JAKARTA — With volcano Mt. Agung billowing ash into the sky above his home island, the majority-Hindu Bali, Khairy Susanto was unsure if he would be able to fly home on December 3, the day after he joined tens of thousands of fellow Indonesian Islamists at a rally held in the shadow of Monas, the national monument that towers over a huge plaza across the street from the presidential palace in Jakarta.
“Inshallah, we can fly, but it doesn’t matter, we will be ok,” he said. “We are happy to be here today to celebrate our victory.”
The event was organized to mark a year since an estimated half million people chanted in the rain for the arrest of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Governor of Jakarta.
Purnama, a Protestant of Chinese descent nicknamed “Ahok,” since lost the gubernatorial election and was jailed for two years in May on the same blasphemy charges that twice brought hundreds of thousands of people onto Jakarta’s streets late last year.
Former education minister Anies Baswedan beat Purnama in an April run-off election, a win many put down to his election campaign dalliance with the Islamists who rallied to prevent the election of a non-Muslim.
Acknowledging the role the anti-Ahok demonstrations played in his election win, Baswedan paid tribute on Dec. 2 last, saying “Jakarta is ours. It doesn’t only belong to some of us. The city should be happy, calm and comfortable because of our faith and piety.”
Baswedan, who is of Yemeni descent, gave an even more divisive inaugural speech upon taking office as Jakarta governor, during which he invoked the rights of “pribumi” or “native” Indonesians, a dog-whistle that contradicted Indonesia’s national motto “unity in diversity” as it implied that Indonesians of Chinese descent are second-class citizens.
The size of and vitriol espoused during the 2016 demonstrations — banners and speeches called for Purnama to executed — evoked memories of the 1998 demonstrations that ended three decades of Suharto dictatorship. That uprising was marred by racist riots against Indonesia’s Chinese-descent minority, during which hundreds of women were raped and properties looted and destroyed.
“It is better for us that he [Purnama] serves his sentence, there will be less anger and threats to us,” said a Chinese-Indonesian finance professional working in the energy sector, who asked not to be named.
The crusade against Jakarta’s Christian governor alarmed many not simply because it was an indication of the strength of Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI, to use the Indonesian acronym), but because it suggested that mainstream, ostensibly secular opponents of President Joko Widodo saw benefit in hijacking Islamism for potential gains ahead of national elections scheduled for 2019.
Not only was there the prospect of unseating the vulnerable Purnama, but with national elections now less than two years away, the chance for Widodo’s political opponents to challenge him over contentious identity politics.
“They try to play the similar tactics and prepare for the next election,” said Bonar Tigor Naispospos of the Setara Institute, a research organization that tracks religion and politics in Indonesia.
Baswedan’s candidacy was rooted in his firing as education minister by Widodo — a ruthless annulment of an alliance that helped Widodo win the 2014 presidential election. Almost inevitably, Baswedan ended up being backed by Widodo’s defeated 2014 rival and likely opponent again in 2019, former general Prabowo Subianto, who spent years in political exile due to his role in fomenting those deadly 1998 anti-Chinese riots.
There is little doubt that groups such as the FPI are on the front foot, emboldened not only by their success in ousting Purnama, but by a tincture of respectability derived from a new found willingness of mainstream politicians to share a stage with them.
Baswedan “weaponized” the blasphemy issue and made the FPI more powerful, according to Boston University’s Jeremy Menchik, author of Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism.
Toward the end of the massive anti-Ahok protest held on Dec. 2 2016, the president himself made the short walk from the palace to the protest stage, joining FPI leader Rizieq Shihab in a few minutes of crowd-pleasing fist-pumping and chants of “allahu akbar.”
But for all that posturing, there is scant indication that political Islam — say in the form of a local version of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power, much less any kind of “Taliban Nusantara” — is about to take hold in the world’s biggest Muslim population country.
There are faint memories of the Darul Islam insurgency, where Islamist fighters with strongholds in Aceh, West Java and South Sulawesi fought to undermine the secular leftwing nationalist Indonesia envisioned by the country’s first post-colonial leaders.
The current Indonesian government wants stability and an Islam sufficiently a-political to be one less thing concern for foreign investors, who already have hurdles like choking traffic, substandard infrastructure and a thicket of sometimes contradictory rules to contend with.
The state ideology pancasila recognizes 6 religions, meaning that groups in breach of those rules leave themselves open to being outlawed — as seen in the government’s banning of the local wing of Hizbut Tahrir, a transnational Islamist movement that wants a caliphate, or supranational Islamic state, just days after Purnama was jailed.
Indeed some of Indonesia’s Islamic parties and some leaders of the country’s mass membership Islamic charities Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama endorsed Purnama for re-election. Ironically some of Ahok’s Muslim supporters of cited the same brusque “can-do” approach that arguably got him trouble in the first place with his criticism of politicians who he accused of misrepresenting the Koran to sway voters away from politicians of other religions.
Moreover despite Indonesia’s decentralized governance system, Aceh is the only province where Islamic laws can be implemented — a one-off concession by Jakarta granted as part of a 2005 peace deal with the country’s westernmost region. Aceh fought a gruelling thirty year secessionist campaign based in part on an aversion to the less-strict Islam seen elsewhere on the archipelago.
The Islamists that protested against Purnama do not claim any link to the bloodthirsty Al-Qaeda affiliates who in 2002 killed 202 people in Bali — or their successors who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the so-called Islamic State.
But with IS eclipsed in the Middle East, there are fears that those fighters who have evaded the multi-front advances made on their fallen strongholds will continue to resurface in Southeast Asia. This danger was seen the January 2016 IS attack Jakarta that came shortly after IS had started shedding territory in Iraq and Syria.
Malaysia and Indonesia say that hundreds of their nationals have been deported after being caught trying to cross into Syria or Iraq from Turkey.
A 2017 battle for the southern Philippines town Marawi could prove inspirational for would-be jihadists, with dozens of Indonesians and Malaysians joining local IS allies in a battle that tied down the U.S.-backed national army for five months
Blasting a dog-whistle that made Anies Baswedan seem like a pot-stirring racist uncle by comparison, the IS propaganda magazine Dabiq carried the following suggestion for militants unable to fight in Iraq or Syria:
“What, for example, prevents him from targeting Rāfidī communities in Dearborn (Michigan), Los Angeles, and New York City? Or targeting Panamanian diplomatic missions in Jakarta, Doha, and Dubai? Or targeting Japanese diplomatic missions in Bosnia, Malaysia, and Indonesia?”
The rise of another powerful group of religious protestors elsewhere in the region has given Islamists in Indonesia another cause to rally behind. The expulsion since August of more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar has prompted protests in Jakarta and Dhaka, and focused attention on the influence in Myanmar of hardline Buddhists led by monk Wirathu, who has accused Muslims of “breeding like carp” and called a visiting United Nations official “a whore” for her withering assessment of how Rohingya are treated in Myanmar.
According to an October U.N. report, Myanmar Army reprisals after deadly attacks on border posts in late 2016 and again in August this year “effectively erase all signs of memorable landmarks in the geography of the Rohingya landscape and memory in such a way that a return to their lands would yield nothing but a desolate and unrecognizable terrain.” Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, describing them as “Bengali” immigrants.
Of the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, many are corralled into ghetto camps on the outskirts of towns such as Sittwe — just a few miles from their former homes, which were mostly burnt down during pogroms in 2012.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and once a global icon of resistance to dictatorship, has seen her international reputation destroyed by her reluctance to stem the Rohingya exodus or to even counsel against the army’s scorched earth counter attack.
Even Pope Francis tiptoed around Myanmar’s sectarian divisions during his recent visit to the country — deferring to popular and official opinion by neglecting to use the term “Rohingya” in public.
*report filed as part of wider Nikkei Asian Review article on similar groups across Southeast AsiaShow