Indonesian President sets his sights on Islamist groups

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Peter Riddell interviewed on ‘Vision Radio’ on 14 July 2017:


Indonesia’s moderate Muslim President, Joko Widodo, has raised eyebrows amongst a strange assortment of civil libertarians, human rights activists, and radical Islamists, with a recent presidential decree declaring that groups which do not adhere to Indonesia’s national ideology will be banned. By doing so he has attracted accusations of being an old-style dictator, determined to suppress individual freedoms in the process.

There is a very clear subtext to this debate. In the early years of the 21st century, radical Islamist groups in Indonesia used newfound political freedoms to try to win a significant presence in the nation’s parliament. However, in national elections of 1999, 2004, and 2009, such groups struggled to garner more than 10% of the popular vote. While this gave them some parliamentary representation, it was insufficient to move them forward in their stated desire to turn Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, into an Islamic state.

Matters took a different turn in 2016. The much-publicised elections for the Governor of Jakarta were notorious for the campaign carried out by radical Islamist groups to unseat the incumbent governor, who came from the Chinese Christian minority. The underlying motives of this campaign by radical Islamists were clearly racist and anti-Christian, though couched in terms of defending the honour of Islam in the face of supposedly blasphemous statements by the ex-Governor of Jakarta. That unfortunate figure, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, now languishes in prison, serving a two year sentence after being found guilty of blasphemy.

The success of the mass protests organized by radical Islamists during the Jakarta gubernatorial elections has given these groups a new boldness, enabling them to move beyond their relative lack of success at the ballot box. They realised during the elections for the Governor of Jakarta that public pressure on police and on legislators bore dividends. This has given them a taste of success which augurs well for their cause ahead of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections across Indonesia.

It is notable that these radical Islamist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front, propose the creation of an Islamic State in Indonesia under Shariah law. Such a platform runs directly counter to the national ideology which is based on equal rights for all citizens and a pluralistic approach to religion, whereby no faith is privileged over any other. So radical Islamist groups reject one of the nation’s foundational pillars which equates Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. This has provided the President with an opportunity to face up to his adversaries.

President Widodo was a close ally of the defeated Jakarta governor who is now serving time for blasphemy. He witnessed the fall of his ally to standover and bullying pressure from radical Islamist groups. The President realises that he faces the same prospect in the presidential elections of 2019. So he has moved to declare by presidential decree last week that any groups which do not support the national ideology of Indonesia will be banned. This brings groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front directly into the firing line.

Of course they have complained bitterly, promising to challenge the decree in the Constitutional Court. Paradoxically they are receiving support from human rights groups who have otherwise been very concerned by the pressure tactics of radical Islamist groups but who, in this instance, share the concern about the apparent challenge to freedom of speech.

This debate has some way to run in Indonesia. Interestingly it is largely an intra-Muslim debate, with the President speaking for millions of moderate Indonesian Muslims who want nothing to do with a Shariah state, against a minority of hard-line Islamists influenced by world events and pressures, who are calling for an Islamic state based on Shariah. The 2019 presidential and Parliamentary elections will be a key moment as Indonesia negotiates its future in an increasingly fractured society.

Professor Peter G Riddell serves as Professorial Research Associate in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London and as Vice Principal (Academic) at the Melbourne School of Theology (an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology). He previously taught at the Australian National University, the Institut Pertanian Bogor (Indonesia), and the London School of Theology. He has published widely on the study of Southeast Asia, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

Photo by Australian Embassy Jakarta