By: Our Correspondent

Although Indonesia’s presidential election is still more than a year away, with the vote scheduled for April 17, 2019, the rising noise of political Islam is taking on ominous overtones for the incumbent, President Joko Widodo.

It is uncertain how real the whole phenomenon of fundamentalist Islam is in Indonesia, a country known as the Islamic world’s most tolerant, where women are as likely to be in miniskirts as hijabs and where niqabs, or full-face veils, are rarely seen. Many Muslims here also openly drink beer and live largely secular lives even as the outward signs of religiosity have grown in the past decade. 

But politicians, including Widodo’s 2014 opponent, the former army general and businessman Prabowo Subianto, have been using Muslim identity politics to stoke ethnic and religious sentiment in a country where 87.2 percent of the country’s 266 million citizens are at least nominally Muslim and where few dare criticize religious ideas. There is growing fear that sectarian politics threatens Pancasila, the country’s official state ideology, which guarantees citizens the right to worship any of six religions.

Thus, with just a year to go before the election, Indonesia is embroiled in a very real battle, with actual “fake news” exacerbating emotions and testing the country’s reputation for tolerance, raising serious concerns for Jokowi, as the President is known, as he faces reelection. 

That said, the President remains phenomenally popular, with his ratings constantly hovering around 70 percent, partly because of his economic policies and partly because he is considered the most honest of recent Indonesian politicians. He has managed to outmaneuver former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has sought to promote his son as a presidential contender, got the influential Golkar political party on his side and, according to a political analyst in Jakarta, could end up co-opting Prabowo in the next election.

Nonetheless, as they did in 2014, hard-line Islamists have been exploiting social media to accuse the president of being a closet Christian or a communist and in general playing havoc with more moderate elements of the society.

While the charges didn’t stick in 2014, the Islamists have been emboldened by their successful campaign in 2016-2017 to oust the popular former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian. Despite very high popularity ratings, Basuki, known as Ahok, lost to an opponent backed by Prabowo, whose Islamist supporters railroaded Ahok into jail on trumped up blasphemy charges.

At the center of the web is a 52-year-old cleric and demagogue named Muhammad Razieq Shihab, usually known as Habieb Razieq, the founder two decades ago (along with allies in the police) of the Islamic Defenders Front, known by its Indonesian initials FPI, a thuggish organization tied to extortion and other rackets.

Rizieq, who is in exile currently in Saudi Arabia to avoid various criminal charges including pornography linked to photographs of a mistress, is said to be seeking an Islamic coalition to go after Jokowi. Sources say he envisions himself as the head of the government. FPI members often harass women who dress immodestly by their lights, and have been known to shut down nightclubs, close churches and create flash mobs for hire on behalf of politicians.

Blasphemy

The latest episode to blow up involves Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, one of the daughters of Indonesia’s founding father and first president, Sukarno, and the sister of former President Megawati Sukarno, the head of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, Jokowi’s political party.

Sukmawati has run into a firestorm over a poem she wrote – 19 years ago – saying the niqab wasn’t as beautiful as the konde, a traditional Indonesian hair bun, and that the adzan (call to prayer) wasn’t as melodious as traditional ballads.

The 66-year-old Sukmawati was forced to call a tearful press conference in Jakarta on April 4 to explain.

“Since this literary work has sparked controversy, especially among Muslims, I apologize to all Muslims who feel offended by this poem,” said Sukmawati, adding that she was a proud Muslim whose father was an important figure in both Muhammadyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, the two biggest Islamic organizations in Indonesia.

Nonetheless, at least two Islamic organizations have reported Sukmawati to the police for defaming Islam, similar to the charges that landed Ahok in prison for two years after some Muslim organizations charged him with insulting a Quranic verse.

The allegations of blasphemy against the Quran sparked solidarity and “united” Indonesian Muslims, with perhaps a million people taking to the streets in what was known as the “212 rally” (named for the date of the rally, Dec. 2, 2016) in Central Jakarta, demanding Ahok’s prosecution. The event stoked widespread fears among moderates and ethnic Chinese.

Although Ahok, as the former governor is known, was considered the most effective Jakarta governor in modern history, the FPI capitalized on the charges to gain political advantage, turning it into a massive campaign with the help of what the police later called a “fake news factory,” an online syndicate going under the name of Saracen.

With Ahok, a Chinese Christian, driven from power, the voters instead installed a Muslim and Prabowo ally, Anies Baswedan into the governor’s seat. Numerous well-placed politicians allegedly funded the rally and the anti-Ahok campaign.

Saracen, the police said, allegedly charged tens of millions of rupiah to publish and spread fake news and hate speech. Five individuals connected with Saracen have been jailed including the 32-year-old leader, Jasriadi, who like many Indonesians has only one name. Although Saracen’s clients haven’t been named, its website, according to the Straits Times of Singapore, listed lawyer Eggi Sudjana and retired army general Ampi Tanudjiwa as its advisers. Eggi is Rizieq’s  lawyer. Jasriadi has said publicly that he is a Prabowo supporter.

Political analysts in Jakarta says the Sukmawati case may well be a curtain-raiser for those who don’t want Jokowi to win a second term. Jokowi for better or worse is regarded as secular and tolerant.

Ugly

The ugly campaign against Ahok impelled Human Rights Watch to issue a statement saying religious minorities face discriminatory laws and regulations as well as harassment, intimidation, and violence from Islamist militants and that “In early 2017, the Ministry of Religious Affairs drafted a religious rights bill that would further entrench the country’s blasphemy law as well as discriminatory government decrees, including one that prevents religious minorities from obtaining permits to construct houses of worship.”

Jokowi’s government, according to Prelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “is turning a blind eye to worsening harassment of religious and sexual minorities. Officials are using the dangerously ambiguous blasphemy law to target certain religious groups, while the police are carrying out invasive raids against LGBT people.”

Jokowi has repeatedly been labeled anti-Islam, especially after he banned the infamous Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, founded in Jerusalem in 1953, which like Islamic State (ISIS) aims to establish an Islamic caliphate.

In July last year, Jokowi, facing criticism for being too lax in confronting religious extremism, issued a regulation in lieu of law, known as a Perppu, on mass organizations deemed to be anti-Pancasila, the state ideology, which officially recognizes five other religions in addition to Islam.

That and other allegations will likely be used against Jokowi during his campaign, which will unfold before August 2018 when presidential candidates must submit their names of their official running partners to the election committee.

Prabowo Redux?

Jokowi seems likely to face Prabowo, who is currently stirring the political pot with nationalistic rhetoric, including saying Indonesia will no longer exist in 2030 because current political elites handing the country to foreign enemies. Incidentally, Prabowo grew up in the US and Europe, comes from a family that is both Christian and Muslim, and in person comes across as cosmopolitan. He spoke English as his first language and is fluent in French. 

Some sources say Prabowo is reluctant to make another run because of the massive costs involved and the dent the last attempt put into his extended family’s coffers.

While he remains personally popular among voters, much hinges on who Jokowi picks as his running mate next year. More than many countries, the vice presidency is handed to an individual who represents a major voting bloc.  Jusuf Kalla, the current vice president, is 76 and unlikely to be named again. Names that have surfaced include even Prabowo, on the theory that he could bide his time for five years during Jokowi’s final term and take over without an expensive campaign in 2024.

Another is Airlangga Hartarto, a businessman and reform-minded Minister of Industry in Jokowi’s Cabinet and the chairman of the Golkar Party. A third is Mohammad Mahfud, formerly the chief justice of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court and a member of the National Awakening Party, an Islam-based political party, which might spike the guns somewhat of the Islamist purists. Other names abound, including army generals and other current cabinet ministers, but so far it is all speculation with a long time.