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Jakarta Election Signals Erosion of Religious Tolerance

Interviewee: Karen B. Brooks, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Eleanor Albert, Online Writer/Editor
April 19, 2017

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Jakarta’s hotly contested gubernatorial election was racially and religiously charged, signaling a “troubling erosion of tolerance toward minorities in Indonesia,” says CFR’s Karen Brooks. Anies Baswedan, a former education minister who garnered support from hard-line Muslim groups, defeated incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent and a close ally of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

In this written interview, Brooks says “if Indonesia hopes to retain its place in the world as a model of religious tolerance and democratic openness, the country’s progressives will need to rethink how to counter this growing menace of radical identity politics that threatens the fabric of the Indonesian state,” especially ahead of the presidential election in 2019.

Supporters of Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Anies Baswedan celebrate as ballots are counted outside a polling station, April 19, 2017. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

What is the significance of Baswedan’s victory?

Unofficial results indicate that Baswedan defeated incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his Chinese name, Ahok, in the race for governor of Jakarta, a city of over ten million people. Official results will be released next week, but the margin of victory based on exit polls is substantial and expected to hold.

This is a devastating defeat for Ahok, who polls indicated was in a statistical dead heat with his challenger on the eve of the vote. Ahok sought to make history by becoming the first elected Christian of ethnic Chinese descent to win such a high office in Muslim-majority Indonesia. He became governor in 2014 when his predecessor, Jokowi, won the presidency. This was Ahok’s first opportunity to face voters in his own right.

Unfortunately, the campaign was marred by racially and religiously charged themes, with Muslim hard-line groups calling on Jakarta’s Muslims to vote against the Chinese “infidel.”  Using Islam as a rallying cry, they staged mass rallies and conducted a campaign of fear and intimidation, threatening the eruption of violence should the Christian Chinese candidate win.

“Using Islam as a rallying cry, Muslim hard-liners staged mass rallies and conducted a campaign of fear and intimidation.”

In many respects, Wednesday’s gubernatorial election was a referendum on Indonesia’s ability to remain an open and pluralistic society. While Baswedan and running mate Sandiaga Uno are both respected and capable individuals, their willingness to indulge radical, right-wing support was a setback for Indonesia’s tolerant and diverse democracy.

The winning pair, flanked by one of Indonesia’s most notorious Muslim hard-liners, celebrated their victory at Indonesia’s largest mosque, reinforcing this dangerous divide.

Jakarta’s electorally defeated governor is Christian and of Chinese ancestry, what is called a “double minority” in Indonesia. What is the state of religious and racial tolerance in Indonesia?

Indonesia is a country of considerable ethnic and religious complexity, home to hundreds of different ethnic groups and religions. Moreover, large swaths of the archipelago, specifically much of eastern Indonesia, have Hindu, Christian, and even animist majorities.

Indonesia’s founding fathers wisely understood that keeping together a nation of such diversity required an inclusive and pluralistic state. They crafted a state philosophy, called “Pancasila,” that enshrines racial and religious tolerance. Indonesia’s national motto, “Unity in Diversity,” further reinforces this principle.

For much of its history, Indonesia has admirably lived up to these ideals and distinguished itself as a model within the Muslim world as a modern, moderate, open, pluralistic society. However, ethnic and religious tensions have occasionally punctuated that record, most notably in 1965 and 1998, when violence erupted primarily against Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minorities, who play a disproportionate role in the country’s economy.

“Indonesia may be the nation with the largest number of Muslim adherents, but Islam is not the national religion.”

In more recent years, there has been a less visible but equally troubling erosion of tolerance toward minorities in Indonesia, which has manifested in a significant rise in attacks by hard-line Muslim groups on Christian churches as well as on followers of various minor Islamic sects. This phenomenon has coincided with a rise in conservatism among Indonesian Muslims, with increasing pressure for women to wear the Islamic headdress and for all Muslims to demonstrate piety in public life.

How does religion influence politics in Indonesia?

There has been a longstanding struggle between those who believe this secular, open character must remain the nation’s foundation and those who want to see Islam play a considerably more important role in state affairs.

Indonesia’s founding fathers attempted to resolve this debate by insisting that Indonesia’s constitution not define the Republic as an Islamic state, following its declaration of independence in 1945.

Indonesia may be the nation with the largest number of Muslim adherents, but Islam is not the national religion. Instead, the Pancasila philosophy references Indonesia as a country that believes in one God.

Still, Islamists never gave up the fight to play a more prominent role in state matters, and the tension between the two philosophies has been a central fissure in Indonesian politics throughout the postindependence period.

What factors have led to the rise of Indonesian conservatism and hard-line Islamic groups?

Certainly a large part of the equation has been the flood of Wahhabi and Salafist funds from Saudi Arabia into Indonesia since the 1970s. That money built significant numbers of mosques across the archipelago and promoted strict interpretations of Islam that are at odds with Indonesia’s traditionally more progressive approach to religion.

At the same time, some Indonesian politicians have opportunistically cultivated hard-line Muslim groups and even gangs in order to intimidate opponents and prop themselves up.  Unfortunately, such hard-line groups operated with impunity under the previous government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–2014). The current Jokowi administration is working to check its power, but this election for the Jakarta governor has demonstrated that a Frankenstein once created is not so easily destroyed.

“The gubernatorial election was a referendum on Indonesia’s ability to remain an open and pluralistic society.”

We are seeing a rise of conservatism and of the right in many countries around the world, and Indonesia appears to be falling in line with that overall trend.

Is Baswedan’s win a sign of things to come?

This election is seen as a harbinger of what might lie ahead for Indonesia’s next presidential elections in 2019, with Jokowi’s party and coalition partners having resolutely backed Ahok.

Jokowi enjoys high popularity ratings and little opposition in the legislature, but the governor’s race was the most high-profile reflection of his strength with voters. The loss for Ahok may shake up the political map and make it harder for President Widodo to get reelected.

More importantly, however, Indonesia’s radical right wing will be emboldened by Wednesday’s win and can be expected to step up efforts to impose their hard-line religious agenda on the country. If Indonesia hopes to retain its place in the world as a model of religious tolerance and democratic openness, the country’s progressives will need to rethink how to counter this growing menace of radical identity politics that threatens the fabric of the Indonesian state.

This interview had been edited and condensed. 

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