Identity politics and Islam’s role in Indonesia’s presidential elections: 3 observations

15-Mar-2019 Intellasia | Today Online | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Since the emergence of nationalism in Indonesia in the early twentieth century, Islam has been a basis for mobilising political support.

The upcoming 2019 presidential election is no exception, and this is apparent in how the two pairs of presidential candidates Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno have been positioning themselves.

From the time he was campaigning for the presidency in 2014, Widodo has been plagued by accusations that he is not religious enough. To counter such an image, he nominated Amin, a conservative cleric, as his vice-presidential candidate.

This has not only strengthened the impression that Widodo is not anti-ulama (Islamic scholar), but has placed the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) firmly behind his current bid for re-election.

Founded in 1926, NU is the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia.

According to a study conducted by the Alvara Research centre in December 2016, an estimated 50.3 per cent of the adult Muslim population claimed affiliation with NU.

That NU has thrown its weight behind Widodo is apparent at an important nation-wide meeting known as “Munas Alim Ulama and Konbes NU” held by the organisation in West Java at the end of February.

The first day of Munas saw Amin declaring that this election was not merely a matter of electing a president, but an ideological war to protect Sunni Islam (as interpreted by NU).

The NU promotes a form of moderate Islam that subscribes to the principles of Pancasila, the Indonesian state ideology that supports pluralism. This is in contradistinction with the now-banned Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir (HTI), which supports the establishment of a caliphate and the adoption of syariah (Islamic law) as positive law in Indonesia.

Believing that ex-HTI members are supporting the Subianto-Uno camp, NU leaders are mobilising members to campaign for the Widodo-Amin team in order to defend their ideological position.

A similarly polarising narrative is being stoked by some preachers and spokespersons in the Subianto-Uno camp.

A video-clip widely distributed through social media features Neno Warisman, a former singer and now deputy Chairperson of the Subianto-Uno National Campaign Team, reading a controversial poem during the 212 Munajat prayer event at the National Monument in Jakarta in late February 2019.

The poem includes a prayer pleading with Allah to give victory to the Subianto-Uno team, failing which Allah will no longer have worshippers in Indonesia. The allusion here is to the lack of religiosity of the opposing team.

This is a stance held by the Defenders of Islam Front (FPI), a conservative Islamic vigilante group that has been staunchly backing Subianto since he first contested the presidency in 2014.

The leader of FPI, Rizieq Syihab, had declared in December 2018 that it is “haram” (forbidden) to vote for a presidential hopeful (Widodo) that is associated with Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former Jakarta governor who was convicted and jailed for blasphemy against Islam.

Of course, behind the ideological positioning is also a jockeying for political influence. As two former vice-presidential candidates namely Hasyim Muzadi and Salahuddin Wahidfielded by NU had failed to win in previous presidential elections, NU is working hard to ensure that its third bid for the vice-presidency bears fruit. Indeed, Said Aqil Siradj, chair of NU, has emphasized that NU needs to become part of the decision makers of the country.

Amidst such polarising narratives, another Islamic group Muhammadiyah has taken the official position of not supporting either pair of candidates.

Founded in 1912 and with an estimated 14.9 per cent of adult Muslims affiliated with it, Muhammadiyah is the largest modernist Muslim organisation in Indonesia.

During its nation-wide meeting (known as the Tanwir) held in Bengkulu in mid-February 2019, Muhammadiyah came to the conclusion and decision that the evolving social polarisation must be bridged and political competition using religion must be avoided.

While this is the official position, members of Muhammadiyah do have their preferences. A recent national survey by Populi centre conducted in late January 2019 found that 72.1 per cent of Muhammadiyah members were in favour of Widodo-Amin, while only 20.9 per cent supported Subianto-Uno.

Muhammadiyah leaders, however, seem to be evenly split between the two camps, with a significant portion gravitating towards Subianto-Uno because of the expected hegemonic role that NU would play in government should Widodo win.

As the different candidates are beginning to show their hand where mobilising the Islamic vote bank is concerned, we can make a few observations.

First, identity politics in Indonesia has shifted ground and it is now being played out within the Islamic community.

On the ideological level, this is a contest between which faction’s understanding and practice of Islam is more orthodox, and which faction is more pious. While this may be related to the jockeying for political influence in the immediacy of the upcoming election, the longer-term effect may be a more deep-seated polarisation of the Islamic community in Indonesia.

Second, as NU has placed all its chips on the Widodo-Amin team, it will either win big or lose severely in the coming election.

Muhammadiyah, on the other hand, will continue to retain significant but limited influence through proxies that have pledged personal support, whichever camp occupies the Istana for the next term of office.

Third, whoever wins the next presidential term will have to reconcile the different factions within the Islamic community.

This will not be easy given the polarising effects of what has been framed as an ideological war.

Perhaps Widodo was anticipating the difficulty of this task when he admonished thousands of participants at the Munas not to “let this election make us lose our brotherhood or we will no longer relate to each other as brothers and sisters of the same country and nation”.

While identity politics may reap political dividends in the short term, the cost in the longer term may be the sense of horizontal fraternity that Indonesians have been cultivating and aspiring to achieve all these years.


Category: Indonesia

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