Islam and politics: Indonesia’s identity crisis

The blasphemy charges against Jakarta’s governor will put Indonesia’s democracy and national identity to the test.

Jakarta governor accused of blasphemy
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja 'Ahok' Purnama is under investigation for an alleged crime of blasphemy [EPA]

Modern Indonesia is testimony to the ability of transition democracies to construct a constitutional framework that can guarantee equality, security and freedom from discrimination for all citizens.

Since 1998’s Reformasi (the period of transition after the fall of Indonesia’s dictator, Suharto), Indonesians have seen how political reforms can deliver freedom of expression, consolidate the role of political parties – including Islamic parties – and for Indonesians to exercise their right to vote in open and transparent elections.

Yet, almost two decades later, we are witnessing a significant political crisis that suggests there is a widening gulf between those who support constitutional government, and those who use Islam as a basis to challenge the pluralist assumptions behind contemporary democratic politics.

Indeed, the now-regular appeals to Indonesians to promote their identity as members of the ummah as a priority over being members of the voting public, means that religious identity threatens to displace citizenship as a key organising principle.

The raising of a charge of blasphemy against the Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, is presenting a major challenge for President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi).

The case arises in the middle of a hard-fought campaign in which Ahok is seeking to be elected in his own right, after assuming the post following Jokowi’s move into national politics.

The blasphemy charge

Ahok was formally named a suspect on November 16 by the Indonesian National Police, after less than two weeks of mounting pressure, driven by radicals and conservative Muslims who mobilised tens of thousands in a rally on November 4, in Central Jakarta.

The key group behind the rally was the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). FPI accused Ahok of insulting the Quran when he encouraged a small audience, during his work visit, not to be deceived by those who sought to use Quranic verse of Al-Maidah 51 to prevent voters selecting a non-Muslim leader.

The allegation of blasphemy against Ahok was validated by a fatwa issued by National Ulama Council (MUI). This quasi-government institution was created under the authoritarian government of Suharto in the early 1970s, and it regularly seeks to express authoritative rulings on issues of public interest.

The meaning and application Al-Maidah 51 was subject to debate in the weeks leading up to the rally. Opinion among everyone, from noted Islamic scholars to ordinary members of the public, ranged across fundamental questions, including the importance of both the Quran and “ulama” to Muslim identity and citizenship, to the meaning of the verse itself, and methods of Quranic interpretation.

Long applauded as a moderate and pluralist Muslim nation (the home of 'smiling Islam') Indonesia has regularly resolved political debates about religion and the state by settling upon constitutional and democratic mechanisms.


Despite this open and public debate, those attacking Ahok are adamant that the faith had been insulted.

Moreover, the candidate and all others not sharing their view have been labelled “liberal” or “kafir” (unbeliever).

Even respected scholars including Professor Syafii Maarif, the former Chairman of the leading modernist Muslim group Muhammadiyah is not exempt from attack and criticism.

Identity politics

For moderate Muslims, however, the case is primarily political and represents driven a classic, multilayered Jakarta political drama.

The leader of FPI, Habib Rizieq, a member of the small Indonesian Arabic community, is known to have strong links with Jakarta’s indigenous population, the Betawi.

More controversially, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is suspected to be behind the rally, since he is assisting his son, Agus Yudhoyono, in his bid for the governorship.

Yudhoyono favoured conservative religious causes during his time as president and the candidacy of his son, who retired from the military to stand, is a political gamble to keep the family’s political fortunes alive.

The crisis engages significant issues beyond these merely political dimensions. In fact, it is hard not to conclude that it may help determine the future of Indonesia’s national identity.

Long applauded as a moderate and pluralist Muslim nation (the home of “smiling Islam”), Indonesia has regularly resolved political debates about religion and the state by settling upon constitutional and democratic mechanisms. However, conservative Muslim voices regularly seek to challenge the country’s status as a, broadly, secular state.

This current challenge is particularly dramatic, involving as it does, political elites, radical conservatives and the most high profile subject to date of the blasphemy regime. It is also troubling, due to the confluence of racial and religious themes, which are being exploited for electoral gain.

A test for Indonesia’s democracy

Even the option of allowing the legal process to run its course does not offer great comfort. The legal provisions in the blasphemy regime are ambiguous, at best, and the various legal institutions including the courts can be subject to political influence. Further, both conviction or acquittal are likely to attract a negative response from different factions.

Therefore, ultimately, the Ahok case will be a fascinating and critical test of Indonesia’s democracy. Assuming he remains able to contest the election, the public, appropriately, will have the most important contribution to make through casting their ballots.

Success for Ahok will likely be read as vindication by the few who have sought to defend constitutional governance over populist, religiously inspired protests.

Failure may prove harder to interpret. It could be seen either as a reward for radical brinkmanship, as a legitimate critique of the candidates, or as morally inspired condemnation.

One thing seems clear, and that is, that the intensity and scale of the actions by the anti-Ahok coalition has, arguably, taken to a new level the deployment of Islam as a tool in Indonesian politics.

Dina Afrianty is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Society, Australian Catholic University. She is also a fellow at the Centre for Social Difference at Columbia University and affiliates of State Islamic University, Jakarta.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.