Indonesia’s Leaders Are Combining Economic Growth and Islamic Renewal

Satria SP/National Library, Jakarta, Indonesia

With the media focus on Western Europe’s eruption of populist riots and roadblocks directed against the establishment consensus, not to mention politically similar upheavals on both right and left in the U.S., it is easy to forget that anti-elite sentiments are animating politics in other strained regions of the world. In these past few years, which have been marred by several devastating natural disasters and growing Islamist radicalism, a coalition of traditionalist elements in the Republic of Indonesia have seen their values surge to within striking distance of the nation’s presidential campaign-tickets.

The right-wing coalition of Indonesian parties was last led in 2014 by the Gerindra party, an offshoot of former-President Suharto’s Golkar party. The roots of these parties are in the coalition which governed the archipelago during Suharto’s centralized and dictatorial presidency, backed by the military, from 1967 to 1998. One could view their near-victorious candidate, General Prabowo Subianto, as a man with many similarities in career path and political resume to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Among the commonalities are their military histories and inflammatory styles of public speech.

In 2019, incumbent neoliberal Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, will face off against Prabowo in a rematch of the previous election. Jokowi’s running-mate will be Ma‘ruf Amin, an imam who leads the world’s largest Islamic organization by membership, named Nahdlatul Ulama. Jokowi, once governor of Jakarta (and not actually the official leader of his Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan or PDIP) only won the 2014 election with around 53% of the vote in a country that was, not long ago, considered to be one of the most politically corrupt in the world. Some pundits suspected that voter fraud and election interference had swung the outcome towards Jokowi’s PDIP, but no concrete proof could be found.

Jokowi’s own “untouchable” image has never been directly tainted with the sort of petty kickbacks and payoffs that are said—by ordinary Indonesians on the street—to permeate the nation’s regional and municipal political apparatus. Nevertheless, he came under fire internationally for his refusal to sign a clemency order for a small-time gang of Australian drug traffickers known as the “Bali Nine.” The much-publicized group of tourists and expatriates was sentenced to a combination of capital punishment and life-imprisonment three years ago. Criticism of the Indonesian treatment, which ultimately laid low the Bali Nine, stemmed first and foremost from the ten-year wait between arrest and sentencing; the reaction which followed levelled claims of “inhumanity” and “human-rights abuse” against President Jokowi for refusing to cave into the demands of Australian diplomats. As a country, Indonesia tends to view the issue of drug-trafficking far more seriously than its culturally Western neighbor. This stringent approach places the country in line with much of southeastern Asia. Conversely, Australia  and other Western countries couldn’t believe that President Jokowi had doubled down against impassioned requests to show mercy to a gang of heroin traffickers.

As mentioned previously, President Jokowi’s election was closely contested, with only a few points separating victor from loser. Living in Jakarta at the time, I watched the campaigns play out within the country. When the topic of Jokowi came up in conversation, nearly all those I spoke with described him as “ordinary,”, “gentle,” and “nice”—though it’s noteworthy that not everyone saw such descriptors as positive. Those in disagreement generally preferred General Prabowo for his military background (although they agreed that his career had been marred by accusations of torture-squad involvement), and they also professed to like Prabowo for his engagement in “respectable traditional Islam,” rather than Jokowi’s moderate tendencies.

Moderate Islam seems to be losing followers in the middle classes, a phenomenon that many—particularly expatriates from the West—would never have foreseen under Jokowi’s administration. A relevant personal observation of life in cities like Jakarta, Surabaya, and Denpasar: many female professionals who had previously worn the hijab only on special occasions have, in the past few years, increased their displays of Islamic devotion by wearing some form of veil as part of daily work attire. The combination of economic development accompanied by increasing religious devotion is an apt microcosm of the country’s political evolution in recent years.

Traditional Sunni belief is still very much a force to be respected and reckoned with in Indonesia. One acquaintance of mine, a music teacher, summed this sentiment up rather well: Sunni institutions are seen as “a great sacred guardian against corruption.” The same man later went on to suggest in another conversation (in early 2016, before the protests) that to win re-election after his first term, Jokowi would have to associate himself more closely with Nahdlatul Ulama as an organization and also choose a powerful running mate from that movement. In doing so, he could change the popular perception of PDIP as being too compromising on religious matters. A few months before the upcoming 2019 general election, the president has indeed done so.

Ma‘ruf Amin, the former leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, is no stranger to the highest levels of Indonesian politics and is, in strategic terms, probably one of the best choices for running-mate that President Jokowi could have made. Amin is a native of Tangerang, a suburb of the capital, who holds degrees in Islamic philosophy and has previously been elected both to the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR), one of Indonesia’s two Chambers of Parliament, and to the Jakarta City Council (in 1971 and 1977, respectively). He also held a powerful consultant position as an advisor to the first post-Suharto government’s executives, and won elections to serve in the DPR again from 1999 to 2004. These years saw him on the board of two separate commissions with responsibilities in the agricultural, maritime, and internal affairs of Indonesia. Another president, Susilo Yudhoyono, took advice from Amin during his tenure from 2007 to 2014.

Such an accomplished political career in legislation served to grant Amin an excellent reputation for productivity and transparency among the various political parties of the nation, and particularly among the councillors of Nahdlatul Ulama, which counted roughly 40 million citizen members in 2003 and over 90 million by 2016. The attraction of this movement to ordinary people, according to devoted members with whom I spoke in 2015, stems from its reliance on two distinct Islamic doctrines for its rulings: the ancient and widely-adored Shafi‘i madhhab, the school of traditional Sunni jurisprudence predominant in southeast Asia, and a more recent philosophy called Islam Nusantara to interpret these codes in a distinctively Indonesian context. By doing this, the organization distinguishes itself not only from a liberal and Westernizing Islam, but also from its Wahhabist and Arabizing rivals.

Ma‘ruf Amin won election to the Ulama in the same year that it first announced its decision to incorporate Islam Nusantara. He took it on himself to steer the organization through its greatest-ever period of publicity and membership growth, adding tens of millions of new registered members. A number of naysayers made their displeasure known, as they believed the old madhhab to be sufficient for the organization’s role in the Islamic governance of the archipelago, but their numbers paled in comparison to the clamor behind Amin’s leadership. In all likelihood, he has made his mark upon coming generations by making such a bold move.

The overarching goal of this movement was to create and nurture a form of Islam which reflected the local Indonesian culture rather than supplanting it with practices from the Arab world—seen as more authentically Muslim by some, but alienating by others. In turbulent and uncertain times, clerical leaders like Ma‘ruf Amin are politically indispensable for the purpose of steadying the ship. For the cleric’s part, he certainly knows that handing more power to the theological detractors of Islam Nusantara would help to discredit Nahdlatul Ulama and its work. In social terms, it has built legitimacy through charitable causes, as well as the many schools of religious education which help it to shape future generations according to its theologically Islamic and culturally Indonesian worldview.

Faced with a liberalism rejected by much of the population on the one hand and a more rigorous and politically radical Islamist tendency on the other, the appeal of the Nahdlatul Ulama approach to many in Indonesia’s leadership is obvious. Given the incentives of both the political and religious sides of this partnership, Indonesia appears poised to create a path for its future development which lies firmly outside the liberal sphere of values.

However, the Islamic turn has not been a purely stabilizing force. In the face of issues like drug crimes or blasphemy, it has become a strident and ofttimes violent ideological contender. Its most militant members took to the spotlight in 2016 during a controversial blasphemy trial between the Indonesian state and the incumbent Governor of Jakarta, a Hakka-descended man named Basuki “Ahok” Purnama. This trial incited a violent series of protests in Jakarta and resulted in Ahok’s imprisonment for two years (as well as one death and over a hundred injuries). Although the Islamist groups at the forefront of these events achieved little from their actions, numerous well-circulated pictures of the most attended moments of those protests have served to forever change Indonesia’s political landscape. This is comparable to the way chaotic images of other recent marches in France, Belgium, Portugal, and the U.S. have influenced public opinion.

In September 2016, the governor was recorded in a speech claiming that the “51st verse of Al-Ma’idah” (a verse in the Quran concerning the rule of Muslims by non-Muslims) would be used by his opponents in the gubernatorial elections to “deceive” some voters into not supporting him due to his Christian background. Whether or not these words were heard in context—some videos and recordings are said to have been edited for more punch—the nature of his insult lay in suggesting that any part of Islam’s holy text could be deceptive rather than illuminating. Not a single word spoken by Allah through the Prophet Muhammad is considered fallible in Muslim theology. Governor Ahok also happened to be a Christian, in addition to his known Hakka-Chinese descent, making him a double-minority (each one of these groups had faced nationwide backlash in the 1998 economic crisis). Such words were simply never going to be tolerated by his opponents and detractors. Nor would they go unnoticed by many of his erstwhile supporters in President Jokowi’s PDIP coalition, who left him hanging with little aid out of a well-founded fear that conservative support could be lost if they protected a “blasphemer.”

November 2016’s protests resulted from Ahok being put on trial for criminal blasphemy. One cannot doubt that the raw, unrestrained rage recorded on camera for television broadcasts had an effect on the jury’s guilty verdict. None would have liked to be seen by their constituents as defenders of a clear, shameless blasphemer. As a result, the governor will be released from prison a few months from now to a finished political career and endangered life. It is rumoured among many Indonesians that he will move abroad after his sentence ends, even though Ma‘ruf Amin has spoken of Ahok’s fate on the campaign trail in an attempt to assure his safety from any more violent reprisals.

The reaction to the Ahok scandal appears to signal a shift in Indonesian politics which is affecting all major parties. While support for national development and construction remains strong, this is not desired within a liberal institutional or ideological framework. While maintaining and even developing his party’s centrist policies, President Jokowi has embraced a cultural and religious context of Islamic traditionalism. This is strikingly similar to the Christian sovereigntist ideology of the Visegrad countries, the Hindu nationalist and economically neoliberal program of India’s Narendra Modi, and the pro-military conservatism of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Such a development is quite shocking for those among the middle classes who had voted for him on the basis of his similarity to Western liberal politicians. After advocating for an Indonesian-flavored center-left platform which somewhat emulated the success of younger neoliberal and neoconservative politicians in the West (such as Barack Obama in the U.S., or Nicolas Sarkozy in France), the pressure from them on Jokowi was to deliver on his economic development and cultural reform promises. These had particularly appealed to the optimistic but demanding young and middle-aged electors who will determine how much longer his administration might last. Indonesia has gradually shaken off the reputation of endemic corruption, with living conditions seeing widespread improvement since 1998. Add to this a birth rate which is rapidly declining towards Thai levels due to the higher costs associated with raising large families, and the nation appears to be on the same path of demographic transition which has upended population structures in the most developed parts of the world. However, over 40% of the current population is under 24 years old and could easily reverse this trend if economic and cultural pressures are altered in years to come.

It is this same demographic which is demanding greater and more rapid development of the country. Infrastructure projects such as the Greater Jakarta subway system (which kicked off its planning phase during Jokowi’s tenure as Jakarta governor) and a high-speed rail network across Java, have been met with a handful of worrying setbacks. The same goes for toll-road projects all throughout the nation, whose planning failed to account for Indonesia’s underdevelopment in the construction sector. Additional time and money will be needed to ensure the smooth completion of these many infrastructure upgrades—and these are but a few examples out of over 250 planned. However, there is little time left before a potential shift in political fortunes could unseat the incumbent and throw the direction and funding of these projects into doubtful territory. For politicians being challenged on their economic development records, embracing the country’s religious traditions as an additional source of legitimacy is a strategy which could stabilize political careers.

President Jokowi, a middle-aged politician elected with an everyman image, has been given a stark reminder by the support for the 2016 protests that the average Indonesian voter—the one who could swing votes—is relatively conservative, not educated past the high-school level, and fiercely defensive of Islam as the one of the most important forces and cultural mainstays in the country (even more so now, since the issuance of rulings according to the Islam Nusantara doctrine began in 2015). One should note, before placing any bets, that Jokowi has made the strategic choice to associate himself more closely with the most popular and powerful of traditionalist clerics in preparation for this election. His erstwhile association by party and direct line-of-succession to Ahok would not have done him any favors in upcoming televised debates, which are sure to feature a handful of loaded questions about the role that Chinese and Christian minorities should be allowed to play in the world’s largest Muslim nation by both proportion and absolute size.

All the while, it is reasonable to bet that the one Indonesian coalition which was still friendly to Western-style neoliberalism has cast it aside as an endgame project. Indonesia’s continued development and presence in the global economy is not in question. A large population, increasing wealth and education, and natural resources all but ensure this. From here on out, it is the political foundations of that development which are being reshaped.

Liam McDowell is a history and languages student at the University of British Columbia. He grew up living across southeastern Asia.