Political Protests, Global Islam and National Activism: Deciphering the Motivations behind Indonesia’s “Conservative Turn”

By Chris Chaplin | LSE Fellow in Qualitative Methodology - The London School of Economics | Jan 23, 2018
Political Protests, Global Islam and National Activism: Deciphering the Motivations behind Indonesia’s “Conservative Turn”
Anti-Ahok protest - Jakarta - May 2017

Over the past 20 years, Indonesia — the world’s fourth most-populous country and the largest Muslim-majority nation — has evolved into a democracy based on tolerance and a moderate interpretation of Islam, and has emerged as one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. 

This essay is part of a series on “Indonesia and the Middle East: Exploring Connections,” which examines the nature, scope, and implications of Indonesia's ties with the MENA region. See more ...


 

Introduction

The growth Islamic conservativism within the Indonesian public sphere is seen to correlate with an influx of religious doctrines from the Middle East. The dissemination of ideas linked to Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood are frequently portrayed as foreign, and somewhat outside the boundaries of what is considered ‘Indonesian Islam’. Yet, as this article shows through the examination of the Majelis Intelektual dan Ulama Muda Indonesia (Council for Young and Intellectual Ulama of Indonesia, MIUMI), the success of Middle Eastern Islamic doctrines has less to do with undermining an “Indonesian” Islam, than adapting their basic tenets to the democratic environment and building bridges to established Indonesian religious institutions. Accordingly, “Indonesian” and “Middle Eastern” Islam are distinctions that are more malleable than they may first appear.

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The electoral defeat and subsequent conviction of the former Christian Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok), shocked both the international media and many Indonesians alike.[1] Coming on the back of massive demonstrations by Islamic activists who had accused him of insulting Islam, an issue for which he was later charged, it was seen as emblematic of a broader rise of global Islamic doctrines within the political and public sphere over the past decade.[2] Indeed, Ahok’s defeat and the successful use of religious identity for political purpose has augmented concerns Indonesian Islam was undergoing what Martin Van Bruinessen has previously referred to as a “conservative turn.”[3]

There is truth to the claim that global Islamic doctrines are becoming more prominent in Indonesian public discourse.

There is truth to the claim that global Islamic doctrines are becoming more prominent in Indonesian public discourse. Two of the primary organizers of the anti-Ahok demonstrations are Bachtiar Nasir and Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin, both of whom have been educated in Saudi Arabia. Yet, unpacking the dynamics of Islamic conservativism requires us to go beyond a dialectical understanding of “Indonesian” vs “foreign” or even “conservative” vs “reformist” types of Islam. A drive by Middle Eastern donors and religious scholars to spread “their” version of Islam does certainly exist,[4] but we must recognize that the success of Middle Eastern Islamic doctrines has more to do with the ability of Indonesian scholars to frame such religious ideas in ways that adapt it to Indonesia’s democratic climate.

This is certainly the case when considering Bachtiar Nasir and Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin. These individuals may have led the Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia (National Movement to Uphold the Fatwa of the Indonesian Council of Ulama, GNPF-MUI), [5] the main body that organized against Ahok, but they are also lead members of the pseudo government Indonesian Council of Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI), and founders of the MIUMI. It is this latter group, the MIUMI, which has proved most adept at mixing Middle Eastern Islamic doctrines with nationalist rhetoric, and is an ideological source from which a broader idea of an Islamic society — to which these protests are linked — is emerging.

Mixing Middle Eastern, Regional and National Islamic Influences

There is undoubtedly cause to think that Islam is gaining political significance in Indonesia. Aside from the campaign against Ahok, the country has witnessed increased discrimination against religious minorities,[6] public campaigns against Indonesia’s LGBT+ communities, and the prominence of religiously inspired vigilantes.[7] Furthermore, Michael Buehler and Elisabeth Pisani have recorded over 442 number of religiously inspired morality laws,[8] while an estimated 307 people have been caned in Aceh under Sharia regulations between 2010 and 2015.[9]

Yet, these instances do not point to a simple or linear process of “Islamization.” As Michael Buehler has noted, the process of democratization is not under direct threat from Islamic activists but has rather provided them with the very opportunities through which they can influence public debate. No longer circumscribed by the repressive atmosphere of Suharto’s authoritarian regime (1967-98), Islamic organizations have increasingly worked with politicians, such as Anies Baswedan, who defeated Ahok in the gubernatorial election. These politicians engage such groups in order to increase their religious credentials and their “electability” among the Muslim majority population.[10]

Democracy has proved a fertile environment in which Islamic groups can exert their influence, and many Islamic activists are adapting their rhetoric and activism to suit this climate.

Democracy has thus proved a fertile environment in which Islamic groups can exert their influence, and many Islamic activists are adapting their rhetoric and activism to suit this climate. MIUMI is exemplar of this trend. Simply put, MIUMI is an Islamic lobby formed in 2012 with the mission to assist the umma in its intellectual battle with those inspired by “Western” thinking. Its leaders include individuals from a variety of Indonesian Islamic organizations, including Persatuan Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. Yet, at its core lies a network of scholars with strong links to the Islamic University of Madinah (Saudi Arabia), the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (Malaysia), and the prestigious Islamic school, Pondok Pesantren Modern Darussalam Gontor (East Java).

MIUMI’s secretary general is the previously mentioned Bachtiar Nasir. Nasir is a member of the Muhammadiyah, but has links to Saudi Arabia and the Salafi doctrine.[11] Indeed, he is an alumnus of the Islamic University of Madinah (graduating in 1994) and is the head of the Indonesian alumni network for students who have studied in the Kingdom. Over the past five years, he has become an increasingly prominent actor in national debates on Islam and morality. Not only does he run his own Islamic school, the Ar-Rahman Quranic Learning Centre, in Jakarta, but writes commentaries in national newspapers and has appeared as a commentator on national television. He is, furthermore, the chairman of the Aliansi Cinta Keluarga (Love Family Alliance, ALIA), which aims to promote an “Islamic” understanding of the family through anti-LGBT+ campaigns. ALIA has also filed a judicial review at the constitutional court, arguing that extramarital relations are unconstitutional.[12]

Middle Eastern doctrines within MIUMI are also evident when looking at another one of its founders, Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin. Rasmin is a close associate of Nasir and a fellow alumnus of a Saudi religious institute. They worked together against Ahok, as Nasir acted as the head of the GNPF-MUI, and Rasmin as his deputy. Yet, Rasmin is also the leader of Wahdah Islamiyah, a nationwide Salafi-influenced organization with over 120 branches. Importantly, it is through Wahdah Islamiyah that MIUMI has been able to extend its reach beyond the capital city of Jakarta, as several of Wahdah’s regional branch leaders also double as leaders of MIUMI’s provincial offices. For instance, the Wahdah Islamiyah preacher Ridwan Hamidi leads MIUMI’s Yogyakarta office, while Rahmat Abdul Rahman leads its South Sulawesi outlet. Both, it should be noted, are alumni of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Madinah, and closely affiliated to Salafi doctrine.

Linkages to Salafism clearly influence MIUMI’s discourse, but the organization is not exclusively Salafi.

Linkages to Salafism clearly influence MIUMI’s discourse, but the organization is not exclusively Salafi. Instead, MIUMI exemplifies the relative ease at which the some Salafi scholars have come to work with like-minded Islamic intellectuals from more national and regional backgrounds. In particular, MIUMI’s current head is Dr. Hamid Fahmy Zarkasyi — an Islamic scholar who received his Masters from the University of Birmingham and his PhD from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (it has now been renamed the Ibn Khaldun International Institute of Advanced Research). In 2003, Zarkasyi founded the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought and Civilisations (INSISTS), an Indonesian Muslim think-tank. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the similar name, INSISTS is heavily influenced by the ideas of the Malaysian Islamic intellectual Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (who founded ISTAC in 1987).[13]

Importantly, Zarkasyi is also the director of cadrization at the Islamic Educational Institute, Gontor, in East Java. Gontor, established in 1926, is one of Indonesia’s most prestigious religious schools, with a long list of ministers and intellectuals having been former students. These alumni include the Islamic reformist Nurcholish Madjid as well as the former head of Jama’ah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. It also includes many of MIUMI’s key leaders, such as Asep Sobari, M. Khodori, and, importantly, Bachtiar Nasir. Many of MIUMI’s members edit Gontor’s monthly magazine (which is distributed nationally), and also teach at the school. Accordingly, MIUMI may have Salafi and Saudi inclinations, but it is also firmly ingrained in one of Indonesia’s most known religious institutions.

A War of Ideas

The linkages between Middle Eastern-influenced scholars, INSISTS, and Gontor denote the global, regional, and national overlap within MIUMI. It also underlines that MIUMI’s members are clearly well-educated and, as their name suggests, aim to provide an intellectual account for their Islamic doctrine. Crucial to this mission is an underlying belief that Indonesia is currently undergoing a battle of ideas between the West and Islam, which MIUMI mentions explicitly in their mission statement through the concept of ghazwul fikri (al-ghazw al-fikri, war of ideas).

The concept of ghazwul fikri became popular in the Middle East as a way to explain the Arab defeat during the Israeli-Arab six day war in 1967.[14] At its heart was the idea that defeat was not solely due to military weakness but due to Western efforts to alienate Muslims from their faith via the false doctrines of universalism (nationalism, liberalism, Marxism etc). Ghazwul fikri first entered Indonesia during the 1980s and resonated amongst religious study circles closely affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahdah Islamiyah. Since then it has become a common part of Muslims debates, especially among more socially conservative Islamic scholars.

MIUMI has adapted the idea of ghazwul fikri to the Indonesia context. Bachtiar Nasir has written that they must “save this (Indonesia) nation from the domination of foreign ideologies and concepts, especially those from the West.”[15] Zarkasyi has also warned Indonesian Muslims over the introduction of liberal, feminist and pluralist notions from the West — believing these many Muslims in Indonesia seemingly “mix” liberal and Islamic perspectives without realizing that this corrupts Islamic dictums. As he urges followers, “in the era of ghazwul fikri what is needed are fatwa’s that concern (Islamic) thinking.”[16] Accordingly, one of MIUMI’s missions is to ensure the Indonesian Council of Ulama — upon which several of MIUMI’s members actually sit — passes fatwa of a conservative nature.

Anti-Shi’ism made initial inroads through the influx of Salafism in Indonesia during the 1980-90s, but has since become mainstream.

The adoption of Middle Eastern religious ideas does not end there; MIUMI is part of a growing anti-Shi’a front within Indonesia. According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, anti-Shi’ism made initial inroads through the influx of Salafism in Indonesia during the 1980-90s, but has since become mainstream.[17] MIUMI has adopted this anti-Shi’a tract from its leaders who have either studied in Saudi Arabia or have Salafi affiliations. It is not just Bachtiar Nasir and Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin who are antagonizing against the Shi’a; one of MIUMI’s leading members is Faird Okhbah, a vehement anti-Shi’a cleric with Salafi affiliations, although he was once part of the militant Jamaah Islamiyah.[18]

Kholil Hasib, a MIUMI member who also teaches at Gontor, has accused the Shi’a of hating the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (sahaba), and of being part of a world-wide plot to take over Sunni countries. He believes this is run via the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC) in Jakarta, which acts as a fifth column for Iran.[19] This latter idea is not unique to MIUMI, as the idea that Iran, via the ICC, is attempting to infiltrate Sunni Muslim countries is a frequent trait of Indonesian Salafi discourse.[20] Yet, what MIUMI has done is give it an “Indonesian” narrative, as they further argue that Shi’ism has never been part of Islam within the Southeast Asian archipelago despite historical claims to the contrary.[21]

From Rhetoric into Action

Ghazwul fikri, the desire to create an intellectual Islamic project, and a vehement anti-Shi’ism have all become crucial aspects of MIUMI’s approach to Indonesian society and politics. While there is certainly a degree of dissonance in arguing that one must defend Indonesian Muslims from “foreign” (i.e., Western) thought by drawing on Middle Eastern (foreign) scholars, MIUMI has been surprisingly successful in framing its message as inherently Indonesian. In so doing, the ability to adapt to the political climate, and blend local and global resources has been key. 

MIUMI has been surprisingly successful in framing its message as inherently Indonesian. 

MIUMI’s activists also promote their ideas through writings, social media, mosque sermons, and political lobbying. One example of this occurred in 2012, when MIUMI mobilized against a proposed gender equality bill that was being debated in the national parliament. MIUMI’s members used mosque lectures at an opportunity to condemn the bill, given it borrowed its definition of gender and equality from Western international precepts (specifically the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). At the end of their sermon they then passed round petitions and urged the audience to sign them, after which they would forward them on to parliament.[22]

Such activism is also evident if we refocus our attention onto the anti-Ahok demonstrations. Charges of blasphemy may have been a convenient method through which politicians and Islamic activists came together to frame their opposition toward the former governor, but for those affiliated to MIUMI it was part of a greater mission to stem foreign and non-Muslim influence. Both Bachtiar Nasir and Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin had joined public efforts to find a Muslim alternative to Ahok in June 2016 — three months before he was accused of blasphemy. Although these efforts were quickly eclipsed by the GNPF-MUI, it is notable that they selected Sandiago Uno, Anies Baswaden’s running mate, as their preferred candidate at the time.

Nasir and Rasmin certainly played a key role in organizing demonstrations against Ahok, but this was part of a larger sustained project to change society. Indeed, during the elections they used the media spotlight to distribute materials that listed the reasons why Muslims could only vote for Muslim politicians, held numerous sermons about politics and Islam, worked with electoral officials to “monitor” the election, and even initiated a number of small socio-economic projects in order to strengthen the idea of a coherent Islamic economy.[23] Indeed, politicians, such as Anies Baswedan, may have sought religious allies to increase their vote count, but those affiliated to MIUMI have a much broader view of Islam and society.

Conclusion

Deciphering the ways in which foreign Islamic ideas have gained ground in Indonesia is cause for uncomfortable reading. As both MIUMI and the anti-Ahok demonstrations allude to, the concept that Indonesia is undergoing a war of ideas against non-Muslims has not been forced upon the country through direct interventions by Middle Eastern donors, but filters through via recognized Islamic scholars, schools and institutions. There is a degree of adaptation and contextualization involved; moreover, MIUMI’s leading individuals, such as Nasir and Rasmin, have proven adept at framing their message in inherently Indonesian terminology. Indeed, their views have gained political currency, as officials have sought to use Islam in order to discredit their opponents. Yet, by forming alliances with conservative Islamic activists, politicians lend further credibility to the latters’ Islamic agenda. Pragmatism may dictate political calculations, but it would be wrong to think that MIUMI and their allies have taken their eye off the long-term societal transformations that they seek to catalyze.




[1] Richard C. Paddock, “Indonesia Governor’s Loss Shows Increasing Power of Islamists,” The New York Times, May 6 2017; and Andreas Harsono, “Indonesia's Courts Have Opened the Door to Fear and Religious Extremism,” The Guardian, May 10, 2017.

[2] For example, see Margaret Scott, “Indonesia: The Saudis Are Coming,”  The New York Review of Books (2016); Fred R. Von der Mehden, “Saudi Religious Influence in Indonesia,” Middle East Institute (2014); and Krithika Varagur, “Indonesia's Moderate Islam Is Slowly Crumbling,” February 14, 2017.

[3] Martin Van Bruinessen, ed. Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the 'Conservative Turn' (Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), 2013).

[4] Chris Chaplin, “Imagining the Land of the Two Holy Mosques: The Social and Doctrinal Importance of Saudi Arabia in Indonesian Salafi Discourse,” Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies 7, 2 (2014).

[5] The National Movement to Uphold the Fatwa of the Indonesian Council of Ulama was formed in response to as fatwa that was passed by the Indonesian Council of Ulama on October 11, 2016. This fatwa determined that Ahok had committed blasphemy and that he should consequently be prosecuted.

[6] Chiara Formichi, “Violence, Sectarianism, and the Politics of Religion: Articulations of Anti-Shi'a Discourses in Indonesia,” Indonesia 98 (2014); Human Rights Watch, "In Religion's Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia,” 2013.

[7] Ian Doughlas Wilson, “As Long as Its Halal: Islamic Preman in Jakarta,” in Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, ed. Greg Fealy and Sally White (Singapore: ISEAS, 2008).

[8] Michael Buehler and Elizabeth Pisani, “Why Do Indonesian Politicians Promote Shari'a Laws? An Analytic Framework for Muslim-Majority Democracies,” Third World Quarterly  (2016).

[9] This estimate is based on news articles, and government press releases collected during this period by the author.

[10] Michael Buehler, The Politics of Shari'a Law: Islamist Activists and the State in Democratizing Indonesia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[11] My definition of Salafism follows a growing number of studies into the movement. Briefly put, it is a movement that, in its latest form, arose in Saudi Arabia during the 1960s and aims to emulate the Prophet Muhammad, his companions and the two subsequent generations of Muslims (the sahaba, al-tabi’in, and tabi’ al-tabi’in) in every aspect of their life. They do this by attempting to following the Qur’an and Sunna in every aspect of their life. For more information on Salafism, please see Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (London, UK: Hurst and Company, 2011); Noorhaidi Hasan, “The Salafi Movement in Indonesia: Transnational Dynamics and Local Development,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27, 1 (2007); Anabel Inge, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2017); Martijn De Koning, “How Should I Live as a ‘True’ Muslim? Regimes of Living among Dutch Muslims in the Salafi Movement,” Etnofoor 25, 2 (2013); Roel Meijer (Ed.), Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement (London, U.K.: Hurst and Company, 2009); Zoltan Pall, Lebanese Salafis between the Gulf and Europe: Development, Fractionalisation and Transnational Networks of Salafism in Lebanon (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam Univeristy Press, 2013).

[12] Muhammad Tanziel Aziezi, “Is Anyone Watching the Constitutional Court Judges?” in Indonesia at Melbourne (University of Melbourne, 2016).

[13] Briefly stated, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas is a Malaysian intellectual who advocates for the Islamization of knowledge. He has written over 20 books, received his Masters from McGill University and his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

[14] Martin Van Bruinessen, “Ghazwul Fikri or Arabisation? Indonesian Muslims Responses to Globalisation,” in Dynamics of Southeast Asian Muslims in the Era of Globalisation, ed. Ken Miichi and Omar Farouk (Tokyo: Japan International Cooperation Agency Research Institute, 2013).

[15] Bachtiar Nasir, “Sambutan Miumi (Welcome from Miumi),” in Hamid Fahmy Zarkasyi (Ed.), Misykat: Refleksi Tentang Westernisasi, Liberalisasi, Dan Islam (Jakarta: Majelis Intelektual dan Ulama Muda Indonesia (MIUMI), 2012): xiv.

[16] Hamid Fahmy Zarkasyi, Misykat: Refleksi Tentang Westernisasi, Liberalisasi, Dan Islam (Jakarta: Majelis Intelektual dan Ulama Muda Indonesia (MIUMI), 2012) 249.

[17] IPAC, “The Anti-Shi'a Movement in Indonesia,” in IPAC Report No.27 (Jakarta, Indonesia: Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2016).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Kholili Hasib, “Syiah: Antara Hakikat Akidah Dan Isu Ukhuwah (2),” News Release, 2013, accessed November 15, 2017, .

[20]  For example, one of the county’s initial Salafi scholars is Abu Nida. Trained in Saudi Arabia, I observed several of his lectures in Yogyakarta in 2012, in which he consistently refers to the dangers of Shi’a infiltration and that the ICC as an organisation controlled by Iran.

[21]  An example of this narrative by MIUMI affiliated scholars can be seen in Syamsuddin Arif, “Islam Di Nusantara: Historiografi Dan Metodologi,” Islamia (Journal of INSISTS) VII, 2 (2012).

[22]  I observed this during a joint MIUMI-Wahdah Islamiyah lecture in Yogyakarta, 22 May 2012. The proposed law has been permanently delayed, although we cannot attribute its failure solely to MIUMI’s efforts. A lack of political will, as well as larger opposition from Islamic organisations were also key factors.  

[23] Small booklets that underlined nine reasons why Muslims were only allowed to vote for a Muslim were distributed across Jakarta prior to the campaign. Furthermore, in the final weeks of the election, leading members of the GNPF-MUI held a series of economic Sharia workshops, out of which 4 ‘Sharia’ convenience stores, named KitaMarts, were opened in Java.