Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)-affiliated protesters calling for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) to be disbanded in 2017. Photo by Agus Bebeng for Antara.


After the mass mobilisation of conservative Muslims in late 2016 and early 2017 associated with the Jakarta gubernatorial election and the blasphemy allegations against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the government and mainstream Muslim organisations have implemented a range of strategies to fight intolerance and radicalism.


The government has, for example, funded activities to promote Pancasila as the national ideology, and revised the Law on Mass Organisations to allow it to ban Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local arm of a global Islamic organisation that aims to establish an Islamic caliphate.


But the battle against intolerance and radicalism is not immune to political interests. It is part of broader political contestation among Muslim organisations in Indonesia. The intense competition between Muslim groups has been motivated by attempts to gain access to state resources and maintain the status quo. Mainstream Muslim organisations Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, as well as Indonesia’s Sufi community, have enthusiastically taken up the anti-intolerance cause, in part to access state resources and to gain ground over their conservative rivals, such as HTI and Salafist groups.


In Indonesia, there are several organisations and groups loosely based on Salafism, the teaching that advocates literal and to some degree binary interpretations of Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and the early generation of Muslims. The term Salafism is often confused, or used interchangeably, with Wahhabism, although the two are different, and Salafis strongly reject this characterisation. Wahhabis follow the teachings of eighteenth century Arabian preacher Muhammad Abdullah ibn al-Wahab, who advocated a return to a more pure form of Islam. Wahhabism advocates a fundamentalist form of Islam, and could be considered just one form of Salafism.


Salafis can also differentiated by the methods they use to deal with politics and society. Some, such as HTI, aim to change the political system using non-violent methods. Other groups, such as Jemaah Islamiyah, advocate violence to achieve political change, and are generally referred to as Salafist jihadis. However, the vast majority of Salafis are apolitical. They refrain from political activism, such as attending political rallies or protests, engaging in political debates, founding political parties, or participating in electoral politics.


These apolitical Salafis are sometimes called “quietist Salafis”. This quietist Salafism is gaining momentum among middle class Muslims in Indonesia. Along with HTI, quietist Salafis have suffered the most from the latest campaign against intolerance.


One of the leading players in the anti-intolerance campaign, NU, has a long historical dispute with the fundamentalist doctrines of Salafism, which aims to purify Islam from “innovations” (bid’ah). The “traditionalist” NU incorporates many rituals and beliefs that are not acceptable to the austere Salafist interpretations of Islam. NU’s paramilitary youth wing, Banser, has on several occasions prevented Salafi scholars from delivering sermons, because of their differing views on religious rituals.


The reformist organisation Muhammadiyah, meanwhile, has either stayed silent or offered support for the anti-Salafi and anti-HTI narrative, despite the organisation having some similar ideological roots with Salafis, in the sense of seeking a return to a purer form of Islam. This is likely because over the past couple of years, HTI has poached many Muhammadiyah members, and Salafis have accused Muhammadiyah of losing its commitment to Islamic purification.


But in pushing back against intolerance and radicalism, mainstream Muslim organisations and pro-government commentators have often promoted overly simplistic narratives. Mainstream Muslim organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah tend to conflate quietist Salafi, Salafi jihadi, and Wahhabi identities. For example, NU Chairperson Said Aqil Siraj described Salafism as a closed ideology and said it was the first step toward terrorism. Unfortunately, Said Aqil did not specify which type of Salafism he was referring to.


Similarly, there have been efforts to associate intolerance and radical views with particular physical attributes and behaviours. Men who wear long Arabic robes, a white cap or turban, a beard and a prayer bruise on their foreheads – the typical appearance of Salafi followers – are painted as intolerant or even violent. They are contrasted with the common appearance of NU and Muhammadiyah affiliated men, who often wear a black cap, a sarong, and grow a moustache rather than a beard. This, so the narrative goes, is the face of tolerant and moderate Islam in Indonesia.


The result of this narrative is that people in conservative dress face widespread suspicion and distrust. For example, I spoke to a quietist Salafi attending a sermon by Khalid Basalamah, who said that he was accused on social media of promoting violence after the terrorist attack in Surabaya May last year. Even though quietist Salafis denounce terrorism, their appearance means they cannot escape assumptions that they are radicals or terrorists.


HTI and Salafis are also portrayed as dangerous imported ideologies from the Middle East, capable of cultivating conflict in Indonesia. During a recent episode of the popular talk show “Indonesian Lawyers Club”, an NU activist and member of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), Muhammad Guntur Romli, said that conservative Muslims wanted to turn Indonesia into the next Syria. He has also encouraged the government to jail the HTI leadership to suppress the group. Many “moderate” Muslims have absorbed these types of narratives uncritically (or intentionally).


The Indonesian government is also supportive of simplistic narratives about conservative Islam. Portraying Salafism and HTI as problems imported from the Middle East helps justify its reform of the Law on Mass Organisations to crack down on HTI, which itself originated in the Middle East.

What does this mean for the battle against intolerance?

The Ahok blasphemy case was for many Indonesians the high point of recent intolerance but it was not driven by Salafis. So, which organisations and individuals actually drove this intolerance? One of the main figures in the so-called 212 “movement” was NU leader Ma’ruf Amin (and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s running mate in the 2019 Presidential Election). HTI participated, but was not a key actor, while quietist Salafis denounced the 212 movement.


There have been several claims that HTI is involved in terrorism, but none have been adequately proved. Quietist Salafis, meanwhile, have publicly denounced terrorism and have declared respect for legitimate government. Salafi preacher Riyadh bin Bajrey even angrily denounced a participant at one of his recent sermons for questioning Jokowi’s commitment to Islam.


Mainstream Muslim organisations have sought to discredit organisations like HTI and quietist Salafis because they are concerned about these groups’ growing popularity, not just because they are intolerant. As mentioned, for NU, these groups are all considered part of a coalition that criticises its practices as bid’ah. Muhammadiyah, meanwhile, is opposed to these groups because they challenge its authority within the reformist Muslim community.


The campaign against HTI and quietist Salafis should be viewed as political competition among Muslim organisations, not simply a “black and white” fight against intolerance and radicalism. The campaign against intolerance and radicalism in Indonesia has benefited certain groups and alienated others. Following the mass mobilisation of Muslims in 2016 and 2017, the state under Jokowi felt it needed to fight back. It has gained support from NU and Muhammadiyah in its efforts to crack down on HTI, and in turn, has helped both organisations to minimise the role of quietist Salafis by limiting their access to state mosques and events. A key ingredient to survival is making friends with ruling elites, which is what NU and Muhammadiyah have done.


The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is another interesting example of the complexity of the politics of intolerance among Indonesian Islamic organisations. Unlike HTI, there is plenty of evidence that FPI has repeatedly engaged in intolerant violence and vigilante activity. Despite this, FPI has thus far not been touched by the revised Mass Organisations Law, while HTI has been banned. It is true that FPI has built stronger political coalitions compared to HTI, but foremost it also has the support of some prominent religious leaders (kyai and habib) in NU. Further, FPI is not Salafist and has the same religious roots as NU, and that means FPI is not a religious threat to NU.


For the state, however, FPI is a vigilante organisation whose survival relies on its coalitions with politicians, oligarchs, political parties and major Islamic organisations, in particular, NU. As long as FPI can maintain this coalition, it is difficult for the state to ban FPI, no matter how intolerant or violent it is. In other words, this is a case where the Islamic organisation leading the anti-intolerance cause is indirectly supporting one of the country’s most intolerant organisations.


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