Indonesia and the Growing Influence of Islam
Amb Gurjit Singh

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country but is not an Islamic State. It is governed by its doctrine of Pancasila enshrined in the Constitution1. Besides its belief in One God, the Constitution also recognises six religions in Indonesia viz. Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Their official status is recognised through the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Indonesia is known to be a peaceful state where religious issues are concerned. However, in recent years Islamic activities have occurred which challenge this image of Indonesia. Have they had an impact on its core values?

Indonesian Islam is syncretic and largely nurtured by two socio-religious institutions. The Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) was founded in 1928. It was a reaction to Saudi Wahabi thought and modern Islam emerging in Indonesia. It is a social organisation with widespread programmes and a membership of about 90 million in 20192. It advocated the blossoming of Islam in a plural state like Indonesia.3 Its Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam) concept is seen as unique for Indonesia.4 It seeks to hold Indonesia separate from other types of political Islam growing in the world. The Muhammadiyah born in 1912 is a reformist socio-religious body with about 29 million members. It has 128 universities and a hospital chain.5 It is the other node of Indonesian Muslim thought. The NU head has always been the Chief Guest at the iftar held during Ramadan by the Indian Embassy since I introduced the event in 2012.

The Return of Democracy

In 1998, Indonesia broke free from almost thirty years of rule by the army and the New Order party, the Golkar. It had achieved economic progress, a membership of ASEAN and APEC but plugged democratic hopes. When theNew Order turned old, the rising upsurge of emancipated expectations demanded greater accountability and democracy at home. Thus, a series of governments under Presidents Habibie, Abdur Rahman Wahid ‘Guzdur’ and, Megawati Sukarnoputri, between 1998 and 2004, brought democracy back on the rails. It ought to be noted that all through the New Order, Parliament remained as an institution and continued to be a check on the Presidency. The next President was Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) who won two terms followed by the incumbent Joko Widodo (Jokowi) now in his second term.

The second President after Suharto, Abdurrahman Wahid was the head of the NU, the largest Muslim CSO in Indonesia. The NU was the voice of Indonesian Muslims along with the Muhammadiyah during these years. It had played an important role in the freedom struggle6 and had a large number of adherents. Its voice was loud enough that democratic forces allowed its leader to become the President till he was impeached due to maladministration and corruption in a rather short time of less than two years. His efforts to reform the army, and keep them out of politics as well as to dissolve parliament before its term, contributed to his ouster. Finally, the system could not hold Megawati back anymore7 and she became President for the remainder of the term till she lost the next election to SBY. Guzdur’s Muslim clout could not withstand entrenched political forces. Megawati was the President when the Bali bombings occurred in 2002 by the radical Jemaah Islamiyah(JI).

Thus, by 2004 when SBY came to the Presidency, the mainstreaming of Muslim voices had come through with tinges of radicalism. The education and religious affairs ministry came to be the domain of NU or Muhammadiyah affiliated ministers. The Muslim cadre-based parties like PKS, PKB and PAN were to articulate Muslim voices through the NU and Muhammadiyah and beyond into the system. Their nominees held important positions beyond the two ministries under SBY and later under Jokowi in his first term.

During SBYs period the radical fringe of Islam kept rearing its head. The JI struck again with another bombing at the Australian Embassy in 2004 and then tried various efforts to radicalize youth through Madrasas. They were committed to an Islamic State in SE Asia. They were also charged with the JW Marriott bombing in Jakarta in 2003 and declared a terrorist organisation by the UNSC. 8 Islamic influences grew violent in places like Poso. The rise of the ISIS started to draw adherents in Indonesia with internet indoctrination of entire families taking place. The Syrian crises saw many Indonesian families going there and often trying to return disillusioned but yet indoctrinated. SBY used the US trained Densus 88 anti-terrorism squad to neutralize such elements but mainly outside Java. These activities were now crossing wires with the vocal demands for human rights in Indoneisa and the accountability of these who suppressed them in the New Order period. Jokowi’s election in 2014 was supported by such fervour of doing what is right. However, these hopes were belied and the military and the tainted took important positions in government.

The Rise of New Forces

In the middle of Jokowi’s first term, his successor, the Chinese Christian Ahok9 became the centre of a new Islam linked controversy. When Jokowi had inducted him as Deputy Governor when elected as Jakarta Governor in 2012, it was whiff of pluralistic fresh air. However, Ahok was charged with blasphemy and lost the next election in 2017. The turning point came in November 2016 when half a million Muslims, quite uniformly dressed, entered Jakarta and brought it to a halt. Such a huge religious-political gathering was unprecedented in Indonesia. On 2 December when the next demonstrations took place the Jokowi government was visibly shaken. It could not really crush them nor ignore them. Jokowi needed to show political skill and he chose to go out and join the Friday prayers with the demonstration leaders giving the situation some respite but also recognition to the new Islamic players.

The Indonesian Muslims political force came out potently at this time. It was harnessed by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), whose leader is the shadowy Rizieq Shihab. It is supported by the Persaudaran Alumni (Alumni Association) 212. Interestingly the PA followers all claim to be the Alumni of the 2 December (212) movement which is the political vortex for them. The FPI has been there since 1998 and was a group with nuisance value attacking those it thought were not Muslim enough like Ahmadiyya’s or ‘immoral’, and some new Churches.10 It was used by the security establishment as a vigilante group but accretion of Saudi related funds has given it a much larger presence now.11 In Article 6 of the FPI principles, it is said that the FPI’s vision and mission is to “uphold Islamic sharia” under a khilafah ‘ala minhajin nubuwwah (prophetic caliphate)12. With a core membership of 200,000 it has wormed its way into mainstream parties and supported candidates to local leadership positions across parties. Its influence is now much more widespread through the democratic process and institutions. Even though its leader is now in exile in Saudi Arabia on charges of moral turpitude, its own position as the new voice of Islamic Muslims is quite loud.13

The rise of these new demonstrations saw their political role in the defeat of the incumbent Ahok in the election to the Jakarta Governor in 2017. The new vocal Muslim voices charted by the FPI led to massive support to Anees Baswedan who had been Jokowi’s Education Minister but was now supported by the opposition. Given Baswedan’s victory, the FPI marshalled its support for Gen Prabowo against Jokowi in the 2019 General election. This had hurried Jokowi into drawing in the NU and the MUI (Indonesia Ulema Council) by inviting its leader Ma’ruf Amin to be his Vice President. This altered Indonesian politics and showed new tinges. The NU had its highest political office since Guzdur.

The FPI and other offshoots like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) have flowered after years of slow enhancement. The support of FPI and associated elementssaw pro Muslim parties enlarge their seat share by over 10%14 and Prabowo won handsomely in Aceh, South Sulawesi, various parts of Sumatra and West Java where such forces are stronger.

However, by asserting a Muslim voice politically the FPI and its associates believe they can outflank the mainstream Muslim institutions who meanwhile have ensconced themselves in the Jokowi II regime to ward off this new threat. Besides the new VP, Muhammadiyah leader Din Shamsuddin is now the Special Envoy for Interfaith Dialogue.15 The overall electoral loss and the coopting of Prabowo into Jokowi’s Cabinet left FPI a bit stunned and, along with PA 212, looking for new avenues to criticize Jokowi.

The Impact of the New Forces

A survey by the Alvara Research Centre in October 201716 of 4200 students at 25 Universities and five leading schools in Java, showed that 20% supported an Islamic Caliphate in Indonesia and in varying aspects were ready to wage jihad. 30% said a non-Muslim leader was unacceptable showing a rising trend of radicalism among youth. 90% oppose LBGT people and more than 80% said interfaith marriages, quite common in Indonesia, were unacceptable. The radicalization of youth on campuses appears to be growing even though most showed better appreciation of the NU and Muhammadiyah than the FPI or HTI.17

Among the new issues that such groups have now taken to, are those involving India like CAA, J&K and the riots in which Muslims too are the victims. In the past, FPI has protested against the treatment of Rohingyas with the Myanmar embassy and held muted protests at the Chinese embassy against the treatment of Uighurs. Their most vocal protests, after the 2019 election result, were the two large demonstrations held at the Indian Embassy in Jakarta and the Consulate in Medan. On 2 March the protest by theMuhammadiyah was smaller but the FPI and PA 212 protest on 6 March 2020 was nearly 2000 strong. Anticipating this FPI led move, the Government through the minister of Religious affairs and the NU, Muhammadiyah and MUI had issued statements on 28 February expressing concern at the riots in New Delhi.

The Indian Ambassador had also been called to the MFA to ‘discuss’; the matter where the feelings of Indonesian society were conveyed to him.18 These palliatives did not work and the FPI mounted a furious assault on the area around the embassy. This was their way of trying to regain lost ground since the election. They also expanded the agenda to include issues related to J & K and made it a part of the Kashmir Day which Pakistan supports. At no other time in the past had such a strong Kashmir day demonstration taken place and the links with Pakistani ISI were clearly coming to the fore. The Indian media reported that Indonesian Islamic NGO Aksi Cepat Tanggap’s (ACT) in funding of the riots in Delhi in February 2020. It has a connection with Hafeez Saeed’s activities in Indonesia.19

The Tablighi Jamaat problem in India, related to Covid-19 and visa issues, also brought the Muslim factor into play as 731 of those quarantined and tackled for visa violations were Indonesians.20 They are among the 2550 foreigners whose visas were revoked and they stand blacklisted.21 There is concern on the treatment of these people among Indonesian Muslim groups. Many are now released and fined by the Court and will return home. Will the Indonesian government raise this issue publicly at some time? Will there be demonstrations again? These are the new challenges that India and Indonesia face while building a larger relationship.There is definite concern that Islam is now becoming a political force in Indonesia, more powerful than before. Mainstream parties will bend towards radical issues for vote gathering.

However, all is not lost. When Jokowi was reelected a huge counter demonstration by liberal Indonesians sought protection of hard won democratic rights and did not want them restrained due to religious discipline.22 Similarly while Jokowi has a cleric as his Vice President he has provided leadership at the Religious Affairs Ministry through a retired General Fachrul Razi23 and at the Education ministry through a modern innovator, Nadiem Makarim who founded the GoJek startup.24 The secular fabric is being stretched by the education system, indoctrination through the mosques and the internet as well as the electoral system. Are there enough Indonesians ready to express themselves to hold onto the moral fabric installed by Pancasila?

  1. Pancasila The State Philosophy :Accessed at on 20 June 2020
  2. Patrick Winn: The world’s largest Islamic group wants Muslims to stop saying 'infidel'
  3. The World; 8 March 2019 Accessed at on 20 June 2020
  4. Greg Fealy:Nahdlatul Ulama and the politics trap; New Mandala 11 July 2018, Accessed at 15 June 2020
  5. "Muhammadiyah". Div. of Religion and Philosophy, St. Martin College, UK. Archived from the original on 2008-09-14. Accessed at on 20 June 2020
  6. Faisal Ismail: The Nahdlatul Ulama: Its Early History and Contribution to the Establishment of Indonesian State, Journal of Indonesian Islam, 1 December 2011, Accessed at on 20 June 2020
  7. Megawati and Guzdur had fought the election on a common ticket with the higher vote taker to become President. Her Party won more votes but she was only made the Vice President.
  8. Amy Zalman: Jemaah Islamiyah. Terrorism issues; 19 May 2007 accessed at on 23 June 2020
  9. His full name is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.
  10. Alexander R. Arfianto; The rise of Indonesia’s FPI and its push for syariah law; Today 18 December 2017 Accessed at on 23 June 2020
  11. Raja Eben Lumbanrau: FPI's Traces and Rizieq Shihab's 'Napi' Status; Cnn Indonesia 17 January 2017 Accessed at On 23 June 2020
  12. FPI has pledged loyalty to Pancasila and Indonesia: Religious Affairs Minister, Jakarta Post 28 November 2019 Accessed at on 23 June 2020
  13. Rizieq Shihab named suspect in pornography case while abroad: Jakarta Post;29 May 2017 Accessed at on 23 June 2020
  14. KPU Tetapkan Hasil Rekapitulasi Pileg, PDIP Raup Suara Terbesar;Tempo: 21 may 2019 Accessed at on 23 June 2020
  15. Alexander R Arifianto: Is Islam an increasingly polarizing political cleavage in Indonesia? Brookings 25 April 2019 Accessed at on 11 June 2020
  16. One in Five Indonesian Students Supports Islamic Caliphate: Survey
    Jakarta Globe, 3 November 2017 Accessed at on 30 June 2020.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Indonesia again flags concerns over CAA, Delhi riots The Hindu 16 March 2020 Accessed at on 23 June 2020
  19. Indonesian NGO red-flagged by security agencies for sending fund for distribution during Delhi riots OpIndia 14 March 2020 Accessed at on 23 June 2020
  20. Apriza Pinandita: Hundreds of Indonesian 'tabligh' attendees, 14 with COVID-19, stuck in locked down India; Jakarta Post 2April 2020 Accessed at on 17 June 2020
  21. MHA blacklists 2,550 foreign Tablighi Jamaat members; bans entry into India for 10 years: The Free Press Journal, 4 June 2020, Accessed at on 5 July 2020
  22. Kharishar Kahfi and Karina M. Tehusijarana: Students throng in front of House, more flood into Jakarta as protests continue; The Jakarta Post 24 September 2019; Accessed at on 30 June 2020
  23. Ardila Syakriah: Indonesia's largest Islamic group decries appointment of retired general as religious affairs minister; The Jakarta Post 29 October 2019 Accessed at on 30 June 2020
  24. Freddy H. Istanto:Jokowi appoints Nadiem Makarim as education minister. Can the Gojek co-founder streamline bureaucracy in education?; The Jakarta Post 24 October 2019 Accessed at on 30 June 2020

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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Nice article. Alhamdulillah


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