Indonesian President-Elect Joko Widodo (left) receiving a tour of the presidential palace from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the day before Widodo’s inauguration, Jakarta, October 2014

Dita Alangkara/Reuters

Indonesian President-Elect Joko Widodo (left) receiving a tour of the presidential palace from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the day before Widodo’s inauguration, Jakarta, October 2014

The Islamic State’s butchery and takeover of territory in Iraq and Syria dominate the headlines, but a much less violent yet little-known conflict exists in Indonesia, where more Muslims live than in all of the Middle East. It is a battle to define Islam in Indonesia and it matters because it is taking place in one of the few democracies with a Muslim majority. There are more Muslims in Indonesia who can be loosely called progressives than there are anywhere else, but they are in constant struggle with conservative Muslims. This is a political fight as much as it is a religious one.

Since 1998, when the dictatorial president Suharto was forced to resign, Indonesians have been fashioning an active but flawed democracy that must contend with an entrenched oligarchy and a corrupt political elite. At the same time, a dramatic Islamic revival is underway that pits pluralist Muslims who favor an open society against Muslims who claim that it is the responsibility of the state to enforce their puritanical version of religious piety.1

In his excellent history, Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java, Merle C. Ricklefs places this contemporary struggle over Islam in a broad historical setting. This is the last of a magisterial trilogy on the history of Islam in Java, the politically dominant island that includes Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, and 57 percent of the country’s population. Ricklefs, recently retired as a professor of Southeast Asian history at the National University of Singapore, has devoted his life to tracing how Islam came to Indonesia. That story begins in the fourteenth century, when Muslims originally from Arabia, Gujarat, and China spread the faith by slowly blending local Indonesian culture with Sunni Islam. Ricklefs’s most recent volume deals with the period since Indonesia emerged from the ruins of the Dutch East Indies in 1945, during which it has become the world’s largest nation with a Muslim majority.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most-populous country, yet to most outsiders its history and culture are largely unknown. That it consists of more than 17,000 islands strewn along the equator and has 350 ethnic groups who speak more than seven hundred languages gives a hint of its complexity. In Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java, Ricklefs describes the political tumult in postwar Indonesia, especially the confrontation between Muslims and Communists in 1965 that led to one of the worst massacres since World War II and ensured Islam’s deeper and deeper hold on politics and society. Ricklefs’s book, along with Carool Kersten’s Islam in Indonesia and Jeremy Menchik’s Islam and Democracy in Indonesia, describes how Islam has shaped contemporary Indonesia and what is at stake in the recent politics of the country—that is to say, the politics that arose after the end of Suharto’s thirty-two-year dictatorship.

Suharto’s military regime, which Ricklefs calls an aspiring totalitarian state, was founded on the bloodbath of 1965 and 1966, in which more than 500,000 people, many accused of being Communists, were slaughtered by the military or civilian militias, often made up of Muslims. Hundreds of thousands more accused leftists, mostly farmers and workers who were usually nominal Muslims or actively opposed to Islam, were imprisoned and their families were shunned. Ricklefs writes that this mass murder and rounding up of Communists and fellow travelers helped make possible the top-down state control of religion. Those opposed to Islamization had for the most part been eliminated.

In the later years of the Suharto regime, however, many young Indonesians used the only alternative open to them—religion—to turn the Islamic revival into a movement to redeem Indonesia from dictatorship and the humiliating corruption of Suharto’s New Order. They formed the core of the Reformasi movement that took to the streets in the late 1990s and demanded that Suharto resign, which he eventually did. Some dreamed of a liberal democracy, while others held that Islamic authority was the answer. Everyone—liberals, moderates, and Islamists—claimed to be democrats. (A tiny fringe of decidedly antidemocratic, violent Islamists existed in the shadows, and the advent of the democratic era allowed them to come out into the open.)

Once the lid of dictatorship was lifted, separatist movements emerged. East Timor, the former Portuguese colony that had been invaded by Suharto’s troops in 1975, demanded and won a vote for independence in 1999. Indonesian troops and military-backed militias killed more than a thousand civilians before they pulled out after the vote. Christians and Muslims fought sporadically in parts of eastern Indonesia, and in 2002 in a single day a home-grown terrorist group that received funds from al-Qaeda killed more than two hundred people by setting off two bombs in Bali, the island directly to the east of Java.


There was also an explosion of political participation, with scores of new parties and a more outspoken style of journalism. Despite deep cleavages, liberals, moderates, and Islamists managed to build a democratic political system, abolishing the military’s veto power over parliament and introducing direct elections. This is what distinguishes Indonesia from Egypt, Syria, and Libya, where the euphoria of the Arab uprisings gave way to breakdown, war, or, in Egypt’s case, military rule because civilians fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power invited General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his forces to take over.

In election after election, Indonesians have never given a majority to Islamist parties. Polls consistently show that support for democracy is high, hovering around 70 percent, as is voter turnout (69.6 percent in the 2014 election). Nonetheless, politicians often race to out-Islamize one another. Ricklefs describes the increasing cooperation and collusion between powerful politicians and conservative Islamic leaders in Indonesia’s democratic era. His story is about Islamization, yet is also the story of the greatest threat to Indonesia’s democracy: its gradual erosion from within by conservative elites.

In countries with a Muslim majority it is hardly surprising that the place of Islam in society becomes the central political issue. But the gap between how Indonesians have voted and the power of conservative political forces is enormous. All three authors under review consider 2005 a watershed year in which the state deferred to conservative rather than pluralist versions of Islam. This happened with the connivance of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, widely known as SBY, a former general who started a party called Partai Demokrat and was directly elected president in 2004. Under SBY, Ricklefs notes, “it became less a case of the political regime setting the religious agenda than the reverse: religious dynamics shaping the political regime.”

Something extraordinary happened on July 26, 2005, when SBY opened the national congress of the Ulama Council, or Islamic religious leaders—a once-toothless organization that Suharto had set up in 1975 as part of his system of social control. Ricklefs quotes what SBY told the council:

We want to place [the council] in a central role in matters regarding the Islamic faith, so that it becomes clear what the difference is between areas that are the preserve of the state and areas where the government or state should heed the fatwas from [the council] and ulamas.

In fact, fatwas issued by the council are not binding and have no legal or legislative standing at all, but because SBY gave the council authority over Islamic issues they have been immensely influential.

Ricklefs asks why SBY handed over to an unelected council the power to pronounce on issues concerning Islam. Perhaps, he writes, it was done “from political calculation (that is, as a means to winning support in an increasingly Islamized society) or from personal piety, but we can hardly doubt that its implications are significant.”

The books by Carool Kersten and Jeremy Menchik trace the widespread consequences of the power of the Ulama Council. First, SBY empowered a council that had turned dramatically conservative in the new era largely because the rules were changed, as Kersten notes. On the council, Islamic vigilante groups, such as the Islamic Defenders Front, pro-sharia groups, and even pro-caliphate groups were given equal standing with the two large-scale moderate Islamic organizations that had been formed early in the twentieth century, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah.

The conservative trend didn’t stop there. The council issued fatwas condemning secularism, pluralism, and liberalism as being against Islam. These tendencies were soon called Sipilis, designed to sound like syphilis. Conservatives often invoke Sipilis as the Western-inspired disease that will destroy Indonesia. The council also issued a fatwa calling for the banning, as deviant, of the sect of Islam called Ahmadiyya. There are perhaps 500,000 Ahmadis in Indonesia who believe that the Indian preacher Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is a messiah. Many Muslims consider this belief heretical.

Students in a biology class at a religious boarding school run by the Muhammadiyah organization, Solo, Indonesia, 2004

Abbas/Magnum Photos

Students in a biology class at a religious boarding school run by the Muhammadiyah organization, Solo, Indonesia, 2004

With some exceptions, every Indonesian must choose one of the six religions proclaimed as official—Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Most Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim and choose Islam, which, in turn, makes them deviant since the Ulama Council has banned Ahmadiyya as un-Islamic. Under SBY, the council declared itself the arbiter of religious orthodoxy. Secularists, pluralists, liberals, and Ahmadis were the first to be deemed in violation of orthodox Islam, and Indonesia’s tiny community of Shia Muslims was soon included. (In recent months, Indonesia’s gay community has become the council’s newest target.)

In 2006, SBY announced the creation throughout the archipelago of “interreligious harmony forums” that were supposed to bring together local leaders to advise local governments on the construction of new houses of worship. This meant that the power to decide the contentious issue of whether and where a mosque or church could be built was placed in the hands of forums in which Muslims outnumbered any other faith. (In Christian-majority areas of eastern Indonesia, Muslims have been prevented by these forums from building mosques, underscoring the problem of allowing majority rule on religious issues.) In his public speeches, the president emphasized the claims of religious harmony—by which he meant the need for religious minorities to quietly accede to conservative Islam—over claims of equal rights for citizens regardless of religion.


Andreas Harsono, the representative of Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, has effectively exposed the link between the council’s fatwas, SBY’s rhetoric about religious harmony, and the violent attacks by Islamist vigilantes on Ahmadiyya and Shia mosques as well as churches. He has also documented how the state bureaucracy, local authorities, and local police have increasingly accepted the council’s fatwas as legal rulings that need to be enforced. For instance, Harsono says that in January Ahmadis were forced to leave their homes on Bangka Island after they were expelled by the local interreligious harmony forum.

For Kersten, a senior lecturer on Islam at King’s College London, the 2005 fatwas marked the high point of the polarization between what he calls progressive Muslims and reactionary Muslims in Indonesia. Liberals resisted the fatwas, condemning the state for sanctioning the ideology of puritanical, antidemocratic Islamism. But the fatwas had the intended effect: liberals and progressives have been increasingly marginalized. “Unfortunately,” Kersten writes, “this growing antagonism is no longer confined to a war of words, but emerges through the persecution, dehumanization and outright murder of perceived ‘deviants.’”

Progressives certainly have not given up. Kersten’s book describes their resistance, but it is a dry account and doesn’t capture the intense efforts of intellectuals, activists, and voters to hold on to the rights and freedoms they have won and that many others in the broader Muslim world seek. An enormous struggle has been taking place.

Jeremy Menchik, who teaches at Boston University, describes the views of Islamic leaders on tolerance, and his book helps explain why conservative Islam is so potent. He starts with the Indonesian constitution, which promises religious freedom but also requires belief in one god, thereby entangling the Indonesian state, with its five hundred local branches, in religious affairs but also leaving unclear much about the relation of the state to religion. The lack of clarity causes contention. In 2010, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court—one of the new Reformasi institutions—agreed to rule on the constitutionality of a forty-five-year-old blasphemy law. Liberals hoped that the court would decide that religious freedom trumped the state’s attempts to enforce piety. The liberals lost. The court’s decision was a heavy blow to the pluralist conception of a democratic state based on human rights. The court ruled that the “state—consistent with the mandate of the Constitution—also has a responsibility to upgrade piety and noble character.”

Menchik rightly underscores the importance of this decision in furthering what Ricklefs calls the steady Islamization of the Indonesian state. Ricklefs argues that the ruling “seems to confirm that the state should act as the servant of religious authorities more than the other way around.”

According to Menchik, along with the Sipilis fatwas and the empowering of the Ulama Council, the ruling entrenched the notion that it is the proper task of the state to enforce piety. He calls the result “godly nationalism,” which means that

as long as citizens believe in one of the state-sanctioned pathways to God, they become full members of civil society and receive state protection and other benefits of citizenship…. For a godly nation to endure, it must privilege some beliefs and prosecute acts of deviance as blasphemy.

Menchik writes that the embrace of godly nationalism by Indonesia’s political elite and the leaders of the main Islamic organizations allows for a degree of tolerance in Indonesia, but without genuine liberalism. Religious nationalism gives the state the power to limit pluralism by excluding nonbelievers, heterodox groups, and any other fringe sect. As a result, Ahmadis are beyond the boundary of Indonesia’s “generally tolerant brand of Islam.” But more than that, he thinks their exclusion tends to increase solidarity among Indonesia’s fractious Islamic organizations.

Menchik’s concept of godly nationalism contributes to the understanding of nationalism in Indonesia, but his book doesn’t convey just how deeply contentious these ideas are for Indonesians, especially for liberal Muslims and for religious minorities. The Ulama Council labeled Ahmadiyya a deviant sect in 2005 and put pressure on the government to issue, in 2008, a decree making it a crime for Ahmadis to practice their beliefs. After the decree was proclaimed, vigilante groups started attacking the sect.

Liberals and activists then came together to form the National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith and Religion. They planned a rally at Jakarta’s National Monument to denounce the banning of Ahmadiyya as an affront to religious freedom. On the day of the rally in June 2008, they were attacked by some five hundred rampaging robed men from the leading vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Front. The vigilantes used pepper gas and bamboo staves, some with nails, to attack people at the rally. About seventy of the demonstrators were injured and eleven wound up in the hospital. The police mostly watched. Eventually there were a few arrests of vigilantes. Many liberals view that attack and the subsequent Constitutional Court ruling that the state had the right to enforce piety as the low point in Indonesia’s aspirations for a plural democracy. In 2014, Freedom House downgraded Indonesia’s status from free to partly free.

Ricklefs, too, writes critically of the SBY years:

There is now no significant opposition to the deeper Islamisation of Javanese society. There is only difference of opinion about what shape Islamic life should take, the extent to which variety and pluralism within Islam are acceptable or desirable, how Islamic society should relate to the significant non-Muslim minorities in its midst, and what role Islam (or, indeed, religion more generally) should play in public life.

Ricklefs does not believe that the effects of conservative Islamic ideas on society and the state can be reversed:

Therefore Liberals of all persuasions, secularists, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and kebatinan [Javanese mystics] adherents cannot hope for a secular public space but must hope for a religiously neutral one, in which all beliefs can take part on equal terms. That is, however, a challenge in a nation where the overwhelming majority of the populace—according to 2011 estimates, some 86 per cent, or over 211 million people—are Muslims.

He may be too pessimistic. There is no question that conservative Islam has gained ground, but it is also true that many Indonesians are committed to the democratic changes that have taken place since 1998 and don’t want them rolled back. In many ways, the presidential election of 2014 turned into a referendum on Indonesia’s democracy.

Ricklefs’s book was written before that campaign took place. Prabowo Subianto, the former general who was responsible for the disappearances of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s, ran as a nationalist strongman. He was opposed by Joko Widodo, called Jokowi, who ran as a committed democrat and an advocate of Reformasi. He was the first leading politician not connected to the New Order elite.2

Prabowo had become a master of post-Suharto politics, in which changing coalitions compete, with much corruption, for patronage and power. The political elite flocked to him, and so did the main Islamist party. Jokowi’s lead in preelection polls dwindled in the face of Prabowo’s financial resources and a coalition that included conservative Islamic parties, such as the Prosperous Justice Party, the United Development Party, and the National Mandate Party. The Islamic Defenders Front also supported Prabowo. But in the final days, Reformasi activists came out for Jokowi, as did a large number of volunteers mobilized by social media, including rural farmers, the urban poor, and Christians and members of other religious minorities. Jokowi won by a small margin.

It was as if the 2014 election was repeating the battle for democracy of 1998, although many Islamists, vital to the movement back then, were missing, having joined Prabowo’s camp. Their absence is affecting Jokowi’s presidency. Those who elected him had high expectations, but he is a weak president. He does not control the parliament, and even the party that nominated him refuses to support all of his proposals. Jokowi now seems to be settling into a SBY-style truce with the elite.

His election, though, has opened up political space for liberal Muslims. For instance, young intellectuals in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) have championed Islam Nusantara, or Islam of the Archipelago, that stresses the tolerant, pluralist nature of Indonesia’s traditionalist Islam, the legacy of the blending of Islam with local culture that Ricklefs so masterfully describes. Although the group claims that it originated hundreds of years ago, its modern version was started by young NU liberals who have worked to stop the growing influence of Islamists. They hoped Jokowi’s election would reinvigorate the liberals in the fight to define Islam.

It won’t be easy. There has already been a backlash by conservatives. Moreover, the leadership of NU seems determined to turn Islam Nusantara into a vehicle for advancing its own interests. What started as an intellectual movement to promote an Indonesian-style Islam that values pluralism and the equal rights of all citizens has been transformed by NU leaders into a campaign to sell Islam Nusantara as an antidote to the Islamic State. A ninety-minute movie has been made, called The Divine Grace of Islam Nusantara. It celebrates shadow puppets and the mystic rituals of NU, while condemning the Wahhabi strand of Saudi Islam as the enemy of Indonesian Islam and the fount of Islamic State ideology. NU leaders are now planning a global conference on Islam Nusantara, and Jokowi has endorsed the campaign.

Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, based in Jakarta and the leading expert on terrorists in Southeast Asia, says the claim of NU leaders that Islam Nusantara can challenge the Islamic State is absurd. Those drawn to the Islamic State would never be influenced by the version of Islam portrayed by Islam Nusantara—in Indonesia or anywhere else. Jones sees this use of Islam Nusantara as a publicity campaign by NU leaders. Rather than focusing on a global campaign, if NU leaders were using Islam Nusantara to promote pluralism within Indonesia, as the young intellectuals hoped, it would mark a welcome shift away from the “conservative turn.”

Even though NU is threatened by conservative Islam, many of the movement’s leaders gave support to conservative tendencies in the past. The current head of NU, for example, was in charge of drafting the Sipilis fatwas. And although NU celebrates its own tolerance, the form of tolerance it practices is selective. It did not extend to Communists or leftists in 1965, when NU’s militias were willing executioners, and it doesn’t extend to Ahmadis or Shias or gay Indonesians today. In February, NU’s chairman, Said Aqil Siradj, called for a new law banning all gay activity in Indonesia. As Ricklefs’s book shows so well, too often in Indonesia’s new politics, politicians, the elite, and even NU powerbrokers have collaborated with Islamists and conservatives; the result has diminished the quality of Indonesia’s democracy.

Indonesia has its own jihadists. Jones estimates that at least five hundred Indonesians have gone to Syria. That is less than two per million Indonesians, as compared with forty-three per million from Belgium. Jones and others say that one important reason few Indonesians are drawn to the Islamic State is that they have a relatively tolerant society with a political system that can work. Jokowi’s victory shows that a good many Indonesians are doing their part in trying to sustain their democracy. It is still an open question whether Indonesia’s political elite and its elected officials are willing to support an open society.