Written by Alexander R Arifianto.

The Defending Islam protests, organized by Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), recently led to former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s (popularly known as Ahok) re-election defeat and subsequent imprisonment on charges of committing blasphemy against Islam. This event has left observers debating whether Islamism is rising in Indonesia, and if so, what are the socio-political factors which facilitate it?

A number of analysts have sought to explain the anti-Ahok rallies by downplaying the increasing influence of hardline Islamist groups, focusing instead on growing socio-economic inequality in Indonesia, the exploitation of religious sentiments by political elites, and the need of populist politicians to align themselves with Islamist groups in order to win elections.

This article challenges these premises and argues instead that the influence of hardline Islamic groups has slowly but steadily risen for the past three decades in Indonesia. Their impact can now be seen in the changing sociological makeup of the Indonesian society, and changes in national and local laws in favour of more Islamic laws and regulations.

We have not seen the end of this Islamist alliance. Groups … will not stop campaigning until their goal to establish a unitary Indonesian state under shari’a law  is accomplished. While the prospects of this outcome remain remote, it can no longer be ruled out completely

Signs of growing Islamism can be seen in everyday life in Indonesia. These range from the proliferation of Islamic prayer groups (pengajian) and study groups (halaqah); the popularity of Islamic fashion ranging for headscarves (hijab) for women and Islamic hats (peci) for men; and the popularity of Islamic songs and soap operas (sinetron) on most Indonesian television networks.

Beyond popular culture, signs of growing Islamism in Indonesia can be seen from the rapid growth of Indonesian cities and regions adopting local Islamic regulations (perda shari’a) since the country enacted its decentralisation policy in 2001. Today, at least 442 local shari’a regulations have been enacted by over 100 regional governments. These regulations require women to wear hijab in public, prohibit the consumption of alcohol and prostitution, and ban Muslim minority sects, such as Ahmadis and Shiites, within their respective localities. While some of these regulations were enacted by informal networks of local politicians and Islamic power brokers, many were also adopted under pressure from Islamist groups.

These regulations are designed to marginalise women, religious minorities, and other minorities; some were linked to harsh punishments for violating these regulations and the violent actions taken by Islamist groups which claimed the rights to enforce them. Within the past decade, radical Islamist groups have targeted Ahmadis, Shiites, Christians, and Buddhists in their campaign to promote Islamist orthodoxy. Data from the Setara Institute has shown that incidents of religious intolerance in Indonesia have increased by 50 percent, from 177 in 2014 to 270 in 2016.

As Indonesia underwent its democratic transition in the late 1990s, many Islamic groups that were operating underground during the Suharto era began to operate and organize themselves freely without any restrictions from the state. Some, like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), established themselves as concerted political parties. Others like FPI and Laskar Jihad started out as militia groups which sent armed followers to engage in battles with Christian militias in conflict areas like Maluku Islands and Poso (Central Sulawesi) in the early 2000s.

Finally, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) became known for its promotion of the archipelago as part of a global Islamic caliphate, managing to recruit new supporters from its da’wa activities among university students, middle class professionals, civil servants, and military officers. It has been very successful in its efforts to recruit newly minted public high school religious teachers. This has been reflected in a recent survey, which shows that 78 percent of religious studies high school teachers support the enactment of shari’a law in Indonesia, something they clearly passed on to their students.

As these groups gained more supporters, including young Muslims who formerly belonged to moderate Islamic groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, they began to develop alliances to unify their message. They also lobbied politicians to enact local shari’a regulations, and looked for their support to enact an agenda to marginalise members of religious minorities. For instance, the Islamic Community Forum (FUI), FPI, and HTI successfully lobbied former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration to issue the joint declaration that severely restricted the rights of the Ahmadis to operate in Indonesia in 2008.

These are the same organisations which banded together to organise the Defending Islam rallies against Ahok. Their growing popularity and increasing number of  members, along with the charismatic appeal of prominent Islamist preachers like FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab, have made them a force that can no longer be ignored by national and local politicians. These have made their efforts to Islamize the Indonesian state and society more powerful than ever before.

While some observers are predicting that this Islamist alliance would have disappeared after Ahok’s defeat and imprisonment, evidence shows that this has not been the case. Alliance members have begun to influence the election of West Java’s governor, campaigning against the wife of the incumbent leader by arguing that the Qur’an forbids women from assuming public office. It is expected that they will play an influential role in the 2019 Indonesian presidential election. Their support might decide whether President Joko Widodo will win re-election or whether he will be replaced by either Prabowo Subianto or Anies Baswedan.

We have not seen the end of this Islamist alliance. Groups such as those mentioned above will not stop campaigning until their goal to establish a unitary Indonesian state under shari’a law (NKRI Bersyariah) is accomplished. While the prospects of this outcome remain remote, it can no longer be ruled out completely after the successful Defending Islam protests. If it was successfully accomplished, it would have significant implications not just for Indonesia, but also for the political makeup of Southeast Asia as a whole.

Alexander R Arifianto PhD is a Research Fellow with the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Islamism in Southeast Asia’. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.


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