Quran and pressed charges. Mass rallies against Ahok ensued. He lost the election, and the former governor is now serving a two-year prison sentence for blasphemy.

This is a strong blow to Indonesia’s current pluralistic model. In the gubernatorial race, tribalism was invoked to paint Ahok as a threat by stoking fears of the “Christianization” of Jakarta. Since Jakarta is the country’s most diverse, globally-integrated city, this does not bode well for the rest of the archipelago.

The gubernatorial race is also concerning since it allowed religious sentiment to become entwined in the country’s legal system. The blasphemy law, which was intended to protect against divergence from any of the country’s six official religions, was clearly abused when it was used to put Ahok in jail. And this was not an isolated incident — since 2014, 15 people have been imprisoned for blasphemy. Beyond this, though, things became even more unpalatable. One of the judges on the Ahok case cited Rizieq Shihab, leader of the IDF, as an expert they consulted before making the verdict. Yet Shihab had publicly stated his belief that Ahok had blasphemed long before he was consulted — he therefore should have lost all credibility as an independent source of opinion. The fact that he was still consulted despite his beliefs — and the fact that his opinion was accepted — reveals the degree to which conservative Islam has infiltrated Indonesia’s courts.

The province of Aceh, in the northernmost part of Sumatra, is quite infamous. In May, two consenting homosexual partners were legally sentenced to be beaten 85 times each with canes. Because Aceh is the only province in Indonesia allowed to implement Sharia law on its citizens, homosexuality is illegal in Aceh but legal in the rest of the country. The fact that Aceh follows such strict Wahabbist Islam should be disconcerting enough, but it has also spurred other areas to follow suit, with 442 Sharia-based laws passed across the nation since 1999.

This trend has been facilitated by Saudi Arabia. Since 1980, the Kingdom has invested millions of dollars in the exportation of Salafism, a strain of Islam, through the construction of 150 mosques and a large university in Jakarta, among other initiatives. Indonesia has no incentive to disallow the Kingdom’s actions — the Saudis effectively provide free infrastructure. As a result, Indonesia’s strand of Islam is slowly being displaced by the Salafism favored by Saudi Arabia. In the future, Aceh may cease to be the exception but the norm.

Indonesia has had the difficult task of uniting thousands of ethnic groups scattered over 17,000 islands and multiple religious affiliations, into a singular, functioning state. It has done so in the past by keeping the government’s role a secular one and by implicitly proselytizing the moderate Islam Nusantara. To say that Indonesia has been perfect up to this point is incorrect, but it has sufficiently satiated its population without the violence faced by the citizens of many other Muslim countries. Allowing hardline Islamism to enter the realms of politics and law, whether intentionally or not, is a fatal mistake. It threatens the delicate heterogeneous peace that has more or less held since independence and will likely cause the freedoms enjoyed by its populace to slowly erode. These threats are not worth the infrastructure and other aesthetic benefits that hardline Islamism brings.

Indonesia has much to lose. It must reclaim Islamism within its borders so that Aceh remains an outlier, not a bellwether.