Indonesia: A Delicate Balance Between Muslim Orthodoxy and Nationalism

Following the wave of terrorism at the turn of the new century, the political class of the world’s most populous Muslim country was predominantly in favour of increasing the role of Islam. The rulers have often been opportunistic in matters of religion, knowing they must indulge the conservatives while keeping Indonesian nationalism alive and well.

Worshippers gather in front of the Al Akbar mosque in Surabaya, after participating in the morning prayer celebrating Eid al-Fitr, 22 April 2023
Juni Kriswanto/AFP

The world’s largest Islamic country by its population (88% of its 270 million citizens are declared Muslims), Indonesia has, over the last few months, offered a contrasting image. In November 2022, the only real democracy in the Muslim world played host to the G20 and took full advantage of the expectations aroused by the originality of its institutional approach to the religious question.

Less than a month later, however, the enactment of a new penal code criminalising extramarital intercourse brought worried reactions from Western media and chancelleries. In response, Indonesian authorities could only come up with tortuous declarations. That apparent contradiction becomes intelligible once it is placed in the historical perspective of the subtle ballet performed by the power structure and the civil society around the country’s Islamic identity. In a summary of these transformations, we shall point out the most salient aspects of what bears a closer resemblance to a wild melee than to ballroom dancing.

The fall of Suharto in 1998 inaugurated a ‘democratic Spring’ which, contrary to what occurred in the Arab world, was able to stand the test of time, avoiding the lethal face-off between authoritarian secularism and Islamism which only too often took place elsewhere. Several considerations, of a very different nature, enable us to understand this relative success.

The ‘Reformasi’ saw the emergence of many parties

First is the legacy of a powerful democratic Muslim movement, progressive and with an open attitude towards religious minorities. Embodied by the Masjumi party (1945–1960), which was responsible for the (re) conciliation between Islam and Pancasila1, this tradition continues to nourish Muslim political thinking in Indonesia, despite the repression which it suffered following the Sukarno presidency and at the beginning of ‘the New Order.’2

Secondly, the political turning taken by the Suharto regime in the mid-eighties in favour of a militant Islam, which up till then had been under tight surveillance, deprived the Islamist networks, permanently, of their aura of systematic opposition. This legacy of the New Order is more significant as the instrumentation of the Muslim referent by the secular parties continued after the return to democracy, blurring the classical opposition between religious and nationalist political forces.

By broadening considerably the range of political activity, the Reformasi (the name given the progressive period begun in 1998) allowed for a proliferation of parties claiming to be Muslim. These latter slipped easily into a political routine dominated by a small oligarchy and its fluctuating coalitions to which they brought their religious caution in random order. This political fragmentation goes hand in hand with deep divergences which invalidate the simplistic message tending to portray Islam as the single cure-all of the Nation’s problems.

A wave of controlled violence

Disseminated and poorly supervised, the mobilisation of religious references has nonetheless brought about two major changes over the past twenty years.

The first of these was a wave of religious violence which shook the archipelago around the turn of the new century, from 1996 to 2003. Exacerbated by the manipulation of radical Islam by the minions of a New Order on the decline, and encouraged by the international networks in which the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism gave one another a leg-up, terrorism, jihadism, and violence to religious minorities – including Muslims – nearly brought down the Indonesian State. The Bali bombings on 12 October 2002 (202 killed, mostly Australian) and at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta a year later (twelve dead, mostly Indonesian Muslims) as well as the aggravation of the Maluku sectarian conflict brought a vigorous reaction from the power structure which managed, in just a few years, to put an end to most of the inter-confessional conflicts and considerably reduce the terrorist threat.

Demands for the Islamisation of society

However, another phenomenon, a kind of persistent Islamic one-upmanship now impregnated every walk of life. This development is based on an undeniable revival of religiosity which it is hard to distinguish, however, from the prudent attitudes born of the criminalisation of atheism after the bloody elimination of communism in 1965–1966. Thus, the demands for a broader Islamisation of society, voiced by the radical organisations, left their mark on Magawati Sukarnoputri’s presidency (2001–2004) and on the two terms in office of his successor, Soesilo Bambang Yodoyono (2004–2014). For lack of personal religious legitimacy, these two chiefs of State entrusted – de facto for the former, officially for the latter – their policies towards Islam to the Council of Ulamas (Majelis Ulama Indonesia), a hybrid organism under private law but publicly financed.

It was within this body, generally acting under pressure from the extremist movements that the Islamic ‘one-upmanship’ referred to above acquired a remarkable influence. Supported by a re-Islamised middle class, the product of four decades of vigorous economic growth, it acquired a prominent role in the public debate, adopted by a large portion of the political class out of opportunism, cowardice, or conviction.

‘The Ahok case’, a shrewd manipulation

At the end of 2016, this Islamisation of the electoral race took a major turning with the ‘Ahok case’ involving a Christian of Chinese descent, governor of Jakarta and running for a second term. Accused of blasphemy based on a truncated video with falsified subtitles, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (his actual name) was the target of a hate campaign involving huge demonstrations which made him lose the election and serve a sentence of two years in prison.

Cleverly manipulated by Alok’s political adversaries, backed by a group of radical associations, the defence of Islam as an electoral theme demonstrated its efficacy for the first time at such a level and obliged President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) – a close ally of Ahok’s – to react. He set about countering the influence of the Islamist organisations by reasserting the authority of Pancasila via a number of authoritative measures. The Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (self-declared branch of the transnational movement agitating for the restoration of the Califate), was banned, as was the Front Pembela Islam (Front of the Champions of Islam).

At the same time, acknowledging the confessionalisation of public life, to which he had refused to cater during his first presidential campaign in 2014, and anticipating his 2019 re-election campaign, he made much of his own Muslim identity. And chose for Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Council of Indonesian Ulemas and supreme leader (rais’am) of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organisation.

Alliance with a nationalist stronghold

An incomprehensible choice since the man had been one of the main schemers behind the downfall of Alok, but it enabled the President to discredit the accusation of ‘criminalising the Ulamas’ on which his adversaries had hoped to base their campaign. Politically, the strategy paid off: the bastions of traditional Islam which, in 2014 had refused to support Jokowi’s candidacy, voted massively for him in 2019. The Nahdlatul Ulama, keystone of the President’s counter-offensive, reaped its reward the following year when the much-coveted Ministry of Religions fell to one of its leaders, Taqut Cholil Qumas. This alliance marked the end of the unofficial delegation of religious policies to the Council of Ulamas, as practised by his predecessor. Once he was re-elected, the President shared their administration with Nahdlatul Ulama, to ‘help us protect ourselves’ against ‘identitarian politics and extremism’ and strengthen ‘Islam and Indonesian identity’.

An Islam of tradition and ‘terroir’

On several occasions, the President himself has tried to embody that ‘archipelagic Islam’ (islam nusantara) which at one time Nahdlatul Ulama had used as a slogan. In August 2022, he celebrated Independence Day wearing the traditional costume of the Sultans of Buton, an island to the South of Celebes. Some months later, the marriage of his son – a commoner like himself – was inspired by the ceremonies of the Javanese Sultanates.

By borrowing these symbolic references to traditional Islam, rooted in the diversity of the Indonesian terroir, he publicly embraced his Muslim identity at the heart of the world’s largest community of believers in a single faith.

This new identitarian strategy was accompanied by the creation or development of several institutions with the task of defending Pancasila and advocating a ‘moderate “approach to religion, in particular an Agency for the Development of the Ideology of Pancasila (Badan Pengembangan Ideologi Pancasila, BPIP) and the Houses of Religious Moderation (Rumah Moderasi Beragama) on the campuses of the Islamic State Universities. The Ministry of Religions even tried to draw up a list of preachers allowed to hold forth in publicly financed mosques, but in the end this idea was abandoned.

In a way, this new approach was a success: the accusations that the President was a ‘bad Muslim,’ led astray by his crypto-communist sympathies, fizzled out.

When Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the former Emir of the Jemaah Islamiyah (IJ), the terrorist organisation responsible for the Bali bombings, gave his blessing to Pancasila, this was seen as a powerful symbol of the success of this new line. But it also represented the price that has had to be paid: the consecration of the ‘conservative turning’ under way for some thirty years now in Indonesian Islam.

By his choice of Ma’ruf Amin, the President favoured the hard-line wing of an organisation which also counts eminent progressives, in the tradition of former President Abdurahman Wahid. For Jokowi, who is far more attentive to social issues than to moral ones, this choice was determined by an accurate evaluation of the balance of power within Nahdlatul Ulama. It enabled him to rally to his cause a movement of which a majority of its members, contrary to the irenic fable peddled by the international press, are not especially prone to religious tolerance. This preference for the least progressive elements – i.e., those most likely to drive a wedge between the mass of Indonesian Muslims and the radicals – is also to be found in the President’s policy vis-à-vis the other important association which structures Indonesian Islam, the Muhammadiyah. 1n 2017, Jokowi appointed Din Syamsuddin, the major figure of its conservative current, ‘presidential envoy for dialogue and inter-religious and inter-civilisational co-operation.’

The recognition of marital rape

Obliged by this political instrumentation of the increasing demand for orthopraxy3 within the Muslim community, the Islamisation of the religious status quo promoted by the power structure cannot be understood except when viewed in the light of its sturdy defence of Pancasila. Counter-intuitive and apparently muddle-headed, this balancing act found a perfect illustration in the Penal code adopted in November 2022.

Alongside reactionary measures such as the ban on extramarital sex mentioned previously, it also contains the recognition of marital rape as demanded by feminist movements and, above all, the criminalisation of any ideology aimed at replacing or modifying Pancasila, the very foundation of an Indonesian Republic whose Muslim identity is now more clearly defined.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: Pancasila was proclaimed State philosophy in 1945 by President Sukarno and was incorporated into the Constitution. It contains five principles: belief in a single God, a just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia representative democracy and social justice for the whole of the people.

2EDITOR’S NOTE: The name given to the 31 years reign of the Suharto administration, from 1967 to 1998.

3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: In the study of religion, orthopraxy is a correct conduct, both ethical and liturgical, as opposed to faith or grace. Orthopraxy is in contrast with orthodoxy, which emphasizes correct belief. (Wikipedia).