Australia/Israel Review

Ahok, Islamism and Indonesian Democracy

Mar 29, 2017 | Giora Eliraz


Giora Eliraz


The results of Jakarta’s first round of gubernatorial elections might be confusing to many casual observers of Indonesian politics – the Christian and ethnically Chinese governor, Bauska Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, came first. This happened even though Ahok has been, during recent months, in the eye of a storm that saw him facing a high-profile criminal trial – accused of breaking blasphemy laws by insulting the Quran, in a country dominated by a Muslim majority. The serial massive protests in Jakarta against Ahok, full of hatred and marked by religious and ethnic overtones that preceded his trial, could create an impression that zealous Islamists control the public sphere and significantly threaten Indonesia’s democracy and the national maxim of “unity in diversity”. In the face of this public storm, the outside observer could be forgiven for believing that Ahok’s fate was sealed.

Indeed, it is often difficult to clearly observe the state of Indonesia’s advance along the democratic path, which started in 1998. Incidents of intolerance, initiated mainly by hardline Islamists, and increasing promulgation of local Islamic bylaws which seem to challenge progressive, pluralist values, cause concern among advocates of democracy. The state blasphemy law itself that stands at the centre of Ahok’s case might disturb those who believe in freedom of expression, thought and belief – let alone the way it is mainly used against members of religious minorities and those who are suspected of deviation from the true path of Islam. Moreover, though this law was inherited from the pre-1998 authoritarian era, it has been implemented in a much more intensive manner in the post-reformasi era since then. It’s also hard to escape the belief that Ahok’s opponents found the accusation of insulting Islam just prior to the Jakarta gubernatorial election campaign an effective political tool against the successful, competent, and very popular incumbent Governor with double minority status – as both Chinese and Christian.

A limited historical perspective may cause one to overestimate the furious massive protests, organised by Islamists, as very significant demonstrations of power that seriously challenge Indonesian democracy – indicating major progress in their struggle to re-establish Indonesia as an Islamic state. But if one employs a wider perspective that attempts to minimise the possibly distracting effects of recent events and to look deeper, it’s possible to present an opposite scenario: the Islamists act out of fear much more than out of a strong feeling of power. In fact, this wider and more panoramic view tells us that the Islamists have lost all the major battles in the modern history of Indonesia.


Against the backdrop of Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945 stood a sharp controversy between secular nationalists who sought to establish the new state on secular foundations and Islamic activists who sought to establish it as an Islamic state based on shari’a Islamic law. The secular nationalists won; the new state, populated mainly by Muslims, adopted a secular oriented ideology, Pancasila, that is often described as a religiously neutral one. Its first principle, “Belief in the One and Only God”, treats all six recognised religions equally. Accordingly the Constitution avoids making Islam a state religion. Even seven words that would have required Muslims to observe Islamic law were removed at the last moment from the preamble to the Constitution of the then-new state, known as the Jakarta Charter. In this way the forefathers of the state aspired to provide a philosophical and legal formula that would enable peaceful coexistence in the highly diverse society, securing national unity and territorial integrity. Accordingly, the significant national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“unity in diversity”) was adopted.

But it didn’t save the central government in the formative period of 1948-62 from a strong armed rebellion by Islamist militias who had not given up the vision of an Islamic state. This bloody chapter has entered into the national narrative as the Darul Islam rebellions; it seems to be perceived today as a salutary warning. Actually, during the authoritarian period even non-violent, political manifestations of Islam were oppressed. Soon after Suharto’s fall, Islamist groups hoped, by using new opportunities offered by democracy, to revive long-oppressed ambition to make Islam the state basis (dasar negara), or at least to give Islamic law a significant role on the national level. But their efforts to realise their aims through the parliament failed, and even failed to gain support from the huge, organised Muslim mainstream organisations in Indonesia.

Consequently, the pro-shari’a groups turned their efforts toward applying Islamic law on a local level, employing the new decentralisation policy to do so. Yet, in fact, the Islamist political vision has remained largely untenable in the Indonesian context. To mention just a few indicators: there is a broadly-based democratic consensus in the society; parties of secular, national-oriented ideology are the consistent election winners; the democratic government is committed to the formative axiom of state-religion separation and the idea of “unity in diversity”; the significant Muslim civil society sector is a strong ally in building democracy; and women continue to hold high governmental positions.


Though disturbing hurdles and shortcomings have been apparent over the past two decades, Indonesia’s democracy has covered a considerable distance. In other words, democratic progress appears to be proceeding largely on track. Indicators for further democratic maturation were apparent in the recent years in Jakarta itself.

In the gubernatorial election of 2012 Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, and his then-running-mate Ahok won despite strong opposition, in particular by Islamists. This indicated a trend toward more modern, democratic, pluralistic voting patterns, guided by civilian criteria such as competence and good governance. Two years later this tendency was again evident at the national level, when Jokowi won the presidential election; the first Indonesian president not to have emerged from traditional leading elites.

Obviously, it’s unknown what the results of the run-off gubernatorial election on April 19 will be or how Ahok’s trial will end. However it can be said that Anies Baswedan, who came second in the first round, and will face off against Ahok in the run-off election, is also prominent among promising politicians of the democratic era, demonstrating competence, a strong commitment to democratic civilian values and a reformist approach. Perhaps the current excited reaction by the Islamists indicates, among other things, their fear that the gubernatorial election will prove again that the prospects of realising their vision in the Indonesian polity are fading even further from view, rather than any confidence on their part.

Dr. Giora Eliraz is an Affiliate Instructor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and is Research Associate at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


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