Some 500,000-750,000 people are estimated to have attended the rally on 2 December. Photo by Sigid Kurniawan for Antara.


On 2 December, a vast number of Muslims crowded into Jakarta’s central park, Medan Merdeka, and surrounding suburbs for what organisers called “Defending Islam Action III” (Aksi Bela Islam III). This was the third and largest mass event since early October to demand action against Jakarta’s Christian Chinese governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for alleged blasphemy against Islam.


As with previous “actions”, this event combined speeches to the crowd with Friday prayers and chants in praise of God. The previous rally, on 4 November, had attracted an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 people. Last Friday’s rally was at least twice that size, with considered estimates ranging from 500,000 to 750,000, making it probably the largest single religious gathering in Indonesian history. Drone photos graphically captured the size of the crowd, with streets and parkland jammed with people sitting on prayer mats amid falling rain. Large numbers came from outside Jakarta, including many from outside Java. Unlike the 4 November rally, which ended in violent clashes between police and demonstrators, the 2 December event concluded peacefully in the early afternoon, as scheduled.


How are we to explain the sheer magnitude of this event, and what is its political and religious significance? At one level, the rally was a triumph for the hard-line Islamists who led it and appeared to offer further evidence of deepening conservatism in Indonesian Islam. The rally was organised by the National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), a coalition of Islamist groups. Their primary aim was to force the government and law enforcement authorities to prosecute and jail Ahok based on a Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) fatwa. The fatwa declared him to be a blasphemer for references he made to the Qur’an in a 27 September speech.


But the movement had other agendas, such as changing the Constitution to oblige Muslims to follow Islamic law, proposing bans on non-Muslim leaders in majority Muslim communities, greater implementation of sharia provisions, and the nomination of political candidates for executive office who are sympathetic to Islamist objectives. In other words, removing Ahok was just one part of a much broader Islamisation endeavour. GNPF-MUI leaders probably never imagined when they began organising in October that they could have drawn such massive crowds.


But how much of GNPF-MUI’s agenda did the crowd support? Undoubtedly, most of those who attended believed Ahok had insulted Islam and wanted him out of public life. To that extent, they backed the movement’s immediate agenda. Can we assume, however, that many in the crowd knew of and supported its wider Islamist agenda? And does the massive turnout really portend a hardening of mainstream Muslim attitudes, as a number of commentators have declared?


There are good reasons to doubt that it does mark some conservative surge. To begin with, only a minority appeared to be affiliated with known Islamist groups or drawn to the more ideological Islamist messages in the rally. For example, when speakers called for Ahok to be arrested, the crowd immediately shouted “arrest, arrest, arrest!” But when an Islamist leader declared that God’s law was superior to man-made Indonesian law, the response was muted.


For the great majority, this was primarily a religious event, both in the sense of defending their faith against insult and also in expressing their piety through a mass prayer at a nationally symbolic site. They appeared little interested in fundamental changes to the role of Islam in the state, and many with whom I and other researchers spoke rejected on principle attempts to Islamise the Constitution and restrict non-Muslim rights.


This distinction between wanting action on blasphemy and wanting dramatic Islamisation is critical to properly understanding the rally’s short and longer-term consequences. The boost for Islamists from the 2 December may be short-lived, as their core support base in the Islamic community remains confined largely to the fringes. The Ahok case has given them a unique opportunity to mobilise but it is difficult to imagine similar cases appearing in the near future.


None of this is to diminish the impact of the rally. It represents a major setback for minority political rights and raises serious questions about Indonesia’s self-proclaimed diversity and tolerance, as well as its commitment to rule of law. It revealed how elite political forces have used religion to undermine the government and bolster their own prospects. It brought radical Islamists to the centre of national attention and forced the state’s most senior officials to appear beside them as if they represented the wider Islamic community. And it has sidelined mainstream Islamic leaders and exposed divisions within the nation’s largest Islamic organisations.

A month of tumult

For much of 2016, commentators have remarked on how President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) had succeeding in stabilising his government and consolidating his power, after a sometimes shaky first year in office. Most pundits predicted he was well placed to win re-election in 2019.


The sudden emergence of the Ahok blasphemy allegations in late September quickly changed the political climate. The GNPF-MUI was formed in early October. Its main components were the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the Council for Young Islamic Scholars and Intellectuals (MIUMI) and Wahdah Islamiyah. FPI founder and well-known fiery preacher Habib Rizieq Syihab led the Movement and MIUMI’s Bachtiar Nasir was its coordinator. Within weeks of GNPF-MUI’s formation, a groundswell of anti-Ahok public opinion emerged, fed especially through social media, of which most Indonesians are avid consumers.


Analysis of social media discourses, and to a lesser extent public commentary, makes clear that beneath the blasphemy issue was a powerful undercurrent of resentment toward the Chinese and Christians. Anti-Chinese sentiment has been growing during Jokowi’s presidency as unprecedented Chinese investment pours into the country, particularly related to his ambitious infrastructure programs. Sometimes this is linked to mounting anti-communist feeling among Muslim groups.


This sentiment is being stirred by senior public figures, such as the outspoken and politically ambitious Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo, who now names China as one of the hostile forces engaging in a “proxy war” to weaken Indonesia by corrupting its youth and controlling its economy. Similarly, perceptions of insidious “Christianisation” campaigns to convert Muslims are deeply held in some sections of the Islamic community.


Both these anti-Sinitic and anti-Christian feelings have become embodied in Ahok, a bluntly spoken and combative politician, who has achieved much as governor but alienated broad sections of the electorate. Openly racial and sectarian denigration of Ahok has become commonplace. For example, the former chair of Muhammadiyah and the National Mandate Party (PAN), Amien Rais, describes the governor as “The Chinese Infidel” (Si Cina Kafir) and hate-filled commentary on Ahok abounds across thousands of websites and chat groups. The GNPF-MUI skilfully tapped into this sentiment in mobilising the community.


The 4 November rally sent a shockwave through Jokowi’s government. Neither the size of the crowd, nor the vehemence of their demands was expected by the government or security agencies. Jokowi had absented himself from the palace, leaving Vice President Jusuf Kalla and senior ministers to meet the rally leaders, including Rizieq, Bachtiar, and Rais. The rally leaders demanded to see Jokowi and insisted that Ahok be immediately charged with blasphemy and detained. Kalla and his colleagues were taken aback by the stubbornness of the rally leaders and the coarseness of the language they used. Under pressure, the vice president promised a decision would be made on Ahok within two weeks.


Rizieq and others later spoke angrily to the crowd, condemning Jokowi’s refusal to meet them and the government’s failure to arrest Ahok. After most of the crowd dispersed late in the afternoon, some of the remaining protestors attacked the police, burning several of their vehicles and putting 35 police in hospital.


The rally stunned Jokowi and his inner circle. They now realised the depth of animosity towards Ahok, whom Jokowi had been supporting in the Jakarta gubernatorial election scheduled for February 2017. They were also convinced that much of the mobilisation was orchestrated by Jokowi’s political enemies, chief among them former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose son, Agus Harimurti, was one of Ahok’s rivals for the governorship.


They quickly decided that Ahok must be charged and prosecuted expeditiously to lessen the risk of far worse unrest and limit the political blowback against the president. This decision was taken despite Jokowi and many of his key ministers believing that Ahok had not blasphemed. Their hope was that Muslim anger on the issue would quickly abate once preparations for Ahok’s trial were in place, thereby denying further opportunities for incitement to the government’s foes. Police duly charged Ahok on 17 November and prosecutors announced plans on 1 December to fast-track the trial for later that month.


Jokowi also busied himself visiting Islamic organisations in a bid to shore up support for his government and its actions in dealing with the Ahok issue. This delivered some benefit in the lead up to the 2 December rally. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s biggest social organisation, advised its millions of members not to attend and banned the use of any NU flags or symbols. NU Chairman Said Aqil Siradj urged members to leave Ahok’s case to police and the legal system. The second largest organisation, Muhammadiyah, made no statement opposing the rally but its donnish chairman, Haedar Nashir, made clear his disapproval when he bemoaned the fact that it was “easier to get people to a demo than it was to a library”.


Even the MUI, which had initially spurred the anti-Ahok protests by issuing its fatwa, was now somewhat ambivalent about the proposed rally, advising Muslims that it would deliver no view on whether they should attend. National Police Chief Tito Karnavian visited mosques and Islamic institutions, assuring his audiences that the Ahok case was being speedily dealt with and they need no longer mobilise.

Turning out for Islam, not Islamism

By the morning of 2 December, as hundreds of thousands descended upon Central Jakarta, it was clear these attempts to discourage mass attendance had failed dismally. But fears that this rally might lead to violence proved unfounded.  Indeed, the mood among attendees was friendly and remarkably orderly. The tone of racial and religious vilification was much less in evidence than was the case on 4 November. This was true of the speeches as well as banners and placards. There were reports of “String up Ahok” (Gantung Ahok) signs appearing at prominent locations but these were quickly pulled down.


Many of those attending the rally, to whom I and other researchers spoke, certainly wanted Ahok convicted of blasphemy but were quite measured in their remarks. They were pleased that he had been charged but felt that pressure needed to be maintained on the government to ensure it did not allow the governor’s exoneration. Only a few spoke heatedly about Ahok.


It may be that many were reluctant to admit to racist or sectarian views, particularly to a western researcher, but the clear impression was that many attendees were more interested in the religious aspects of event rather than fulminating against Ahok or the Chinese. Several people talked of wanting to be part of what they were sure would be a massive religious event held at the National Monument. One told me: “I’ve come from Serang [in Banten] to be here. Took the day off work and got the bus here with friends. We paid for ourselves. I knew this would be big and I thought it would be great to pray with a million Muslims in Medan Merdeka.” Another admitted that he did not regularly attend Islamic events, but “If I was going to come to anything, it should be something special like this.” When asked if he thought Ahok was guilty of blasphemy, he said “of course”, but confessed that he hadn’t really studied the details of the case.


Perhaps the mood of the event is best captured in the Facebook post of one Ministry of Religious Affairs official with whom I have long been acquainted. He wrote: “A scene similar to that in the fields of Arafah [near Mecca] and Mahshar [where all humankind of all ages are brought together on the day of judgment] emerged today in Jakarta. This extraordinary 212 Peaceful Action. The eyes of the world must certainly be watching. This is the biggest demonstration of an Islamic community in its biggest democracy, Indonesia. This action increasingly confirms that Indonesian Islam has rightly become the model for implementing the norms of Islam as God’s blessings to the entire world (Islam yang rahmatan lil ‘alimin)”. This conveys the sense of pride that many attendees felt in the fact that so many Muslims could gather, pray together and then disperse without incident. This was not a mood of militancy but an affirmation of community will and values.


Views toward the Islamist leaders of GNPF-MUI varied greatly. I happened to be near Rizieq’s vehicle when he first entered Medan Merdeka and his supporters thronged to greet him and gain his blessings. Many attendees were appreciative of his efforts to pressure the government on the Ahok issue but said they did not normally follow his sermons. Several told me they did not approve of his strident statements and vigilantism but came anyway because they thought all Muslims should join in opposing blasphemy. An NU woman declared: “I’m here to defend Islam and the Qur’an from insults. But I stop when it comes to FPI or HTI.” Overall, attendees seemed to be less concerned about who had organised the rally than the message it sought to impart to the government about Ahok.

Broader consequences

Several other observations are also in order regarding the ramifications of the rally. First, it will ensure that Ahok’s blasphemy case continues to be dealt with primarily on political grounds rather than legal grounds. Put simply, Ahok has become so reviled a figure in the Muslim community that Jokowi can no longer support him, or even ensure that the case is handled on its legal merits.


Two thirds of the 35 expert witnesses consulted by the police when investigating Ahok’s case contended that there were no grounds for charging him with blasphemy. Even the team of detectives working on the case was deeply divided on the matter. There is speculation in Jakarta political circles that Jokowi did not want Ahok convicted or jailed for his speech. It is now difficult to imagine that Ahok can avoid being found guilty because the government cannot afford for it to be otherwise.


Tempo magazine labelled this “mob-ocracy”. Regardless of how the Muslim community regards the Ahok case, the sheer magnitude of its mobilisation has forced the government’s hand in a way that further diminishes the rule of law in Indonesia and makes a mockery of the rally organisers’ call for justice to be upheld.


Second, Jokowi’s handling of the 2 December rally was much better than that of 4 November but it has come at a cost. His decision to join prayers at the National Monument and then briefly address the crowd has been met with widespread approval, in contrast to the ridicule he endured for avoiding the rally leaders in November. But by taking to the stage on Friday, he leant credibility to the rally’s organisers, people with whom he would normally not associate. Rizieq and Bachtiar are hard-line Islamists who are determined to undermine Jokowi’s standing and promote alternative presidential candidates in 2019. In seeking to defuse the situation, Jokowi has empowered his enemies.


Third, the leaders of mainstream Islamic organisations have been pushed to the margins, with the agenda being set largely by small, clamorous Islamist groups such as FPI, HTI and MUIMI. These Islamist groups have a fraction of the membership of NU and Muhammadiyah and none of those two organisations’ immense resources and rich history of contribution to the development of Indonesian Islam. And yet, NU and Muhammadiyah have largely been forced into reacting to the initiatives of the Islamists. The anti-Ahok rallies have in fact laid bare divisions between progressive and conservative elements within the leaderships of both organisations.


In NU, for example, Said Aqil has been critical of the rallies, while Ma’ruf Amin, its president (and also MUI chair) has been supportive. Perhaps more seriously, progressive leaders such as Said Aqil and Haedar Nashir (from Muhammadiyah) have had to be cautious in their responses, aware that majority opinion in both of their organisations is strongly anti-Ahok. A salutary case has been that of former Muhammadiyah chair and intellectual Syafi’i Maarif, who has been subject to vituperative attack and death threats since declaring that Ahok had not insulted Islam. Sadly, few Muhammadiyah figures saw fit to defend Maarif’s right to an opinion different from their own on this matter.


Fourth, it would be a mistake to see the 2 December rally as indicating widespread support for a more radical Islamist agenda in Indonesia. Groups like FPI and MIUMI have shown skill in taking advantage of issues that generate emotion in the Muslim community, such as the Ahok case, and turning them into mobilisation on the streets.


They were also helped by political groups exploiting the issue to assist Ahok’s rivals and destabilise Jokowi’s leadership. These groups distributed huge sums for transport, food and water for participants to maximize attendance at the rally. For these political actors, religion is simply an instrument to gain political advantage. Moreover, once the Ahok case is resolved, there is unlikely to be a “lightning rod” issue of similar potency for the GNPF-MUI coalition. This suggests that maintaining public agitation on defending Islam will prove difficult, if not impossible, in the longer-term.


Finally, the 2 December rally represents a significant setback for political diversity in Indonesia. It will make it, at least in the short term, far harder for politicians and officials from religious and “non-native” minorities such as the Chinese, to rise to executive positions where they will have authority over the majority Muslim community. The rally participants may argue that their target is Ahok, not the broader Chinese or Christian communities, but the reality is those communities will feel, with some justification, that their legal rights can be traduced and that in standing for public office they will risk vilification or worse.


Over the past decade, Indonesian democracy has been regressing on numerous fronts, including religious freedom. The Ahok case and mass mobilisation that has surrounded it represents yet another reversal.  The events of the past two months give a hollow ring to Indonesia’s claim to being a moderate Muslim democracy.


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