Poll shows radical Islamization challenging Indonesia’s democracy


The Christian governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, lost a bitterly contested race on Wednesday that was widely seen as a test of religious and ethnic tolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, the New York Times reports:

Just hours after the polls closed, the governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, conceded defeat to his main challenger, Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education, who had a commanding lead in the voting. Mr. Basuki congratulated Mr. Anies and implored his supporters to “forget all the things that happened during the campaign” — a reference to the religious and racially tinged nature of the election.

Islamist primordialism

Credit: NDI

“I would call it a resounding victory for Anies,” said Kevin Evans, a political analyst in Jakarta.

“What’s more important to me is how this might mobilize the pluralists to get more engaged and push back against this creeping Islamist primordialism,” Mr. Evans added. “If it energizes the center and left to start thinking seriously on these things, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised Indonesia’s democracy and moderate form of Islam on Thursday alongside the president of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. But observers fear that the country’s brand of civil Islam is being undermined by Saudi-funded Wahhabi radicals.

“It’s a challenge for Indonesia’s democracy,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice chairman of the executive board of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, a research institute in Jakarta. “It shows to me that Islamization is deepening in society, especially in urban areas and cities,” he said.

According to Karen B. Brooks, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia, Council on Foreign Relations, “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.

The blasphemy case against Ahok, the large scale of protests against him, and the attacks on his Chinese ethnicity are threatening the reputation of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim democracy, as a model nation for practicing a moderate form of Islam, reports suggest.

“It’s a new era for the state,” says I Ketut Putra Erawan, executive director of Indonesia’s Peace and Democracy Institute. “Identity issues are creeping now.”

It was in 2004, as a PhD student in political science at Northern Illinois University, that Anies Baswedan pondered the future interplay between Islam and Indonesia, the Guardian reports:

In his paper, “political Islam in Indonesia, present and future trajectory,” Baswedan pointed out that, “fertile ground exists for Islam-friendly political parties to attract considerable support from ‘Muslim’ voters.” Muslim voters, he explains in the footnotes, referred to devout and practising adherents of the faith…. [I]n the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, the messaging has been effective. According to the SMRC survey, the main reason voters are choosing Baswedan is because they share the same religion.

“It’s ideology,” explains Hendro Prasteyo, a professor of political sociology at Indonesia’s State Islamic University. “Most people don’t have sufficient information about Anies so what they see is Anies is against Ahok, and Ahok is Christian and Chinese, that’s it. That’s a very simplified way of understanding, and that’s enough. It shows how religion in Indonesia is still very, very important, and it’s dangerous,” he says.

“Going forward, the politics of religion is going to be a potent force,” said Keith Loveard, an analyst at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting and an author of books about Indonesian politics.

The salience of identity politics in countries like Indonesia or Iraq explains the explosion of creative institutional design in new democracies, says analyst Benjamin Reilly, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Scholars and policymakers interested in the management of ethnic conflict have engaged in overt “political engineering” with the aim of promoting stable democracies in deeply divided societies, he wrote for World Politics Review.

After the fall of its authoritarian regime in 1998, Indonesia pursued an unusual course of democratization, Donald L. Horowitz wrote in Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia:

It was insider-dominated and gradualist, and it involved free elections before a lengthy process of constitutional reform. At the end of the process, Indonesia’s amended constitution was essentially a new and thoroughly democratic document. By proceeding as they did, the Indonesians averted the conflict that would have arisen between adherents of the old constitution and proponents of radical, immediate reform. Gradual reform also made possible the adoption of institutions that preserved pluralism and pushed politics toward the center. The resulting democracy has a number of prominent flaws, largely attributable to the process chosen, but is a better outcome than the most likely alternatives.

“The question after the fall of Suharto was how to democratize — the people who inherited his mantle realized they had to become democrats pretty fast,” said Horowitz, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “They reformed themselves and they reformed the laws and held a free election the next year, and so they were joined in parliament by the people who were in the opposition parties.  They decided together that they would make the constitution rather than send it to an outside commission or to a separately elected constituent assembly.”

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