The mobilisation of thousands of Muslims on 2 December 2016 would not have been possible without the increasing piety that has developed among Indonesian Muslims since the late 1980s. Photo by M Agung Rajasa for Antara.


More than any other previous Indonesian election, the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election saw candidates playing with identity politics to attract votes. The Muslim community was mobilised against governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who is now in prison, convicted of what many believe were politically motivated blasphemy charges. This instrumentalisation of religious sentiment has encouraged exclusionary politics. It has also caused a marked polarisation of Indonesian society that has persisted beyond the election.


In the aftermath of the election, public discourse has been dominated by an apparent competition between “tolerant” and “intolerant” Islam and serious questions have been raised about the ongoing compatibility of Islam and democracy in Indonesia. For some, the 2017 Jakarta election indicates an increase in religious intolerance and Islamic conservatism. Alarmists have even depicted recent events as a prelude to the supposed “Taliban-isation” or “shari’atisation” of Indonesia. Others also claim that the election result shows the impact of transnational Islamic movements, especially from the Middle East, leading to the development of a more conservative and illiberal Islam in Indonesia.


These views have shaped the government’s response to the “threat” of Islamic radicalism. This is reflected, for instance, in the government’s recent attempt to disband Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate. Controversially, the government is proposing that the president be given the power to appoint university rectors directly, partly to prevent radicalisation on campuses. Receiving broad support from those concerned with pluralism and management of diversity, the government has also begun to intensively promote the national ideology of Pancasila, believed to be a counterweight to religious fundamentalism. It has now created a Presidential Working Unit for the Promotion of Pancasila (UKP-PIP), mirroring the Soeharto-era P4 program.


It is concerning that seemingly the only response put forward to counter rising Islamic identity is a crude ultra-nationalism, which could further aggravate social divisions. There is a need to go beyond a simple dichotomy between security and ideology-oriented debates.


Analysis of the broader social context is needed to comprehend the mobilisation of Muslims in contemporary Indonesia. Mobilisation of religious sentiments is inseparable from elite contests over power and resources through the election. As recent smaller-scale protests have shown, elite backing was crucial for getting people out on the streets. A group calling itself the “Alumni of the 2 December Rally” has attempted to gather protestors in support of Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab, most recently on 9 June. But without elite support, these protests fizzled. As soon as the elite got what they wanted – Ahok out of the running – groups like FPI were left out in the cold.


But mobilising so many people on 2 December would not have been possible without the increasing piety among Indonesian Muslims that has developed since the late 1980s, with the growth of an educated urban middle class.


Public expressions of piety have generally only been apparent in the everyday lives of Indonesian Muslims, in contrast to their political lives. It is reflected in the consumer behaviour of Indonesian Muslims, for example their preference for Islamic banking products, Islamic schools, Islamic fashion and even Islamic medicines. More urban Muslims have also joined flourishing conservative Islamic groups, such as Islamic study groups (majelis taklim) or Islamic prayer recital groups (majelis dzikir).


For many Indonesians, Islam provides a way to deal with social and economic insecurities in their everyday lives. Although the current generation is generally more educated than those who came before them, economic growth has not provided enough secure and stable jobs in the formal sector. Most Indonesians also have inadequate access to the social services that can help them cope with uncertainties in life, such as sickness and unemployment.


While the lower class struggles to make a living, many in the middle class are only just clinging on to their newly acquired social status and are vulnerable to falling back into poverty. They may find support from Islamic groups offering various means of survival, such as job opportunities, business loans, or education and health services. For many, membership in conservative Islamic groups influences them to consume Islamic products, which may also provide them with ways to deal with these insecurities. For example, despite recent improvements to the national health insurance scheme, many Indonesians still feel that they cannot rely on public health services, and turn to Islamic medicine as a solution.


Despite the increasing piety of Indonesian Muslims, however, Islamic political parties are at an impasse. They have not been able to capitalise on the Islamisation of society and convert it into a political force. In fact, Islamic political parties have so far failed to present themselves as vehicles to channel Muslims’ aspirations. Many senior figures from these parties have been embroiled in corruption cases and predatory practices, just like the “nationalist” or non-Islamic parties. Consequently, the increasingly Islamised wider community remains unorganised but, at the same time, provides a resource pool for mobilisation by any political elites who might claim to represent Muslim interests.


This was the case with the mobilisation of religious sentiment in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, which transformed Islamic expression in everyday life into a political force. But it was not only elites taking advantage of religious sentiment to gain electoral support. At the same time, conservative Muslims also had a need to channel their many demands through pragmatic elites.


This is by no means a new phenomenon. The same tendency can also be found in the trend toward passage of shari’a-inspired bylaws by local leaders under the decentralised system of governance implemented post-Soeharto. Many of the local leaders who issue these regulations are from nationalist political parties, demonstrating that the bylaws are often merely instruments to mobilise support from an Islamised society, not necessarily the products of increasing piety among political leaders.


Further, Islamic identity politics works because alternative organised social mobilisation and political representation are generally so weak. Although the state is perceived as having failed to deliver social services and welfare to society, political parties have not been able to effectively channel public aspirations or anger into voting patterns.


What about other ideologies or forms of political organisation? Liberal democracy is fragmented and poorly organised and the tradition of leftist politics was destroyed with the massacres of 1965-1966. Islamic identity, meanwhile, was reinforced by Soeharto in the late 1980s, to help shield his regime from a challenge from the military. This has paved the way for the Islamisation of social and political life. Therefore, for the public, organising around religious identity is considered a useful strategy – if not the only one available – to articulate their hopes or disapproval.


The use of religion to articulate political interests is, of course, not a uniquely Indonesian phenomenon. It is part of post-socialist world politics. In many Muslim-majority countries, such as Algeria, Egypt and Turkey, Islam has been central to politics because of the absence of the left that has occurred after the Cold War.


The polarisation of so-called radical and moderate Muslims, like the rise of right-wing extremism in Indonesia, should be read as a symptom of a broader competition for power and the absence of alternative organised political channels. The precarious lower and middle classes provide a resource pool for mass mobilisation during political contestation. Without recognising these issues, reactionary responses from the state will not only miss the point but may well create other problems.



This piece was written as a summary of, and response to, a monthly discussion convened by Indonesian postgraduate students and scholars at the University of Melbourne. Professor Vedi Hadiz, from the Asia Institute, and Professor Ariel Heryanto, from Monash University, spoke about the mobilisation of Islamic identity politics in Indonesia during the most recent discussion on 17 May.


, , ,

We acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which our campuses are situated.

Phone:13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +(61 3) 9035 5511
The University of Melbourne ABN:84 002 705 224
CRICOS Provider Code:00116K (visa information)