Contemplating a syariah-influenced Jakarta: The Jakarta Post Columnist

An Acehnese man getting whipped for spending time in close proximity with a woman who is not his wife, which is against Syariah law, in Aceh, on March 20, 2017.
An Acehnese man getting whipped for spending time in close proximity with a woman who is not his wife, which is against Syariah law, in Aceh, on March 20, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Jakarta's 12 million residents and commuters are beginning to consider the possibility of a more Islamic-influenced atmosphere in the capital if former education and culture minister Anies Baswedan wins the gubernatorial election on April 19.

Some are hoping for a syariah-nuanced Jakarta, like Aceh's capital Banda Aceh, the West Java town of Tasikmalaya or Tangerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, and some are not.

These contemplations have amplified after Anies was left as the only rival to incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama following last month's first-round election. A recent exit poll by Indikator Politik finds that nearly 52.5 per cent of voters favour Anies for the run-off election, versus 44 per cent for Ahok.

Anies is known as a moderate Muslim intellectual and has denied accusations that he is sowing the seeds of conservative Islam in Jakarta, or allowing a culture of intolerance to build up against non-Muslims.

However, such expectations of a more syariah-nuanced city have come from his running mate, businessman Sandiaga Uno. Sandiaga said in January that he envisioned a syariah-inspired nightlife entertainment network in Jakarta. The American-educated Sandiaga sees current entertainment centres as places prone to drug and alcohol abuse and prostitution.

He said the nightlife entertainment programmes, which he claimed would be modelled on the kind of night-life available in Dubai, would feature traditional dances, shalawat (salutation to Prophet Muhammad), religious studies and traditional music.

From a certain perspective, this could be a good thing. With such programmes, vigilantes will not have as many opportunities to raid nightlife establishments and the firebrand Islam Defenders Front (FPI) could build up a better reputation by restraining its impulse to violence.

The possibility of a Muslim governor among those who want to see Ahok ousted and imprisoned for allegedly insulting Islam have led some to hope for the establishment of a moral police force like in Aceh, who can arrest gamblers, unmarried couples engaged in intimate contact (khalwat) and other such sinners.

Of course, the arrested people will not be whipped and caned by hooded figures like those in Aceh, since at present, Jakarta has no such bylaw regulating this kind of punishment.

However, the city council might think such a rule is needed for the good morals of Jakartans.

Some may think fears of the establishment of a moral police are groundless.

However, concerns about the expanding influence of syariah are fuelled by Anies himself. In January, he turned up at the headquarters of the FPI, and passionately stated that he was neither a Shiite nor a liberal, as some conservative Muslims had claimed.

This statement might have been important for Anies, who holds a PhD in political science from the Northern Illinois University in the United States.

To lock in the Muslim vote, Anies might have calculated that securing the support of the "Islamic" base was a good deal more important that winning over the despised Shiite minority or the much-maligned "secular" people.

He has pledged to use next year's budget to allocate some 70 trillion rupiah (S$7.3 billion) to help all mass organisations (ormas) in the city, which would include Islamic groups.

Perhaps more importantly for voters, including many poor Muslims, he has pledged to use the budget to help residents buy houses or apartments through a long-term installment scheme without down payments.

In a meeting with FPI leaders, Anies has also said he had successfully extinguished a "fire" on his campus, the private Paramadina University where he was rector, a university that was founded by the progressive Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid, by rejecting proposals for classes on sexual minorities.

Anies' objection to interfaith marriages reportedly ended the facilitation of such marriages by the Paramadina Foundation several years ago.

Perhaps Anies was also trying to convince the FPI that he shared their views on the "problem" of the "gays".

Early last year, the FPI dispersed an event featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Indonesians at a Central Jakarta hotel. Last November, the police reportedly broke up a gay party at an apartment in South Jakarta after receiving a tip-off from the FPI.

Many Western educated liberals have expressed dismay over Anies' apparent shift, as they thought he was someone who generally supported liberal philosophy. In an article titled "Ini Soal Tenun Kebangsaan. Titik!" (It's all about weaving nationalism. Period!) that he wrote in Kompas on Sept 11, 2012, Anies decried attacks conducted by intolerant groups who were "tearing up the fabric of the nation."

Roughly five years on, some observers might say Anies himself has helped to tear down the fabric of the nation by playing the religious card.

With his cool style, Anies has repeatedly denied that he is engaging in such fundamentally sectarian politics and denies his team was behind the controversial declaration of some mosques, through banners, that they would refuse to perform prayers for deceased Muslims who were suspected of supporting or voting for Ahok.

Criticism toward Anies is possibly exaggerated and merely an expression of a fear of Islam. What's wrong with being religious, after all?

Anies, the founder of the nationwide Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia teaches) movement, has pledged that if he wins the election, he will establish Islamic study groups in government offices as an example to other cities across the country, and will encourage mass prayers, which are recommended in Islam.

Under governor Anies, we would therefore witness supposedly lazy and corrupt civil servants become more religious.

Mosques in the offices of the administration will be full. People, including me, will again conduct our prayers in public, not just in front of my wife.

I will start showing my ability to read and memorise the Quran like I used to at a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in East Java. All thanks to Anies.

Playing identity politics in this current wave of populism may indeed propel Anies to the governorship. He may make us all into devout civil servants.

But there are dramatic costs to playing the identity politics card. It is an extremely dangerous turn of affairs for those of us who cherish Indonesia's peaceful diversity.