Indonesia’s New Islamist Politics

After Ahok: The Islamist Agenda in Indonesia

a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict
25 pp., available at
Joko Widodo and Ma’ruf Amin at a peace declaration, Jakarta, 2018
Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images
Indonesian president Joko Widodo (right) and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, at a peace declaration for the general election campaign, Jakarta, September 2018

On April 17 Indonesians will go to the polls to elect a new national government. It is the fifth general election since 1998, when General Suharto was overthrown after thirty-two years of military dictatorship. Indonesia’s democracy has survived for two decades, but today it is at risk, facing its own version of the authoritarianism and religious nationalism that threaten so many other societies.

President Joko Widodo, known by everyone as Jokowi since he was elected in 2014, is expected to win a second term. Five years ago, he ran as a pluralist democrat and as the first leading politician to rise from local, direct elections after the repression and corruption of the Suharto era, known as the New Order. He was praised by President Obama and others as a moderate Muslim leader of a tolerant, Muslim-majority nation that proved that Islam and democracy are compatible.

But Jokowi has changed, and so has Indonesia. In late 2016 his ally Basuki Purnama Tjahaja, known as Ahok, a Christian and ethnically Chinese politician, was running for governor of Jakarta. That September he said in a speech that people should not be fooled by religious leaders who told them that according to the Koran Muslims couldn’t vote for non-Muslims. As a result of his careless comment, an alliance of conservative Muslim leaders, hard-line Islamist vigilantes, and a network of Saudi-influenced preachers accused him of misinterpreting and ridiculing Islam’s holy book and organized a series of rallies that were the largest in Indonesia’s history. The capital, Jakarta, was flooded with more than 700,000 Muslims demanding that Ahok be charged with blasphemy. In April 2017 he was defeated in the governor’s race by Anies Baswedan, a Muslim who had been supported by the protesters. Ahok was convicted of blasphemy and imprisoned for two years. (He was released in January.)

The anti-Ahok movement has transformed Indonesia’s politics. Jokowi is again running against Prabowo Subianto, whom he defeated in 2014. A former general and the former son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo was responsible for the disappearances of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s and proudly presents himself as a strongman nostalgic for the dictatorship. He championed the anti-Ahok movement, appeared at its rallies, and was seen as a Muslim-nationalist hero by many protesters.

In response to the strength of the Islamists, Jokowi was forced by his coalition of parties to select as his running mate an ultra-conservative Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, whose fatwa against Ahok had incited the demonstrations. Ma’ruf, a wily seventy-six-year-old ulama (religious leader) and politician, has been a major participant in the battle over the place of Islam in this predominantly Sunni nation.1 From 2015 until…

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