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The Changing Profile of Islam in Indonesia – from syncretic and inclusive to orthodox and exclusive

Indonesian Islam may be departing from its syncretic tradition to a more conservative, exclusivist and textual Islam (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@bhinnekaone5)

The controversy that erupted at the end of last year over naming a street in the Menteng central district of Jakarta after the founding father of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is another example of the changing profile of Indonesian Islam, which may be departing  from its syncretic tradition to a more conservative, exclusivist and textual Islam. Despite Indonesia’s reputation for a traditionally moderate brand of Islam, religious conservativism is gaining considerable political traction in recent years, with people leaning more and more towards Sharia Laws. Initiated in 2009, bylaws in the light of Sharia rulings were implemented that conflict with the values of human rights, and are creating a difficult land for minorities to live in. Sharia law is spreading throughout all of the provinces of Indonesia; citizens are enacting their own variations of Islamic laws, and applying them to non-Muslims as well.

Indonesian government’s plan to rename the street to reciprocate a similar gesture made by the Turkish government, has drawn criticism from Indonesian Ulema and an Islam-based opposition party. The move was proposed to deepen Indonesia and Turkey’s relationship, Indonesian Ambassador to Turkey Lalu Muhammad Iqbal said, adding that the Turkish government had already approved the Indonesian government's proposal to rename a street in front of the Indonesian embassy in Ankara after Indonesian founding father Sukarno. “What was seen as a symbol of close diplomatic relations between the two countries has divided the city’s Muslim population and, due to the sensitivity of the matter, the government may have to look for a plan B,” commented Jakarta Post in an editorial at the height of the controversy. Indonesian government had already suggested to Turkey to choose the name of a city in the country rather than Ataturk to avoid hurting the sentiments of the Muslim groups in Indonesia.

MUI’s role in Islamic conservatism in Indonesia

While Turkey looks to have found no problem with Indonesia’s request, the conservative Muslims in Indonesia cannot accept their government’s tribute to Ataturk, who is seen by conservative Muslims as heretic. Ranging from Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia -MUI) deputy chairman Anwar Abbas to Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera-PKS) politician Hidayat Nur Wahid, they insist the government find a replacement for Ataturk. For Anwar, the government’s move “will hurt Indonesian Muslims”. The MUI’s objections to Ataturk’s name for a street is nothing surprising. The country’s highest Muslim clerical council issued in 2005 a fatwa that banned liberalism, pluralism and secularism (sipilis), among other controversial non-binding, but influential, edicts. In fact, one can even argue that signs of mainstreaming Islamic conservatism in Indonesia can be traced to the MUI’s edict on sipilis being incompatible with Islam.

This “Arabisation” of Islam in Indonesia was partly influenced by the transnational Islamic movement and the strengthening of conservative factions within mainstream Islamic organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), whose role in defining the friendly moderate Indonesian Islam was weakened. The MUI has successfully disseminated anti-pluralist ideas since 2005 simply because the state provided the group with the opportunity to gain support from conservative Muslims. This was quite evident from Indonesia’s sixth President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s statement during the opening of MUI’s national congress on July 26, 2005 when he said: “We want to place [the council] in a central role in matters regarding the Islamic faith, so that it becomes clear what the difference is between areas that are the preserve of the state and areas where the government or state should heed the fatwas from the council and ulamas.”

This statement shows the state had a vital role in strengthening the MUI’s position, through which the organisation became more authoritative and influential in society. The MUI’s 2005 fatwa on sipilis, for example, had legitimised vigilante groups to enforce Islamic morality. That same year, MUI also declared Ahmadiyya a deviant sect, prompting persecution of its followers. In 2006, MUI successfully demanded the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs issue a joint decision on regulating the building of places of worship. Following this, violence against the Christian minority increased. From that time onwards hardliners have started to dominate political discourse.

Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial race, in which a Christian of Chinese descent was defeated after a backlash from religious groups, is often cited as an example of rising intolerance seemed to mark a turning point for the country’s Islamist movements, highlighting their unprecedented strength. During the campaign for the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial elections, thousands of Muslims gathered in massive demonstrations against Ahok, the initial frontrunner and a candidate from a minority ethnicity and religion, accusing him of blasphemy. Many observers have looked at the unprecedented size of the anti-Ahok rallies and their electoral context as a watershed in the evolution of Indonesian Islam. Indonesia—where 88% of its 270 million people are Muslim—is officially a secular country. The national ideology of Pancasila proclaims unity and equality between all recognized faiths. Yet, Islamic conservatives have been making inroads in recent years, both by enforcing greater observance on the regional level and by changing national legislation.

Sources of Radicalization

The election and trial have exposed increasing radicalization in Indonesia, especially among the young. There are several sources of this radicalization, including domestic ones, but one major factor is a well-funded Saudi network of schools, scholarships, imams, and mosques that try to replace local interpretations of Islam, which have usually encouraged democracy and peaceful relations between religions, with Saudi Wahhabism. Such Saudi influence has reappeared at several key junctures in Indonesian history. Why did the conservative faction of “Indonesian Islam” became dominant in Indonesia’s democratic era and the moderate faction less so? To answer this question, we should put contestation between conservatives and moderates within the context of competition over power and resources. Radical Islam and violent extremism in Indonesia are only the tip of the iceberg—a resurgence of conservative Islamic ideology and large-scale Islamisation of Indonesian society has occurred over the nearly two-decade old Reform Era. And this conservative turn is powered by growing numbers of highly effective and nimble conservative groups and leaders that leverage on the star power of charismatic leaders and digital marketing to disseminate a conservative ideology to the millennial generation, argues some scholars.

Counter movement to Political Islam

Despite the rise of Islamism and conservatism in Indonesia, all is not lost on the religious front. In recent years Indonesia has seen the development of a network of various Muslim NGOs that convey a contemporary understanding of Islam, working to counter the advance of Islamization. To offer a counterbalance to radical Islam, numerous liberal Muslim groups have been founded, such as the "Liberal Islam Network" (Jaringan Islam Liberal- JIL), which was established in 2001 in the capital of Jakarta. The organization's stated goal is to encourage dialogue among Islamic groups with a liberal understanding of Islam and to create a journalistic platform for analysis, background reports and interviews. JIL also conduct workshops, public discussions and radio talk shows to discuss the current challenges for Muslim society. JIL is a small movement dominated by young journalists and Islamic scholars. They are committed to inter-religious dialogue and to maintaining the secularism and pluralism of Indonesian society.

The group emphatically rejects the literal interpretation of the Koran and advocates a contemporary Islam that respects freedom of opinion, women's rights and tolerance toward minorities and other religious communities. Similarly, the Indonesian women's rights organization "Rahima" has been taking an Islamic perspective on women's emancipation and fighting for a political voice for women in Indonesian society, among other things. The organization sees educational work as its primary task, especially in the rural districts of Central Java. "Rahima" cooperates especially closely with teaching staff at Islamic boarding schools, the so-called "pesantren" (equivalent of Madrasa in India), and at other Islamic Institutions, where they advocate for a modern understanding of Islam.

When Rahima was founded, the primary goal of the organization was to reach the Islamic boarding schools in the country and their directors (Qiay), the second step being to sensitize the teachers at these schools. At special seminars and training sessions, private lecturers are trained to act as mediators, communicating their liberal conceptions of Islam to students and teachers in the local communities. This strategy is also shared by other liberal Islamic organizations: for instance, for years "Rahima" has cooperated successfully with the "Wahid Institute", named after the country's former president and probably its best-known Islamic scholar, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur).

Education and dialogue as the key to success

Founded in 2004, the "Wahid Institute" is another NGO committed to a tolerant, pluralistic Islam and to democratic reforms in Indonesia. Just like "Rahima", the organization targets Islamic boarding schools (pesantren); forming an independent school system, they are largely free from state control and hence harbour the greatest danger that the advance of Wahhabism will subject students and teachers to Islamist indoctrination. All the groups in the liberal Islamic network share one main approach toward curbing the influence of Islamist hardliners: education and dialogue as the key to mutual understanding in the multi-ethnic state of Indonesia. The government of Indonesia under the leadership of President Joko Widodo has also taken measures to curb the rise of Islamic extremism.

Also Read: Why do many in Indonesia and Southeast Asia support Russia in its war with Ukraine?

(Baladas Ghoshal, is a former Professor and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University & Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)