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Democracy and Islam Share a Checkered History in Indonesia

By Yaroslav Trofimov

June 28, 2018

Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, has been more successful than most in reconciling the two. But here, too, the rise of Islamist politics is undermining civil liberties—and, over time, may end up eviscerating Indonesia’s democratic experiment.

With presidential elections looming next year, there are already signs that the campaign is turning into a contest over who is a better defender of the faith: President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, or his likely main rival, retired Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto.

“Just as in many parts of the world, we have rising intolerance in Indonesia,“ said Yenny Wahid, daughter of former President Abdurrahman Wahid and director of the Wahid Foundation, a think tank that focuses on promoting peaceful Islam.

“Jokowi’s opponent would like to brand him as anti-Muslim,” she said. “All this is going to add to the hostile environment for the coming years.”

From Turkey to Egypt to Iran, Muslim societies have grappled for decades over how to reconcile democratic freedoms with divinely revealed laws. Islamist parties have often used the legitimacy of the ballot box to impose their illiberal vision.

Indonesia—where 88% of its 270 million people are Muslim—is officially a secular country. The national ideology of Pancasila proclaims unity and equality between all recognized faiths. Yet, Islamic conservatives have been making inroads in recent years, both by enforcing greater observance on the regional level and by changing national legislation.

The dramatic events of a late 2016 and early 2017, when Jakarta’s Christian governor, a prominent ally of the president, was defeated in an election after mass rallies, seemed to mark a turning point for the country’s Islamist movements, highlighting their unprecedented strength.

The protests, known as “212” because of a giant rally on Dec. 2, 2016, objected to the governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, using a Quranic verse against his opponents. The governor, a member of the ethnic Chinese minority, was jailed on blasphemy charges after his election loss.

“After the 212 event, there is an increasing passion in practicing Islam by Indonesian Muslims,” said Bachtiar Nasir, one of the protests’ two main organizers. “Islam, while a majority, has always been marginalized in the past. Now, with this incident, the awareness emerges and the Muslims have started to think and act to determine their political rights.”

With the Ahok controversy over, the Islamist momentum seems to have been blunted, for now. The “212” protest movement has divided and its other main leader, Rizeq Shihab, has fled to Saudi Arabia after falling afoul of the anti-pornography law that his movement championed. Islamist parties didn’t make significant gains in local elections this week.

“It’s not as scary as last year anymore,” said Yahya Staquf, an adviser to the Indonesian president and the secretary-general of Nahdatul Ulama, the largest Indonesian Muslim organization, which claims over 40 million members and preaches a more tolerant, traditional Islam. “These forces split, their leader ran away.”

Yet, the same social factors that drove the protests persist, particularly the widespread animosity against the country’s ethnic Chinese minority. The Chinese play an outsize role in the country’s economy and have been periodically targeted in difficult times. The Indonesian president’s enemies frequently play this racial card by accusing him of being a puppet of Chinese interests.

“The economy has been dominated by a small portion of the society, and unfortunately they are Chinese. If you go around Jakarta and you see any new building, it doesn’t belong to me, it doesn’t belong to indigenous Indonesians,” said Bahtiar Effendy, a co-chairman of Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah. “Muslims are economically deprived, and there is a growing sentiment that this regime is perceived as non-friendly to Muslims.”

Unlike in many other Muslim nations, Indonesia’s Islamic parties and movements are splintered—and are represented both in the president’s and Mr. Prabowo’s camps. This means that those backing the president—and likely indispensable for his re-election—are trying to leverage their influence to achieve a long-term objective: to further Islamize Indonesia’s society.

One of the pieces of legislation before Indonesia’s parliament and backed by some members of the ruling coalition would criminalize adultery and public displays of affection by gay people.

“It’s a demand voiced by all Muslim elements—moderate, semi-conservative, and very conservative. I don’t think the government can say no because of political damage it would cause in the eyes of the moderate Muslim people, who are the majority in this country,” said lawmaker Arsul Sani, secretary-general of PPP, one of the four Islamic parties represented in parliament, and an ally of the president.

More conservatism is a popular demand, he added: “After 20 years of reformation era, I feel the freedoms which we enjoy sometimes go too far. Even the middle classes now feel there must be some control.”

It isn’t clear whether the adultery legislation will pass; similar laws have been pending for years, and were delayed. But the pressure is building.

“The president understands that he will be attacked on the religious issue, and so he has to respond by giving many concessions to the Muslim community,” said Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf, a political scientist at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

In the fight against hard-line Islamists, it is important to pick battles properly, added Mr. Yahya, the presidential adviser: Gay rights aren’t a vote-getter in a conservative nation like Indonesia.

“If we insist to fight on this issue, then we are risking to give momentum for the Islamic orthodoxy, for it to take more place in social and political life,” Mr. Yahya said. “We have to choose what is more important. We should take the risk when it really matters. It’s not easy to navigate in this struggle.”