During late 2016 and early 2017, Jakarta was shaken by massive protests, marked by religious and sectarian provocative overtones, against the ethnic Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), who was accused of insulting Islam. The authorities seemed to largely want to avoid confrontation with the Islamist hardline groups behind the protests. This occurred even though the protesters actually challenged both the President, Joko Widodo, and the founding values of tolerance and unity of the State of Indonesia – an archipelago notable for its highly diverse population.
A number of insights can be suggested to attempt to explain the restraint exhibited by the authorities when the flames of bigoted hatred burned high. For example, when being confronted by extremism, democracies commonly get caught up in complicated dilemmas balancing the defence of key state interests, such as protecting minority rights, and the duty to secure and maintain essential freedoms. Hardline religious groups that basically deny the values of secular-oriented democracy have proved skillful around in the globe in exploiting such political dilemmas to further their own interests.
Moreover, these dilemmas appear more complex and fraught in the Indonesian case because shadows of the authoritarian past are still lurking in the political background. In addition, there is also the basic overall dilemma of how to struggle against zealous Islamist groups in a country populated mainly by Muslims, without being labeled as being hostile to Islam.
The distinctive cultural context also suggests an explanation – related in particular to the Javanese culture that enjoys a dominant cultural position in the Indonesian archipelago and has traditionally had a significant influence on politics. This is particularly true when the President’s political philosophy and style are arguably inspired by the Javanese culture. This culture places a high value on living in harmony – including avoidance of confrontation.
Thus, against the backdrop of growing religious intolerance in the recent years, complaints have been leveled against Indonesian authorities that they are not doing enough to enforce the law against hardline groups that persecute religious minorities – and are also not being sufficiently proactive in countering extremist ideas.
Nonetheless, during recent months a change can be observed; the Government has begun to respond through programs designed to elevate national values – as well as taking other countermeasures. Efforts to promote Pancasila, the state ideology, the national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) and the 1945 Constitution are all salient. The President appears to be leading this campaign and to be deeply involved in it. The Government is also seeking to mobilise civil society, largely led by the huge moderate Muslim mainstream, to this campaign, including seeking assistance in combating the growth of extremist ideologies.
A Presidential work unit with a multi-faith makeup was established for this purpose and has already begun its work. This unit also aims to ensure that governmental policies are complying with the philosophy of Pancasila. Interestingly, this government initiative corresponds with a parallel approach within organised, moderate Muslim civil society – that is particularly evident in the huge Nahdlatul Ulama movement – of adopting a more pro-active policy to counter the growing extremism fanned by smaller groups of Muslim zealots.
In addition, the Government has begun taking concrete actions against the hardline elements that were alleged to be involved in orchestrating the massive show of bigotry and intolerance in the public sphere of Jakarta late last year and early this year. In May, the Government announced that it would ban Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a local branch of the transnational Islamist movement, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami, that calls for re-establishing an Islamic caliphate. This move was justified on basis that HTI promotes an ideology that stands in opposition to Pancasila and it engages in political activity to change the state ideology. Last July, the Government also issued a presidential decree that allows it to expedite the legal process for disbanding organisations deemed a threat to national unity and which oppose Pancasila.
While this move was soon followed by officially revoking the HTI’s status as a legal entity, it now seems that the authorities are also examining measures against the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), including against its leader, Rizieq Shihab, a significant actor in the outraged campaign against Ahok.
But these moves by the Government haven’t passed without criticism – most of it directed at the President. Widodo has been accused of acting in an authoritarian manner – promoting an allegedly indoctrination-like ideological campaign, using repressive language against the “anti-Pancasila movement” and using presidential regulation in lieu of a proper law to disband organisations accused of opposing Pancasila.
The President has responded to these criticisms by insisting that Indonesia cannot allow room for radical organisations that interfere with the nation’s fundamental values and harm society, and it also can’t negotiate with those who attempt to tamper with these fundamentals. For him, Pancasila is the essential cement of the national unity. He also insisted that all state counter-actions would be carried out in accordance with Indonesian law and that the Constitution prevents any autocratic power being accumulated.
So why has the Indonesian Government hardened its policy toward radical sectarian groups over recent months? Firstly, it seems that the authorities now realise that red lines have been crossed and perhaps are even worried about the possibility of Islamist groups making increasing inroads into the Muslim mainstream. It appears to have perhaps reached the view that the national values of tolerance and unity needs to be vigorously protected, despite the tightrope that it will have to walk to do so – risking a backlash of religious sentiments among some Muslims, and being accused of restricting democratic freedoms and even of bringing back the spectre of the authoritarian past.
And there might be also another hidden factor – the danger of losing face, a very sensitive issue from the Javanese perspective. The protests were directed against a close ally of the President – and clearly affect his standing. Now, while many eyes in Indonesia are turning towards the presidential elections of 2019, it’s hard to ignore the likelihood that former General Prabowo Subianto, a political opponent of the President, would run against him again in the elections – after scoring political points by backing Anies Baswedan, who defeated Ahok in the Jakarta run-off last April.
Last but not least, perhaps now – after the ethnic Chinese Christian former governor was jailed for two years for blasphemy against Islam, a Muslim was elected as the governor and the streets and squares of Jakarta have been emptied of protestors – the authorities feel much more confident to act to advance their own interests and agenda given that the risk of significant confrontation has been greatly reduced.
Dr. Giora Eliraz is Affiliate Instructor, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle and Research Associate, Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.