Indonesian radicals: Speak loudly but carry a small stick

Hard-liners continue to try to wield power and turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. The recently re-elected president, Joko Widodo, is determined not to let that happen.

Indonesian radicals: Speak loudly but carry a small stick AFP Photo/ Anton Raharjo / NurPhoto

Following the long and divisive presidential election season, much commentary has emerged about the apparent rise of radical Muslim activity, especially in the political sphere. Most hard-line Islamist figures and groups threw their lot in with Prabowo Subianto in the poll, making the former Special Forces (Kopassus) general an unlikely champion of Islamist causes. But these strange bedfellows, a former member of the family of the late autocrat Soeharto and notorious groups such as the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), came together largely out of desperation on the part of the Islamists and political opportunism by Prabowo.

Despite years of increased pressure and rallies by conservative and radical Muslim elements, the Islamist movement has gained relatively little since President Joko Widodo was first elected in 2014. This is especially apparent when compared to the two terms in office of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from 2004 to 2014, when hard-liners succeeded in gaining a number of significant policy changes for their cause.

Joko proves effective bulwark

Following the long and divisive presidential election season, much commentary has emerged about the apparent rise of radical activity, especially in regard to the sphere of politics. Most hard-line Islamist figures and groups backed Prabowo, making the former general appear to be the new champion of Islamist causes.

While the short-lived coalition between Prabowo and his hard-line backers appears to have officially ended when the losing presidential candidate made a public reconciliation appearance with Joko on July 12, conservative Muslim forces are unlikely to rest on their laurels during the incumbent’s upcoming second term in office.

The Yudhoyono era

The radical pressure on display during Joko’s presidency did not start with the election to the State Palace in 2014 of the former governor of Jakarta and mayor of Solo, in Central Java Province. It was a continuation of activity that picked up considerable pace during the Yudhoyono presidency. While Yudhoyono as president regularly invoked his support for pluralism, the track record suggests the opposite is closer to the truth.

Yudhoyono made a number of concessions to Islamist elements after his first presidential election win in 2004, which later proved to be disastrous for the state of religious tolerance in the country. Part of the conservative turn the nation has taken during the past two decades can be attributed to hard-line groups such as the FPI learning how to flex their muscles in a democratic Indonesia following the fall of the Soeharto autocracy in 1998. But another big factor was the Yudhoyono administration’s cozy relationship with Muslim-based parties and the ascendancy of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) as the country’s peak Islamic authority. The MUI benefited greatly from its relationship with Yudhoyono, despite his theoretically moderate views.

Yudhoyono expressed support for the MUI in a peacemaking move to help shape policy after he was first elected in 2004 and again in 2009. The biggest coup of the MUI and its hard-line backers was Yudhoyono’s decision in 2008 to restrict the rights of the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect through a joint ministerial decree, which saw the state tell more than 250,000 of its citizens how they could worship. At the height of the Ahmadiyah controversy a decade ago, members of the FPI clashed with members of the National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith and Religion (AKKBB) during a rally for religious tolerance at the National Monument (Monas) in Central Jakarta. Some 70 AKKBB activists were injured in the attack.

The subsequent trial and convictions of FPI leader Rizieq Shihab and paramilitary leader Munarman for instigating the violence became a rallying cry that galvanized support for the FPI among the hard-line community, propelling Rizieq to hero-like status among radical Islamists. The joint ministerial decree was also used as justification by a mob of hardliners to storm a small Ahmadiyah community in Banten Province in February 2011, resulting in the murders of three members of the sect. The victims were bludgeoned to death as scores of people, including police officers, looked on.

The MUI had been calling for a ban on Ahmadiyah since 2005, when it issued two fatwas against the sect. The MUI’s many edicts have been used as a basis by conservatives and hard-liners to oppress and attack religious minorities, as well as pressure the government. They include a notorious

2005 fatwa condemning pluralism, liberalism and secularism. The relationship between Yudhoyono and the MUI was so close that the council at the time was often referred to as “conservative Islam’s state-owned enterprise.”

In its 2010 report on religious freedom, the US State Department singled out the MUI as “influential in enabling official and social discrimination” against minority religious groups in Indonesia. In addition to an increase in government financing during the Yudhoyono era, the MUI also filled its coffers through its monopoly on issuing halal licenses for food and medicine and by tapping into Indonesia's lucrative Islamic banking industry.


Yudhoyono, a retired Army general and minister during the administration of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, aligned himself politically with most of the Muslimbased political parties of the day, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). While the PKS currently labels itself a nationalist Islamist party that conforms to the pluralist state ideology of Pancasila, the party was originally influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood movement of Egypt.

In 2004, the PKS developed a strong image as an Islamist party with its calls for Islam to play a central role in public life through the application of Shariah law, which was then part of the party’s official platform. As a reward for its early support of Yudhoyono, the PKS held a number of ministerial portfolios throughout his two terms in office, including the communications and information, agriculture and social affairs ministries.

The PKS’s biggest policy victory was the ratification of the Anti-Pornography Law in 2009. The law, backed by other Islamic parties, criminalizes all works and “bodily movements” deemed obscene and capable of violating public morality, and comes with heavy penalties. Its debate prompted protests across the country,with critics saying it could threaten art and traditional culture, ranging from temple statues in Bali to traditional attire worn by tribesmen in Christian and animist Papua Province.

When the law was ratified at the House or Representatives, lawmakers from the Islamist parties broke out in cheers of “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater) from the floor of the parliament building. Yudhoyono was widely criticized by rights groups for signing the law several weeks later. Fears that the law represented an attempt to impose conservative Muslim moral values on wider Indonesian society have largely been proven true as the legislation has been used to target members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and other individuals seen as engaging in un-Islamic activity.

The apparent “Arabization” of Indonesia during the Yudhoyono years continued in 2012, when hard-liners and Islamist politicians succeeded in forcing the cancellation of a concert by US pop star Lady Gaga on the grounds that her music was immoral and un-Islamic. The police and the government, including Yudhoyono, largely stood by as hard-liners threatened to murder the singer and raid her fans if the Jakarta concert was allowed to proceed. At the same time, society as a whole was becoming more overtly Muslim, with greater observance of Islamic dress and practices, especially among urban middle-class Muslims.

Yudhoyono left the State Palace with the reputation of doing nothing to counter the increasingly assertive hard-line elements in and out of the government. At worst, he was accused of tacitly supporting the conservative turn, mostly for political gain. After a decade of the Yudhoyono presidency, those who sought an Islamic state in Indonesia were no closer to achieving it in law, but were much closer to it in terms of everyday practice, a situation which carried over following the inauguration of Joko as the country’s seventh president in October 2014.

Joko pushes back

Since the time of his first election victory, Joko and his political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), have shown no inclination to try and appease the demands of conservative Muslim elements. Joko and the PDI-P and its chairwoman, former President Megawati, are firmly in the nationalist-secular political camp. The party is very tolerant of religious diversity and secularism, and suspicious of political and radical Islam.

Joko and the PDI-P often invoke Pancasila – the state ideology that enjoins belief in one God, but which also entails the virtues of diversity and tolerance for Indonesia’s myriad ethnic and religious groups. The philosophy, which combines elements of socialism, nationalism and monotheism, was created in 1945 by Megawati’s father, Indonesia’s founding president, Soekarno, in an attempt to unite the diverse archipelago ahead of independence from its colonial rulers. Many minority groups support the PDI-P since it is considered a pure nationalist and pluralistic party.

The PDI-P, during the 10 years of Yudhoyono’s presidency, constituted the main opposition party of the era. It was consistent in rejecting, albeit unsuccessfully, policies and legislation that contained Islamist-tinted articles and motives. This set the stage for years of confrontations and showdowns between Joko’s administration and hard-line elements. “Some factions of the conservative and hard-line Muslim community are gearing up to try and discredit Joko and his political party, which are seen as threats to advances made by Islamists during the past 10 years under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono,” Concord Strategic wrote in an analysis immediately following Joko’s 2014 election win. The hard-liners and their political backers, which now included the PKS and Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), did not disappoint.

Purnama scandal

Almost immediately they set their sights on Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, the deputy governor of Jakarta at the time who was poised to lead the capital after his former boss, Joko, was elected president. Purnama, a double minority because of his Christian faith and Chinese ethnicity, had been the target of condemnation and protest by Islamists since even before his inauguration as deputy governor in October 2012. A spokesman for several organizations affiliated with the Muslim-based PKS, including the Youth Movement for Justice (Gema Keadilan), the Justice Guard and PKS Youth Fortress, at the time said they 

“won’t allow Jakarta to be led by a figure like Purnama.” The FPI and the PKS had been the most vocal in threatening to reject a Jakarta administration led by Purnama. The hard-line FPI said it would resort to violence if Purnama, a native of Belitung Island, off the coast of Sumatra, became governor of the capital.

FPI spokesman Novel Bamu’min at the time told Concord Strategic that the FPI would deploy thousands of its members to stage large rallies across the capital and occupy Jakarta City Hall if Purnama was appointed to replace Joko. He said if the government insisted on inaugurating Purnama as Jakarta governor, the FPI would take “any measures available to harass and protest his administration,” adding that Jakarta “must be led by a Muslim.”

The FPI followed through on its threats, staging a number of violent rallies at Jakarta City Hall following Purnama’s inauguration as governor, including one incident which saw the hard-liners, some armed with swords, attack police officers, leaving 17 injured. The hard-line movement was handed a major gift in 2016 when Purnama, then the popular governor of Jakarta, was accused of defaming Islam after mentioning a passage from the Koran in a re-election campaign speech in the Thousand Islands regency in North Jakarta.

Although Purnama apologized for his comments, they sparked nationwide condemnation, prompting several Muslim groups to report him to the police. The accusation of blasphemy sparked a wave of anti-Purnama rallies by members of Islamist groups, including two protests in late 2016 at Monas in Central Jakarta that drew hundreds of thousands of participants and breathed new life and a political direction into the Islamist movement. The following year Purnama lost his re-election bid and was subsequently jailed for two years on charges of blasphemy.

Extremism backlash

While the anti-Purnama saga shocked the moderate majority by exposing the power of hard-line elements to exploit an issue and turn it into a wider call for action among the Muslim community, it did not bring about any official changes to laws or government policy.

In fact, the persecution of Purnama, a close political ally of Joko, further strengthened the president’s resolve to restrain extremist elements. In late 2017, he issued a decree officially banning the pro-caliphate Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, while prosecutors pursued several legal charges against FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, who subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remained in self-imposed exile as of Strategic Review’s press time. The president also created the ministerial-level National Pancasila Agency to promote tolerance and the application of the state ideology.

Despite a number of attempts to foment religiously motivated controversy to launch political attacks against the president, the hard-line movement has failed to regain the momentum it enjoyed in late 2016. It arguably had a smaller than expected impact on the legislative and presidential elections in April. Although the Prabowo-Islamist election coalition has been disbanded and Joko has been officially confirmed as winning a second term in office, hard-line elements are unlikely to go away quietly.

The next administration is expected to face more difficult times dealing with assertive and influential conservative Muslim elements, both in and out of the government. The president is already imposing policies to counter such trends, with an official in late June telling Reuters that the administration plans to tighten the vetting of senior public servants amid fears that hard-line Islamist ideology has permeated high levels of government.

The senior government official, part of a team formulating the new vetting policy, said Joko intends it to be a part of his legacy of ensuring Indonesia remains a model for moderate Islam. He said the president strongly believed that radical Islam threatened the state apparatus as well as the future of the nation’s democracy. The vetting plan is a major priority for the president, said the official, who declined to be identified. It also remains to be seen what impact the new vice president will have on the state of religious affairs. Ma’ruf Amin is a former head of the MUI and a leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim group.

Although Ma’ruf toned down his rhetoric during the presidential election campaign, he was a driving force behind the Ahmadiyah controversy in 2008 and also had a hand in crafting the MUI’s edicts against pluralism and the Shiah Islamic sect.

Anti-radical fight continues

Joko’s presidential election victory and his upcoming second term in office do not mean the end of the ambitions of the Islamists aligned with the political opposition. April’s legislative and presidential elections, and the subsequent deadly rioting in Jakarta following the announcement of the poll results in May, underscore that the lines between moralist thugs, conservative Muslims and the political opposition are becoming increasingly blurred.

It is against this backdrop that hard-line elements will continue to believe that another administration led by Joko and the secularnationalist PDI-P will be unsympathetic and hostile to their goals. The next administration will undoubtedly see more pressure campaigns by conservative Muslim elements, which could exacerbate already high levels of religious intolerance and possibly boost terrorist activity, social conflict and other security issues.

Ultimately, though, it is the direction of the moderate “silent majority” that will largely determine if Muslim radicals and conservatives are able to make any official policy gains during the next five years. The public in general has been largely supportive of the current government’s moves to counter radicalism. After winning the presidential election with 55.5 percent of the popular vote, Joko apparently feels emboldened to continue to push back against the boisterous, but often ineffectual, Islamist movement.

Todd Elliott is an analyst at Concord Consulting in Jakarta.

You need to login to write a comment!