A polarised Indonesia? Elections, intolerance and religion

Sandra Hamid argues that everyday, non-violent acts of intolerance need to be better documented to understand the extent of exclusivism and its potential implications for future electoral contests. Photo by Zabur Karuru for Antara.

 

Identity politics, particularly religious identity politics, has increasingly become the norm in Indonesian elections. With continual waves of elections – legislative and presidential, as well as at the local and national levels – religious identity politics are now a near constant presence in the public arena. Political competitions that invoke religious sentiment naturally seek to highlight the differences between religious communities, resulting in a divisive and polarising political discourse.

 

It is hard to disassociate this political discourse from the everyday lived experiences of Indonesian citizens, particularly in the age of social media. In a religious country like Indonesia, the repercussions of political competition are felt long after citizens have left the polling stations.

 

The 2017 Jakarta elections saw religion deployed in politics in a way that was unprecedented. The success of groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) in mobilising a huge portion of the Muslim community against the Christian ethnic Chinese former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, and popularising discourse suggesting that those Muslims who choose to support Ahok were somehow “less Muslim”, was a wholly new phenomenon.

 

Long after the elections delivered Governor Anies Baswedan to power, many divided constituents have not been able to bridge their differences. National and presidential elections are on the horizon and the cycle looks set to continue.

 

While there has been growing attention to this problematic deployment of religion in electoral contests, there has been little examination of the periods between elections, and the everyday lives of voters.  In a recent paper I described how Indonesia has seen an incremental process of increasing exclusivism in the practice of Islam. This has been marked by the commoditisation of religion and growing public expressions of piety.

 

The media and entertainment industry have also been important players in perpetuating this trend, through the binary way in which religious issues are presented to the public. Subtlety, exploration, efforts to find meaning and solution (ijtihad) have become less and less important. Religious messages in the media are conveyed in simplistic binary sound bites.

 

Over the past decade, Indonesian has also seen an increasing boldness among some portions of the majority in denying minorities their right to religious freedom. There has been a deterioration in social cohesion among people of different religions, and even among those of the same religion but with different worldviews. In the early 2000s, intolerant language was typically only used in the public sphere by hard-liners. But now it is not uncommon to hear value-laden terms like unbeliever (kafir) being used unapologetically by people to describe friends and members of the community they have known for years – even long after the heat of the election has dissipated.

 

Previously inclusive community events have become exclusive, and social norms are shifting. In a village near Yogyakarta, for example, non-Muslim residents reported that they were no longer invited to a village cleansing ritual held in the weeks before Ramadhan. While the event used to involve the whole community, with a communal prayer and distribution of food, over the past three years, non-Muslims said that they felt they were no longer welcome. One Jakarta family reported that they were scolded by their relatives for singing “Happy Birthday” to their child, and were told not sing a “Christian song”. A non-Muslim woman I spoke to decided to quit her arisan (a form of social gathering) group because the Muslim members of the group refused to visit her house, over concerns that it was not halal.

 

These daily, low-level examples of intolerance need to be better documented to understand the extent of exclusivism and its potential implications for future electoral contests. Civil society organisations have done important work documenting prominent acts of intolerance like church burnings, the closure of houses of worship and the persecution of religious minorities. Likewise, they have documented intolerance in public schools and discriminatory local government bylaws and policies.

 

Sadly, there has been little government attention to addressing the discrimination that has been recorded. The small-scale examples of intolerance and these overt acts of violence and discrimination are not unrelated.

 

In fact, the incremental increase in low-level intolerance over time is leading to large-scale social change. In the political arena, the signs first appeared in the 2012 Jakarta election, when then candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo faced baseless accusations about his religion and ethnicity. These attacks intensified in the 2014 Presidential Election. Since then, Indonesia has seen a constant progression toward the use of intolerant language and actions in everyday life and in electoral politics.

 

The massive mobilisation against Ahok finally put this phenomenon on the national agenda. It made Indonesians more aware of the scale and consequences of the work done by groups promoting intolerant discourse. The government has allocated funds to understand how teachings that promote the exclusionary practice of religion are spread. Communities and civil society organisations working to promote tolerance have sprung into action. Unfortunately, they are still playing to catch up to larger and more established campaigns promoting exclusive outlooks and practices.

 

The government response intensified further following the horrific terrorist attack in Surabaya in May. After nearly two decades of ignoring warning signs of growing intolerance the authorities began taking bold steps to address radicalism on university campuses and in schools. Previously conducted surveys have found new momentum and are finally attracting the attention they deserve. For example, a survey documenting intolerant messages at mosques in state institutions that was conducted in 2017 is now being widely circulated and discussed. Just a year or two ago, this type of research had a limited specialist audience and did not inform policy.

 

Just as important as these steps is mending widening fissures in society. There need to be public sanctions for politicians who base their campaigns around the demonisation of minorities. Unfortunately, these do not exist yet.

 

In the midst of a global trend towards illiberalism and populism, Indonesia faces an uphill battle. But the modalities to succeed are solid. Civil society organisations continue to be the backbone of efforts. Now that their efforts are supported by the attention and engagement of the government, it may just be possible for Indonesia to get through the 2019 elections without communities becoming further estranged from one another because of differing religious beliefs.

 

If not, the 2019 elections could prove to be one more step towards social division and fragmentation.

 

This post is based on Sandra Hamid’s paper, “Normalising Intolerance: Elections, Religion and Everyday Life in Indonesia”, published by the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society (CILIS), at Melbourne Law School.