Ken Ward: Indonesia lacks answers to rise of political Islam- Nikkei Asian Review

More on Indonesia and the challenge of Islamic fundamentalists:

Purnama’s defeat and imprisonment also pose questions for Indonesia’s future as a country reputed for pluralism and tolerance, as well as for the “moderate” orientation of most of its Muslims. As happened in many Middle Eastern countries in recent decades, secular nationalism appears to be weakening in Indonesia and a less tolerant form of Islam seems to be consolidating itself. Secular nationalism in Indonesia has never found an eloquent and effective champion since President Sukarno, who died 47 years ago.

The tens of thousands of Indonesians who participated in the rallies held over the last six months were by no means all followers of HTI, the Islamic Defenders’ Front (IDF) or other radical Muslim groups. According to Greg Fealy, also of the Australian National University, and an astute observer of Indonesia’s Muslim politics, many of the participants saw the demonstrations as a legitimate form of religious activity and did not support radical political objectives such as the nationwide adoption of Islamic law.

Those rallies were usually termed actions “to defend Islam,” echoing the IDF’s name. This highlights an advantage that Muslim activists have over secularist or other opponents. It is much easier to “prove” that Islam is under attack than to show that, for example, secular nationalism is under threat. This is partly because the endless wars taking place throughout the Muslim world, largely waged by the U.S. with its local allies against various Muslim opponents, give an international dimension to claims that Islam is under threat.

Moreover, as Islam is by far Indonesia’s majority religion, it is easy to mount the case that Muslims are somehow under-represented. For example, if the governor of the capital city of a Muslim-majority nation like Indonesia is a non-Muslim, it is easy to argue that Muslims are obviously being denied their appropriate place. This is leading to a de facto redefinition, if not abandonment, of Indonesia’s longstanding national motto, Unity in Diversity: Non-Muslims may be elected to govern in non-Muslim-majority regions or cities, but not in Muslim-majority ones, according to such a redefinition.

The ideological counterpoint to Islam in Indonesia is Pancasila, the national doctrine or ideology. But its lofty if essentially generic principles lack an emotional pull. They do not lend themselves to being turned into catchy slogans for mass rallies. Nor does Pancasila have any international connection. A massacre of Christians in Egypt, for example, will not be seen to threaten Pancasila or bring pro-Pancasila demonstrators into the streets.

…HTI is a non-violent organization, however, and a court may refuse to ban it merely on the grounds of its long-term objectives. As pointed out by a former justice and human rights minister, the government has so far ignored the complex procedures it should follow before asking a court to ban HTI. The full legal process can take up to a year.

Such a long period will give Muslim organizations ample opportunity to combat what they will condemn as a new threat to Islam. The attempt to put HTI on trial cannot be blamed on Purnama. Instead Widodo will, correctly, be held responsible. He risks being targeted as anti-Muslim if HTI is banned, and as incompetent if it is not. In any case, Widodo has unintentionally offered his Muslim opponents a platform that will allow them to maintain their recent high level of activism.

Indonesia needs to develop an effective strategy for containing hardline currents of Islam, but the Widodo government has none. Focused primarily on securing investment for infrastructure and increasing gross domestic product, Widodo lacks the vision needed to reverse the trend toward intolerance.

Muslim influence from abroad, particularly the increasing spread of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam, threatens Indonesia’s traditions, which urgently require revitalization. Lately, however, the main vehicles for moderate Islam, Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have allowed themselves to be upstaged by their radical counterparts. As for Widodo, whether or not he is re-elected in 2019, he does not seem to be a leader capable of restoring balance between political Islam and nationalism, or of inspiring a restoration of traditional Indonesian Muslim values of tolerance and respect for other religions.

Source: Ken Ward: Indonesia lacks answers to rise of political Islam- Nikkei Asian Review

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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