The politics of the label ‘radical’

There are concerns that if the label ‘radical’ is not clearly defined, people with personal or political vendettas could use it to rid the government of their political opponents. Photo by Andreas Atmoko for Antara.

 

The Indonesian government is in the process of introducing policies to both purge “radicals” from the public service and government, and to enforce commitment to the state ideology, Pancasila.

 

Last month, 11 ministries and state bodies signed a decree on addressing “radicalism” among civil servants. The government has also established a website to allow the public to report “radical” content posted by civil servants. Communications Minister Johnny G. Plate insisted the website aimed “to bring together and improve the performance of our civil servants, as well as to foster higher levels of nationalism”.

 

While illiberal and anti-democratic populist Islamist movements are a reality in Indonesia and can be indeed be considered a threat to its democracy, the term “radical” is very vague and very broad. In two recent articles discussing this concerning trend, The Jakarta Post’s editorial board and Ary Hermawan expressed fears that the laxness of the definition of what constitutes radicalism could allow the branding of government critics as “radical” as a way to silence them.

 

Even before the introduction of these new regulations, however, the label “radical” had been used to silence and discredit dissenters and the government’s political opponents.

Politicisation of State Instruments

Although the politicisation of government institutions is not a new phenomenon in Indonesia, as Tom Power explains, efforts to use state instruments in this way  have “become far more open and systematic under Jokowi”.

 

The pattern of politicising Indonesia’s government agencies is concerning not only because definitions of radicalism are vague but also because this rhetoric also targets the expression of equally vague “anti-nationalist views”.

 

The potential scope for subjectivity around the terms “Islamist” and “extremist” could provide the government with scope to purge the security forces and civil service at will.

 

Most concerningly, in recent months, the Indonesian government has used the “radical” label to discredit activists, individuals, movements, and government institutions.

Silencing Government Critics?

In September, the Indonesian government rushed through a revised law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) which weakened and limited its powers of investigation.

 

In the weeks leading up to the announcement of these legislative changes, the KPK was also labelled a hotbed of radicalism and “radicals”. This resulted in members of the KPK being targeted for their personal religious beliefs, and expressions of their beliefs through their style of clothing, in efforts to discredit them.

 

KPK senior investigator Novel Baswedan, in particular, was singled out by the commission’s opponents, with pundits accusing him of being a member of a secret radical sleeper cell.

 

These accusations were underpinned by commentary that focused on his style of dress — pants above the ankles and a long beard.

 

As a result, the KPK has had to continuously defend itself in the public arena. It worked with the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) to prove there were no “radicals” in the organisation.

 

One of the most revealing elements of this episode was Novel Baswedan’s own observation in September that he feared that the “radical” label would be used in the same way that: “the label communism was used during the New Order era, which was used to silence those opposing the government”.

 

The timing of allegations of radicalism against the KPK are important, as they frame the institution in a certain way at a time when the government was attempting to weaken its powers.

 

There have been allegations that this was a smear campaign orchestrated so that Indonesian society would come to support the legislative weakening of the commission. These concerns are echoed by Hermawan who argues that the current anti radical rhetoric looks more like “a witch hunt than a carefully designed policy.”

 

Unless this pro-nationalist/anti-“radical” policy is clarified, and its definitions are made clear, it could impact Indonesia’s democratic political culture, and the political independence of its central democratic institutions.

 

 

This opinion piece is based on Kate’s conference paper presentation at the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society (CILIS) at the University of Melbourne on November 12.

 

Kate Grealy is a PhD student at the Australian National University. She has worked in national crime prevention and counter terrorism in Australia, and in violence monitoring and international development in Indonesia.