Islam has always played a pivotal role in Indonesia’s culture, history, and politics. Home to the largest population of Muslims within the world, it is no surprise to see the religion’s imprints within all aspects of society. When Soekarno established the Pancasila, the founding principles of Indonesia, the first principle is the “Belief in one Supreme God”. When then president Suharto cracked down on his political opposition, Muslims turned to discussing their grievanceswithin the mosques. While Islam always had a place within its society, the government has always attempted to maintain a more secular stance. This choice was made by the previous presidents in order to keep order within the ethnically and religiously diverse island nation. Unfortunately, the recent rise of religious conservatism within the country of Indonesia threatens to divide Indonesia and disrupt the perilous balance its democracy strove to create.
One of the unforeseen consequences of the decentralization of power in 2000 was the ability of hardline conservatives to gain power on a regional level. This policy was designed to increase the accountability of elected officials and reduce the potential avenues for corruption. The downside is that this has also given Islamist groups an opportunity to gain political power. They took advantage of some lapses in government responsibility to help provide education through the creation of religious schools. With funding from Saudi Arabia, these schools have instilled conservative values within the minds of younger people, creating a new base for their ideologies. In more conservative regions, these groups were successful in implementing fundamentalist ideologies within their regions such as Aceh province officially implementing sharia law. The ability of these Islamist groups to build power within the Indonesian political system allowed themselves to ally with mainstream politicians.
The 2014 presidential election provided a platform that allowed the Islamist groups to move forward onto mainstage politics. Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s willingness to cooperate with hardline conservative groups gave them a greater level of legitimacy than ever before. Emboldened by this embrace, these groups have begun to aggressively attack their opposition. Violence against religious minorities increased throughout the nation with authorities refusing to step in. Old legislation such as blasphemy laws were now weaponized to attack and intimidate critics of Islam. Harassment and slander against the LGBT community has also increased in local regions. With each action, the religious conservatives within Indonesia seek to divide the country between its Muslim majority and the other minorities. Their actions speak to their desire to eliminate the opposition and prevent the citizenry of Indonesia from believing that there is no alternative path to its development into an Islamic state. With the cooperation of their conservative allies, they are able to move forward with their goals. On the other hand, The politicians that have allied themselves with these groups have sacrificed short-term political gain with long-term damage to the democratic processes of Indonesia. It may not be long before these politicians find themselves replaced by more extreme fundamentalist political figures.
By attacking their opponents so openly, these groups use fear to force the population to step aside within the political realm or risk their own safety. The effects of this fear spread all the way up to the national government. The Widodo presidency has been largely silent on the issue of violence by religious conservatives. The lack of military intervention in this case reflects the fear of the presidency of the power the religious conservatives have on a regional level and the potential repercussions of retaliating against them. The passivity of the national government against these right-wing forces threatens the overall health of the Indonesian democracy. Many minorities voices within Indonesian politics risk being wiped out if these events continue. Reduced participation will lead to a decrease in the overall quality of the Indonesian democracy.
In order to protect its democracy, the Widodo presidency must take proactive steps to protect the moderate base. Taking military action against the militant Islamist groups and providing security for the most vulnerable populations would allow the opposition to feel safe enough to engage in the political sphere. Fighting against anti-LGBT legislation would send a message of tolerance throughout the country. Enacting these policies would allow for more moderate and liberal groups to have access to political power within the country and allow for the preservation of its democratic process. As mentioned earlier, one of Indonesia’s greatest strengths lie within its diversity. The loss of this will cause the democracy of the nation to backslide into the authoritarian path of old.
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