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Indonesia's ideological war

Indonesia is entering some sort of "ideological war".

It started with the struggle between the reformists and entrenched interests and their supporters. The reformists are represented by President Joko Widodo (alias Jokowi) and Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (alias Ahok) and their supporters, while the entrenched interests are represented by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

The entrenched interests are using Islam (including the militant version of the religion and its adherents) to counter the reformists, as it is difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of the reformists using just secular issues.

The Nov 4 demonstration in Jakarta against Ahok basically reflected this struggle.

In fact, looking at their backgrounds, both the reformists and entrenched interests are secular, although the entrenched interests have a stronger "authoritarian" tendency.

While the entrenched interests made use of militant Islam for their agenda, it does not necessarily follow that they would like to establish a Muslim state (a state with Islam as the official religion) and later an Islamic state (a state based on Islamic syariah law).


In Indonesia's ideological war, Jakarta Governor Basuki, seen here leaving the A-G's office in Jakarta yesterday, represents the reformists together with President Joko. They are pitted against entrenched interests in the form of former president Yudhoyono and former presidential candidate Prabowo. PHOTO: REUTERS

In their calculation, the entrenched interests would return to their original "secular" position once they succeeded in defeating the reformists and acquiring political power.

They may not have fully realised that by playing the Islamic card, they have released the "Islamic ideological force" which may be out of their control.

There is little doubt that the Nov 4 demonstration was organised by groups able to finance the activities. Jokowi's democratic government could not ban the demonstration, but they were able to make it peaceful, until in the evening when some perpetrators started to loot and burn vehicles. Some attempted to occupy the DRP-MPR building without success. Nevertheless, the riots were controlled as the government was well prepared.

The objectives of the entrenched interests, to push Ahok out of the race for Jakarta governor next year, and simultaneously weaken Jokowi, were not achieved. They immediately planned to have another large demonstration on Nov 25, but failed when the police refused to approve one. The Islamic leaders eventually agreed to a "mass rally" to pray together. This demonstration or "rally" will be held today.

Ordinary Indonesians may not understand the complicated power struggle in Jakarta. Nevertheless, they can easily understand the slogan or simple ideology. The contest is pitched as a tussle between "Islam" and "Non-Islam" (anti-Islam) forces, which is extremely distorted.

It also runs counter to the Indonesian ideology called "Pancasila", which used to be actively promoted and widely accepted. The first principle of Pancasila is "Belief in Almighty God". It, however, does not put Islam as the only official religion in Indonesia, and instead embraces a multi-religious Indonesia. Pancasila was effective in curbing any rise of an "Islamic state" .

During former president Suharto's era, Pancasila was promoted as the sole ideology. He used it to defeat his political rivals and maintain his authoritarian rule. As a result, when he was forced to step down, Pancasila appeared to have the mark of Suharto, rather than the original advocate Sukarno, who proposed the state ideology on June 1, 1945, when Indonesia was preparing for independence.

Although Pancasila was not abandoned after the fall of Suharto, and many political parties still use it as their political foundation, it is no longer highlighted as the core Indonesian ideology.

A few Islamic parties after the fall of Suharto openly use Islam as the party ideology. These Islamic parties managed to obtain between 32 and 35 per cent of the votes. Although still a minority, they never gave up on the Islamic principle.

In Indonesia, 87 per cent of the population is Muslim but a large number of Muslims in Java are moderate and were not in favour of an Islamic state.

Those who do not agree with the Islamic foundation of the Indonesian state, including many Muslims themselves, now use pluralism as their ideology.

In Bahasa Indonesia, the term used is either Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) or NKRI (Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia).

In an attempt to counter the push for an "Islamic state", the commander-in-chief of the Indonesian military TNI, Gatot Nurmentyo, proposed that on Nov 30 all Indonesians organise gatherings of "Doa Bersama Nusantara Bersatu", which is translated as "pray together for the Unity of the Archipelago".

The state-sponsored event attracted many private citizens concerned about the ideological battle now going on in Indonesia. Gatherings were held in many major cities, showing that many people support the government's attempt to advance a more plural, less overtly Islamic, agenda.

The celebration did include Islamic components - it was a gathering for group prayer after all - but the "red and white", the Indonesian national flag, was stressed. People sang the national anthem and other Indonesian national songs to show their concern for the unity and solidarity of Indonesia.

Next comes the rally to be held today. The government has been swift to try to reduce the risks of this event. For example, it has sealed an agreement with many Islamic leaders to demonstrate not on Jakarta streets but at Monas, a large park in Jakarta used in the previous demonstration. The hope is that the demonstration can be transformed into a peaceful gathering for Indonesian Muslims and non-Muslims to pray together for the unity of the Indonesian Republic.

The entrenched interests still want to use today's event to get rid of Ahok. They have intensified their propaganda to detain Ahok for making remarks allegedly insulting Islam, although a court case is in progress.

Meanwhile, Ahok continues to campaign for the gubernatorial race and the PDIP and others continue to support him.

Beneath the politics, Indonesia is engaged in a quiet but vital ideological struggle - one between the idea of a Muslim or Islamic state, and that of a more pluralistic vision of a multi-religious Indonesia, which in the past was called Pancasila.


  • The writer is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesia's ideological war'. Print Edition | Subscribe