By Annabel Bowles
February 17, 2019
Like many Indonesians, Australians have aired their concerns over the rise of political Islamism. Experts have pointed out its impact on bilateral ties and trade, and with an election coming up, religious issues may become a sensitive point for Indonesian-Australian diplomacy.
The influence of political Islamism in Indonesia became apparent in 2017, when former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, was sentenced to two years in prison after Islamist groups called him out for blasphemy.
A more recent example points to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to choose conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, who played a crucial role in Ahok’s jailing, as his running mate for the 2019 election.
Along with last month’s brouhaha over the cancelled release of Abu Bakar Baasyir, the spiritual leader of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 38 Indonesians and 88 Australians, both Indonesian and Australian media have criticized Jokowi for appeasing hard-line Islamic groups at the expense of minorities.
The President’s appointment of Ma'ruf “was widely speculated as a move designed to boost his Islamic credentials” according to Sian Troath from the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.
It was for similar reasons that Sidney Jones, the director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, questioned Jokowi’s intentions with Baasyir.
“Why did he choose to act now, when it was inevitable that he would be accused of trying to score political points or to buffer the impact of the release [of Ahok] whom the Islamist right brought down?” Sidney said at the Lowy Institute.
In a conversation with The Jakarta Post, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch Andreas Harsono said last year’s anti-Ahok rallies constituted a peak in Indonesian Islamism.
Though it has a long history, Andreas said Islamism had developed through an increased number of blasphemy convictions since the era of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“The Blasphemy Law is probably their most important weapon, cornering opponents and re-grouping themselves in creating common enemies.
“Discrimination and intimidation against religious minorities occurs every day,” said Andreas.
Should the current political climate escalate into a crisis similar to the one in 1997, the activist believes “violence might burst” and that Indonesia’s non-Muslims may seek help from and even flee to Australia, especially those in eastern Indonesia.
Disagreements between Australia and Indonesia often arise on religious issues, with Andreas saying that Islam had become a “determining factor in the bilateral relationship”.
This was more or less the case with the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, a multibillion dollar trade deal that was delayed following Canberra’s plan to move its embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia remains a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and has argued that the status of Jerusalem must be negotiated between Palestine and Israel as part of a final peace deal. Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their capital.
According to a 2015 report by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Indonesia sources 80 percent of its imported beef from Australia, constituting its southern neighbor’s largest live export market. The deal was proposed to boost these ties, among other things, by reducing tariffs on agricultural trade.
Azis Anwar Fachrudin, a researcher at the Centre for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) at Gadjah Mada University, argues that nationalist forces in both Jokowi’s Cabinet and in his opponent Prabowo Subianto’s camp oppose this deal, citing a tendency for protectionism.
He said even the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) had called for the government to end Indonesia’s imports of Australian livestock.
“MUI is a semi-governmental body that is increasingly influencing policy-making. Some Islamist politicians behind Prabowo have also conveyed similar rhetoric,” Azis told the Post recently.
The bilateral relationship may further heat up along religious lines should Islamists get a foothold in the upcoming election.
“A more militant pressure against neighboring countries that oppose the Palestinian independence cause, for example, is something to be expected should Islamists win government strategic posts that handle international affairs,” Azis said.
The election also opens up opportunities for Islamist parties to potentially criminalize freedoms that many Indonesians and Australians consider private matters, including practices of minority faith, homosexuality and consensual sex outside of marriage, he added.
Annabel Bowles is an intern at The Jakarta Post under the ACICIS program.