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Joko Widodo: Islam in Indonesia is moderate

Indonesia’s president reflects on his three years in office and discusses claims of religious intolerance.

Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, was elected president of Indonesia, one of Asia’s leading economies – and the country with the largest Muslim population in the world – in October 2014. He rose to power promising to be “the people’s president” and with an initial approval rating of 70 percent, expectations were high. 

His dreams of further improving the country’s economy – especially for the poor – and to fight corruption and bureaucracy, however, were very ambitious. He promised to transform Indonesia’s infrastructure to interconnect its most remote regions, a project at an estimated cost of over $1 trillion. 

But only in 2015, Indonesia’s economy, South Asia’s largest, was growing at its lowest rate in six years.

Meanwhile, the president’s tough approach on drugs – including his push to execute drug traffickers – have created diplomatic tensions since many of the accused have been foreign nationals.

Additionally, disputes with China over territories in the South China Sea and the growing tension brought about by North Korea‘s threats, are putting the region under a lot of pressure.

Indonesia is a large country. It's a lot more than just about Jakarta's affairs. In general, Indonesia is still in safe condition, in good condition, and if in a governor's election there are issues that heat up - that situation is normal. This not only happens in Indonesia, not only in Jakarta.

by Joko Widodo, president of Indonesia

One of Widodo’s main political allies and closest friends, Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed “Ahok”, lost the April election that would’ve kept him in office for another term.

The Christian governor’s popularity tumbled after his political enemies accused him of blasphemy against Islamic beliefs.

So, is Widodo’s Indonesia at the crossroads between a multireligious state and a nation ruled by Islamic principles?

As President Widodo is close to completing three years in office, we discuss his record and the problems he is facing domestically and internationally.

Al Jazeera: Your friend and political ally, Governor Ahok, has lost the Jakarta elections and we had mass rallies in the capital for quite a long time. You really needed the governor to win these elections to firm your power base. How sad are you about his loss?

Joko Widodo: Indonesia has 34 provinces, we don’t have only gubernatorial elections in Jakarta. I think the most important thing is that the Jakarta elections went smoothly and peacefully and people could use their voting rights. About winning or losing – that’s normal in a democracy.

Al Jazeera: But how worried are you? We had hundreds of thousands of people on the street and many have been pushing people in Jakarta to vote for a Muslim candidate. Many people I spoke to said, “we had no choice but to vote for a Muslim”. 

Widodo: This is not about minority versus majority, once again, this is about politics … Even though the demonstrations were large, they were peaceful … If there is a topic to be blown up, it will be done. If there is an issue that needs to be pushed, it will be pushed. It’s normal. Most importantly, after the gubernatorial election was finished, one day after that, Mr Ahok and Mr Anies held a meeting. This shows how grown-up our democracy is, I don’t think we need to focus on the issues that happened before.

Al Jazeera: One of the reasons governor Ahok lost was the blasphemy case against him. Why did you agree with that case happening against him, because it was very clear that it would undermine his chances for re-election?

Widodo: Once more, most importantly, our democracy functions well. The democratic process of the gubernatorial election went well. And the people could properly use their right to vote. Voter turnout during the gubernatorial election in Jakarta was very high, 78 percent. This means the people used their voting rights … I think the blasphemy issue belongs in the past and it is being dealt with by our justice system. Most importantly, Jakarta looks to the future. The government programmes can run well and the elected governor can implement these programmes and improve Jakarta, that’s most important.

Al Jazeera: What we’ve seen recently is that a more conservative version of Islam is getting more popularity in Indonesia. How worried are you? And what are you doing to counter that?

Widodo: I am not worried abut that. These issues only came up during the election. It may look like the whole of Indonesia is like that, but that’s not true. Islam in Indonesia is a tolerant Islam, Islam in Indonesia is moderate, and we will continue to push for this: that our diversity, our pluralism in Indonesia will continue, that our people are united, that our country will continue to be developed and improve itself so that we will get better and better and better.

Al Jazeera: One of the groups that have been rallying against Governor Ahok, and also against you, is the Islamic Defenders Front. People from this group made statements that are full of hatred against other religions – and people who say these things go unpunished. What are you planning to do with groups like this and people making statements like this?

Widodo: I leave this all up to our justice system. Our justice system will decide. Is there any proof, is there any legal evidence that these things are against the law? If we have legal evidence, if we have legal facts, I think police, prosecutors and courts will decide. Not me.

Al Jazeera: If someone say he wants to kill Christians or kill people from Ahmadiyya, for example, is that against the law?

Widodo: I think we should leave this up to the justice system. 

Al Jazeera: You are now half way through your term, two and a half years exactly. When you became the president, you had a very ambitious agenda of bringing change to Indonesia, combating poverty, corruption and bringing economic reforms. If we look at the current situation, the economic growth is not as high as you had wished and also infrastructure projects have not been completed as you had wished. Do you feel that with all the political debate going on in Jakarta you had to compromise?

Widodo: The world economy is indeed slow, all nations are facing the same problems: how to handle the economy so it will be stable or even grow … Whatever political issue comes up, we will continue to work on speeding up infrastructure, making our regulations simpler so it will be easier to do business and create jobs for our people. and basic things like healthcare and education will continue to be our focus.

Editor’s note: The president was reluctant to answer questions regarding the legal case against Ahok, showing how sensitive the case is in Indonesia. The verdict against the governor will be on May 9. 

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