Rising Islamic Fervor Plays Role in Indonesia’s Presidential Polls

Islamic influence is playing a growing role in the country’s presidential campaign, with challenger Prabowo Subianto forcing President Joko Widodo to defend himself against various allegations that he is a closet Christian, a communist and unsympathetic to the poor.

Prabowo's decision to tie himself firmly to the Islamist movement manifested itself in a massive "mass prayer" rally in central Jakarta on Sunday (April 7), with religious chanting and Islamic attire. Tens of thousands of white-clad followers shouted "Allahu Akbar" repeatedly during the event, along with a video call from Islam Defenders Front leader Rizieq Shihab from Mecca,, where he is in temporary exile, having fled charges he was filmed having sex in a pornographic video.

But with just 10 days left before the April 17 election, Prabowo’s forces appear to be having little luck denting the president’s lead, which has remained a solid 18 to 20 points in all relatively respectable polls. Prabowo in 2014 ran one of Indonesia’s most expensive campaigns ever but was defeated and in this race is universally regarded as being extremely short of campaign funds, one of the reasons for his turn toward the fervor generated by conservative Islamist backers.

The biggest concern for the President's followers is a low turnout, analysts say. There are two holidays in the week of the election, giving many voters the chance to take a few days off and leaving the polls to the deeply committed.

As an indication of the threat posed by rising fundamentalism, Jokowi, as the president is universally known, was forced to take as his running mate in the current campaign the conservative Islamic scholar Ma'ruf Amin, the 76-year-old head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body. Jokowi appears to retain the approval of voters in moderate Muslim organizations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s biggest Muslim group.

In an indication of rising tensions, the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) warned against mass mobilization at polling stations by all parties out of concern that it could lead to clashes.

The survey results and the lack of movement are an indication that most voters have long since made up their minds. The April 2 Indo Barometer survey, conducted with 1,200 respondents in 34 provinces, gives Jokowi’s team a plurality of 50.8 percent, with 32 percent for Prabowo-Sandi. Some 17.2 percent of respondents didn’t indicate a choice.

Muslim Groups Take Role

Prabowo’s conservative Islamist supporters have increasingly sought to mobilize the masses to come to morning prayers, which they call the “Indonesian Movement for Fajr (Dawn) Prayer, known by its Indonesian acronym GISS. The movement has been criticized for cloaking political goals in religious activities.

GISS came to the surface following what became known as the 212 movement reunion, a massive rally at the National Monument area which took its name from the date Dec. 2, 2017. The “212 movement” was a series of demonstrations in 2016-2017 in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims rallied against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was driven from office in Jakarta gubernatorial elections on trumped-up accusations of blaspheming Islam.

The GISS is led by Muhammad al-Khaththath, Secretary General of the Islamic Forum (FUI) and the former leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), which was legally dissolved by Jokowi in July 2017 as contrary to Indonesia’s five state principles known as Pancasila. FUI is an Islamist advocacy group working for the application of Islamic law, conservative Islamic moral norms, and the prosecution of “deviant” sects.

On Nov. 4, 2018, al-Khaththath commanded FUI along with other Islamic organizations to form the Ulama Commando for Prabowo-Sandi Victory (Koppasandi) to mobilize mosque-based campaigning for Prabowo and his running mate, Sandiaga Uno. The declaration was attended by Prabowo, who promised to bring Rizieq Shihab home from exile where he is hiding out on the pornography charge, which occurred in May 2017.

The dawn prayer movement is not entirely new. It had been used effectively in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election to drive Basuki, a Christian-Chinese, from office. Five days before the polls, aFUI and other Islamic organizations congregated at the Istiqlal Mosque to warn Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim. Basuki eventually lost and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for allegedly insulting Islam.

Islamist groups are now carrying out a similar strategy, seeking to mobilize support through religious activities in mosques and bring followers to the streets. On March 31, hundreds mobilized by FUI held morning prayers at Sunda Kelapa Mosque in Jakarta, and invaded the office of the General Election Commission (KPU), demanding that the agency hold fair elections. They also appealed to the public not to abstain. In a press conference before the event, Al Khaththath sought to transform GISS into a program called Subuh Akbar Indonesia (Indonesia Grand Morning Prayer), calling for dawn prayers on polling day. That was followed by lectures from preachers. After that, the Jama'at – the assembled crowd – were urged to wear white and be mobilized to vote and supervise the election.

"Why are we holding this program? Because we want to guard the general election so that there is no fraud," Al-Khathath said, adding it would mobilize 210 people in each of Indonesia’s thousands of polling stations. FUI and other Islamic organizations such as FPI are also to hold a grand campaign packaged in the "dawn prayers in congregation and pray to God" on the April 7 rally.

Rizieq Shihab, in a video, urged his supporters to come to the stadium "to win a presidential candidate proposed by ijtima ulama,” a gathering of religious scholars to select presidential and vice presidential candidates who supposedly fit the criteria for leadership as laid out in Islamic law.

"Hopefully in the future, Prabowo-Sandi can lead the country. God willing, they did not break their promises," Rizieq said in the video.

The ijtima ulama announced its support for the Prabowo team last September after the two signed a 17-point “Integrity Pact” whose content was based on the Islamist group’s core program including eradication of apostasy and “deviant” sects.

Andre Rosiade, a spokesman for the Pravowo campaign, denied the campaign had helped to fund the event.

"Our programs are funded by the community, we have no money," Andre said, added economic issues will be the main topic delivered in the campaign.

The latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) estimates that even though Islamist groups are now united to defeat Jokowi, they have little chance of success. “If Jokowi wins, they are aiming at a massive show of force to demand a greater state role in enforcing conservative interpretations of morality and orthodoxy,” said IPAC in a statement.

IPAC’s report entitled "Anti-Ahok To Anti-Jokowi: Islamic Influence on Indonesia's 2019 Election Campaign" asserts that Islamists’ support for Prabowo is half-hearted and conditional, but they have rallied around Prabowo and Sandi because their antipathy toward Jokowi is so high. “Some parts of the alliance now see support for Prabowo-Sandi as a survival strategy,” IPAC said in the report published on March 15, 2019. “Their fear of a Jokowi victory is much stronger than their reservations about Prabowo,”

The report found that FPI, one of the primary backers of the 212 Movement, used the anti-Ahok campaign to transform itself from an organization known primarily for Islamist intimidation to a legitimate opposition group with a strong grassroots base. Even so, the IPAX report said it was doubtful that the FPI could to mobilize hundreds of thousands for street protests into a get-out-the-vote movement that could defeat Jokowi.

However, the report noted, “Despite their lack of representation in major political institutions and their likely inability to influence the election outcome, the Islamists already have had a major impact on the campaign by forcing Jokowi to defend allegations that he is anti-Islam and anti-poor and by moving the definition of what constitutes “moderation” to the right,” IPAC said.

Jokowi Hijacks Islamist Group’ Strategy?

The call of voters to come to polling stations wearing white clothing was later echoed by Jokowi and the moderate Muslim groups. "Use our suffrage on April 17, 2019. Don't forget, choose (candidates) who wear white clothes. "Jokowi said in a written statement at the end of March. "We all flock to polling stations wearing white clothes." In the ballot paper issued by the election commission, Jokowi and Ma'ruf wear white while Prabowo and Sandiaga wear black.

The call to wear white clothing was echoed by the chairman of the Ansor Youth Movement, the paramilitary wing of Nahdlatul Ulama.

“Make the polling station white and choose the white one," Yaqut Cholil Qoumas said on March 24 in Bojonegoro, East Java, explaining that the aim was to prevent intimidation of voters.” Based on the Indo Barometer survey, Jokowi excelled at moderate Islamic voters such as Muhammadiyah and NU.