Australia/Israel Review

Indonesia – exporter of Islam

Sep 20, 2018 | Giora Eliraz

Indonesian President Joko Widodo: Known as a secularist, but looking to burnish his Islamic credentials
Indonesian President Joko Widodo: Known as a secularist, but looking to burnish his Islamic credentials

Though it is the home of the world’s largest Muslim population, Islam has never had a significant imprint on Indonesian foreign policy. Consequently, Jakarta has generally been viewed as an Asia-Pacific actor much more than an Islamic one. 

Yet recently, the incumbent Indonesian President, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), a committed guardian of the secularist state ideology Pancasila, has begun inserting Islamic elements into the foreign policy agenda of his nation. 

Jakarta has begun pushing the Islamic concept of wasatiyyah (“jalan tengah” in Bahasa Indonesia), meaning the “middle way”, and describing the practice of moderation as a theme to be promoted. The process began in May with the Wasatiyyah Islamic High Consultation (Konsultasi Tingkat Tinggi Wasatiyyah Islam), a state-sponsored conference with the participation of Islamic clerics and scholars from around the world. In his opening remarks, President Jokowi said that his country, as a democracy with the largest Muslim population and a pluralistic nation (“bangsa yang majemuk”) was seeking to show the world that Islam is the religion of rahmatan lil alamin – a sense of blessing for the whole universe. According to Jokowi, the Islamic wasatiyyah movement should be a worldwide trend that inspires Muslims to espouse the path of Islamic moderation. The invited participants declared commitment to promote wasatiyyat Islam as part of the conference. Indonesia’s two large mass-participation Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, the largest Islamic bodies in the world, both appear to be the Government’s key partners for this initiative. Indeed, the whole wasatiyyah initiative actually corresponds with a previous NU program, backed by the Government, to promote globally Islam Nusantara (“Islam of the Indonesian Archipelago”), described as an Islamic model marked by local Indonesian traditions of moderation and tolerance. 

A broader historical view might offer some additional insights for understanding Jokowi’s moves to promote Indonesian-style Islam. Indonesia’s second successful and genuinely democratic election in 2004 significantly strengthened national self-confidence about the viability of Indonesia’s transition to democracy. This led, under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration (2004-2014), into efforts to promote democracy to Asia and the Arab world. This growing assertiveness in foreign policy also yielded an ambition to be involved in peacemaking efforts in the Middle East. An assertive foreign policy, marked strongly by promoting Indonesia’s national ideals and prestige, is also evident in the succeeding administration of Jokowi – directed at the Asia-Pacific region in particular. 

Yet the inclusion of Islamic elements within the foreign policy agenda of the Jokowi Administration, commonly identified with a national, pluralistic worldview much more than with any Islamic vision, requires further explanation. 

Other significant clues are perhaps found in the current “third rail” of Indonesian politics – whose immediate roots go back to the stormy events of late 2016 and early 2017 when zealous Islamists led massive protests, marked by religious and sectarian overtones, against the ethnic Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok.” He was accused of insulting Islam and, in May 2017, was even sent to prison for two years for blasphemy. Shortly before that, Ahok, considered then to be a strong political ally of President Jokowi, was defeated in the gubernatorial by Muslim candidate Anies Baswedan, despite being an ostensibly popular and successful governor. Hence, his defeat was largely understood as evidence of a shift toward identity politics (politik identitas). 

This development was followed also by establishment of the “212 Alumni” movement, which is a confederation of groups that led the protests against Ahok. This association has featured in the headlines as a strident political player that seeks to ensure that only “observant Muslims,” can be chosen for all elected offices – especially the presidency. This hardline association has been making the argument that Jokowi’s government policies are disadvantaging the interests of Indonesian Muslims. Meanwhile, diverse, “pragmatic” politicians have been courting those associated with “212 Alumni”, seeking their support. 


Jakarta is aware of the risks posed by such developments to the founding national values of tolerance and a unitary state, as well as to the highly diverse fabric of Indonesian society. Hence it has been leading an ideological campaign aiming to promote Pancasila and the national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”). The President has made it clear that there can be no compromise on these state values, stressing that Pancasila is the essential cement of national unity. His words have been followed by action; the legal status of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) was revoked last year; HTI is a local branch of a well known pan-Islamic movement that strongly promotes a vision of establishing Khilafah Islamiyyah (Islamic Caliphate). The basis for the sanctions against the HTI was laid down by a preceding presidential decree that allows the expedition of the legal process for disbanding organisations which oppose Pancasila and are deemed a threat to national unity.

However, with identity politics, particularly Islamic politics, proving an effective and influential vehicle for his potential political rivals, it’s likely that Jokowi is increasingly feeling the need to demonstrate and bolster his own Islamic credentials, especially in the lead up to the approaching presidential elections in April 2019. This need can explain, for example, his recent decision to choose a conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running-mate. And it can also largely explain his timely initiative to promote the wasatiyyah concept. This initiative may add another layer to the irreplaceable partnership between the Government on the one hand and NU and Muhammadiyah on the other. All three feel themselves ready to “go global” by promoting diverse ideas and projects related to democracy, pluralism, countering religious extremism, interfaith and inter-civilisational dialogue, conflict-resolution and peace-building. 

Throughout the centuries-old pattern of centre-periphery dynamics affecting Islam and Islamic majority societies, Islamic ideas and knowledge have flowed from the centre, generally the Middle East, to Indonesia. Very rarely, if at all, have they moved in the opposite direction. The Yudhoyono Administration already implicitly challenged this pattern by seeking to “export” democracy to the Arab world.

The NU’s initiative, backed by the Jokowi administration, of promoting globally, and to the Middle East in particular, the conceptual qualities of Islam Nusantara further challenges the established pattern. It’s one thing to ask to promote democracy to the Arab Middle East, but quite a different thing to explicitly offer an Islamic model, marked by distinctive local contours of an Islamic “periphery”, to the Arab Middle East, the cradle of Muslim civilisation and the Islamic centre of gravity for centuries. The current direct initiative by the Indonesian Government, building on previous work by the NU, to export the Islamic concept of wasatiyyah globally, actually challenges the pattern of centre-periphery relations in a more direct way than even before. Interestingly, it is developments in Indonesia’s politics that have been generally perceived as worrying to outside observers that appear to have been largely responsible for pushing the government into promoting these initiatives. This only goes to demonstrate, once again, that Indonesian foreign policy is substantially driven by domestic, political considerations. 

Dr. Giora Eliraz is an affiliate instructor at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle and research associate at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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