The Indonesian Election Reveals a Lack of Moderation

Photo by Southeast Asia Globe

Basuki Tjahak Purnama (“Ahok”) and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat at a campaign rally in February 2017.

As in the United States or France, the recent election in Indonesia says a lot about the country’s current political direction. At one point, Indonesia may have been the model for how faith can co-exist with democracy — shining light of religious tolerance and ethnic inclusion of the Muslim world — but for years it’s been tilting ever more conservative. This change was revealed by the latest election and its aftermath, when a new intolerant reality stepped out from behind the curtain.

In April, the Indonesian capital of Jakarta held an election for its governor. The experienced politician Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok,” looked like the easy victor against a little-known former education minister. However, Ahok’s record had two black marks: his Christian and Chinese heritage. His  opponent Anies Baswedan was Muslim. Through his  cooperation with hardline Islamists, and by riding a sentiment against an unpopular ethnic minority and a non-Muslim leadership, the former minister won handily.

Moreover, Ahok didn’t just lose the election — he was also arrested for blasphemy and sentenced to two years in jail. His crime was quoting a verse from the Quran during his campaign (in hopes of convincing the public to vote for a non-Muslim). By doing so, Ahok challenged the interpretation of militant Islamists and, according to some, violated the act of a non-Muslim to interpret holy text.

In Indonesia, the application of blasphemy law has always been correlated with repression of ethnic and religious minorities.  It fades during periods of increased tolerance — like during the military dictatorship — and escalates when Islamist forces get a longer leash.

Despite what the Western media may claim, far right parties demanding Sharia law are not on the rise in Indonesia. While they may be a disturbing trend, they are just a vocal minority. More important is the rightward shift of center.

The country’s largest Muslim organization, the 50 million member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), was founded 90 years ago to ward off Arabian-style puritanism while ensuring a voice for religion in a secular society. NU, with its official platforms of pluralism and inclusion, was the definition of moderation that made Indonesia so special. NU leaders told supporters it was okay to vote for Ahok. These moderates, however, have recently become less moderate. During the campaign, NU supporters joined extremist rallies against Ahok, and the NU-dominated police took the lead in bringing blasphemy charges.

Moderates aren’t just losing the battles. They’re changing from within. The heyday of liberalism in Indonesia was during the dictatorship that ended in 1998, one which suppressed any radicalism. Local democracy unleashed today’s conservative trend. Polls show that a majority of NU members believe Indonesia’s constitution should be eventually replaced by Sharia law.  And the Jakarta vote suggests that many NU-types agree that non-Muslims shouldn’t win elections.

More conservatism doesn’t automatically mean more intolerance. Yet Indonesia has undeniably become an uncomfortable place for minorities, especially the much-resented Chinese business class.

“Moderation” always exists on a spectrum. Indonesia’s brand is a far cry from Middle Eastern Salafism and an admirable rejection of zealotry. But what has happened in Jakarta moves the needle a lot further to the right.

Two images expressed this new reality. First came the thousands of Jakartans bursting through police barricades last November to demand a blasphemy trial. Last week, less than a thousand showed up to denounce Ahok’s sentencing.  In a city of ten million, in a country supposedly dominated by moderates, one might expect differently.

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