Is Islam an increasingly polarizing political cleavage in Indonesia?

What the recent election shows

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his running mate for the 2019 presidential election Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin wave after registering for the election at the General Election Commission in Jakarta, Indonesia August 10, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.  Antara Foto/Akbar Nugroho Gumay/via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RC16976DBB40

Indonesia conducted its presidential election on April 17, the fourth direct presidential election since the country’s transition to democracy in 1998. The election pitted two long-term rivals against each other: incumbent President Joko Widodo (popularly known as “Jokowi”) and former Suharto-era General Prabowo Subianto. It was one of the most divisive elections in Indonesia’s 73-year old history as an independent nation. It also saw Islam being used as a tool to create divisions in the largest Muslim-majority country in the world—a political cleavage that could divide the fourth most populous country in the world for a generation or more.

Two distinct political camps have emerged from the election, largely based on different interpretations of Islamic political theology and regional identities. Jokowi, who is widely expected to win re-election according to preliminary returns, is supported by a coalition of moderate Muslims living in central and eastern Java, the most populous island in Indonesia. Many are members of Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. Jokowi also enjoys wide support among Indonesia’s substantial non-Muslim minority. Meanwhile, Prabowo is supported by conservative and hardline Muslims living primarily in the western coast of Java, as well as in the islands of Sumatera and Sulawesi.

During the eight-month campaign period, hardline Islamists within the Prabowo camp have portrayed Jokowi as a leader who lacks strong Islamic credentials and who is planning to implement policies to repress deeply religious Muslims. In return, NU members who supported Jokowi have portrayed these hardliners as religious extremists who wish to turn Indonesia into an Islamic or caliphate-based state.

Many of Prabowo’s Islamist supporters were former participants of 2016-17 Defending Islam movement (Aksi Bela Islam)—a movement to remove former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as “Ahok”), who was a former Jokowi ally. A Christian of Chinese descent, Ahok was accused of committing religious blasphemy after he misspoke in a campaign rally.

Up to one million Muslims participated in the rallies sponsored by the Defending Islam movement. They ranged from members of hardline groups like Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Islamic Community Forum (FUI) to those affiliated with Muhammadiyah—Indonesia’s second largest Islamic organization, which tends to be moderate theologically but is less inclined to support Jokowi’s policies (compared to NU). These rallies resulted in Ahok’s re-election defeat and subsequent conviction for religious blasphemy, for which he served two years in prison.

Emboldened by their success, former Defending Islam activists—now calling themselves “Alumni 212”—set their next political target: President Jokowi himself. They aligned themselves with Prabowo long before the presidential election campaign started in August 2018 by forming groups like #2019ChangePresident (#2019GantiPresiden), which staged mass rallies and protests against Jokowi between March and September 2018.

The president feared the #2019ChangePresident group so much that he ordered law enforcement officers to disband its rallies and brought criminal charges against some of the group’s leading figures, including NGO activist Ratna Sarumpaet and singer Ahmad Dhani. These resulted in a growing concern that Jokowi is responding to the challenge from hardline Islamists by using authoritarian measures.

Once the formal campaign period began, Alumni 212 aligned themselves with Islamic parties like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) to support Prabowo’s presidential bid. It formally endorsed Prabowo in September 2018, even though Prabowo reneged on his promise to pick an Islamic cleric (ulama) as his running mate. Prabowo selected billionaire Sandiaga Uno as his vice-presidential candidate instead.

Under pressure to increase his Islamic credentials, Jokowi chose Indonesia’s most senior Islamic cleric: Ma’ruf Amin, head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), who was also NU’s supreme leader. It was done despite concerns from pro-democracy and human rights advocates regarding Amin’s track record on religious and other minorities. As long-term head of MUI’s religious edicts (fatwa) commission, Amin was thought to be responsible for the issuance of fatwas condemning Ahmadi Muslim minorities (2005) and LGBT people (2012), which resulted in increased number of communal violence and persecutions against the two groups in the last decade.

However, Amin’s selection as Jokowi’s vice-presidential nominee solidified the NU leadership’s support for Jokowi. He received endorsement from its leaders and leading clerics, who also campaigned heavily for his re-election.

Meanwhile, in addition to Alumni 212, PKS, and PAN, Prabowo also received endorsements from Indonesia’s leading popular ulama—such as Abdul Somad, Abdullah Gymnastiar, and Adi Hidayat. These ulama are active internet users to propagate their teachings and have millions of social media followers, particularly among young Muslims between the ages of 20 and 35.

The mobilization of mainstream Islamic groups like NU in Jokowi’s camp and Alumni 212 and other hardline groups in Prabowo’s camp caused this year’s presidential campaign to take an ugly turn. The hardliners painted Jokowi as a “non-devout Muslim” and an “anti-Islamic” leader who plans to impose new restrictions against Muslims’ religious freedom. Meanwhile, NU clerics have accused Prabowo of siding with radical Islamists, claiming he plans to turn Indonesia into a caliphate state.

Research by the Indonesia Program of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in battleground provinces like Central Java, East Java, West Java, and South Sulawesi clearly shows that mobilization efforts done by hardline supporters of Prabowo were responsible for increasing Prabowo’s support among religious voters within these provinces. However, NU leaders’ portrayal these groups as radical Islamists with an extremist agenda also mobilized its followers—who mainly live in Central and East Java—to support Jokowi as well.

The polarized rhetoric used by both sides during this campaign might have contributed to the record voter turnout: estimated to be around 80 percent. It is now feared that the religiously-based polarization strategies used during the election might have long-term repercussions in Indonesian politics and society. Alumni 212 is now planning a new series of mass rallies to challenge the election results. Tough statements issued by Indonesian Armed Forces Chief Hadi Tjahjanto and National Police Chief Tito Karnavian in response to this plan indicated that Jokowi might be considering additional crackdown measures against these Islamists, in an effort to further marginalize them from Indonesia’s public sphere.

To conclude, a new axis of Islam and politics is emerging in Indonesia today. Hardline Islamists will continue to challenge Jokowi during his final five-year term as Indonesia’s president. However, if he decides to crack down against them, it might result in further deconsolidation of Indonesia’s democracy, which will be a setback in Indonesia’s trajectory as a Muslim-majority democratic nation.