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Is Indonesian Islam too big to fail?

Director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism in Jakarta
Syafiq Hasyim

Jakarta   /  
Fri, June 9, 2017
  /  11:44 am

Is Indonesian Islam too big to fail?
This aerial view shows Indonesian Muslims
gathering at Jakarta's National Monument Park as part of a rally against
Jakarta's Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by
his nickname Ahok, on December 2, 2016. More than 100,000 Indonesian
Muslims protested on December 2 against Jakarta's Christian governor,
the second major demonstration in a matter of weeks as conservative
groups push for his arrest on accusations of insulting Islam. (AFP/File)

The above question is addressed to those who
still believe in the strength of Indonesian Islam post-Jakarta
gubernatorial election and the verdict of two years’ imprisonment handed
down to Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the outgoing Jakarta governor.

Indonesian Islam refers to Islam that is
progressive, moderate and respectful of the diversity of ethnicities,
beliefs and cultures that support democracy in the country.

For many years, local and international
observers have felt confident about the authority of Indonesian Islam.
The mushrooming of Islamic conservatism and radicalism has not been
considered threatening enough to shrink the dominance of moderate and
inclusive Islam.

The dominant role of the largest Islamic
organizations, Nahdathul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, in Muslim
communities is often used as reason for this optimism. Is this thesis
still valid?

Indonesian Islam has been socially and
politically attempted and strived for by those who believe in
compatibility between Islam and democracy.

However, many elements of Indonesian Islam are too self-confident about the long supremacy of Indonesian Islam.

The source of this conviction is often the
history of Islam’s entry to this country. It is often said Islam in
Indonesia is different from Islam in the Middle East owing to its
historical process, which was not through war and bloodshed but through
peaceful penetration.

Thus, many of us take for granted and feel
satisfied that the progressive and moderate characteristics of
Indonesian Islam would never be defeated by the different version of
Islam in this country.

Such historical evidence is very important,
however not enough to maintain and sustain Indonesian Islam. It is
questionable and to some extent no longer relevant.

Now, Indonesian Islam has begun to lose
ground on account of an aggressive counter from “the different version
of Islam” — stemming from the tendency of especially urban folks
demanding an Islam that is more ideological, formalistic and operational
in politics. More Indonesian Muslims want Islam as their main identity
in politics, culture and lifestyle.

This tendency had been detected long before
the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, although many of us apparently
ignored it. Many attempts at “sharia-zation” (inclusion of sharia in the
legal, political and public sphere) has run systematically and
strategically since the Reform Era.

When attempts aimed to make Indonesia a
sharia-based state failed in 2002, the strategy of the sharia movement
turned into a cultural movement, by conditioning Indonesian Muslims to
embrace more sharia-inspired lifestyles such as halal economics and

Indonesia now has the 2014 law on halal product assurance as well as the 2008 law on sharia banking.

The halal and sharia economic movement is a
step further toward the establishment of sharia as the legal and
political system. Its propagators use a direct connection strategy to
the grass roots, including through social media.

Its messages stimulate emotions of being Muslim, including the social gap and injustice experienced by many Muslims.

At a different level, the propagators of
Indonesian Islam are not really aware of and to some extent dismiss this
new environment and contestation in coining the meaning of Islam. Such
“progressive” Muslims seem to be ignorant and overconfident.

The NU and Muhammadiyah, which are expected
to be bastions of moderate Indonesian Islam, have been too busy
bargaining for power in the government, and care less for their

In addition, both organizations rely heavily
on the state for being the guardians of sustainability of democracy and
benign Islam.

Sometimes, the NU is very critical of the
antidemocratic movement, but theirs are often lone voices. In short, the
consolidation of Indonesian Islam tends to indicate their failure.

Interestingly, those who need “more
formalistic, ideological and political Islam” are intensively mingled
with populist issues. They have shown adequate flexibility to blend
their campaigns with issues of social and economic injustice.

Although religious sentiment remains very
important for their movement, the groups have indicated their ability to
consolidate networks and to gain a stronger grip on the Muslim grass

Combining populism with identity based
politics has been very successful, as indicated by two results; first,
the loss of Ahok-Djarot Saiful Hidayat in the recent Jakarta election
and second, their pressure on Ahok’s trial that resulted in a two-year
sentence for blasphemy.

What should be done by Indonesian Islam to overcome this circumstance?

Indonesian Islam should not mimic the strategy used by those who believe in Islamic formalism, ideology and politics.

For instance, using populism as the tagline
of its struggle would lead to tyranny by the majority. Indonesian Islam
instead aims for reduced segregation between the majority and minority.

Indonesian Islam should not use identity
politics because doing so could lead to discrimination. Unfortunately,
reflecting on the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election, today’s
Indonesian Muslims in general seem to love both populism and identity

In fact, Ahok’s case has stimulated the
sentiment of Islamic populism and identity politics. Indonesian Muslims
who have been recognized as open and tolerant are becoming more ethnic
and religion-oriented.

If Indonesian Islam does not want to fail in
mainstreaming its religious discourse, it must find ideas and idioms
that can regain cleverly and responsibly the support of Indonesian

If not, the notion that Indonesian Islam is too big to fail is just a claim.

Disclaimer: The opinions
expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the
official stance of The Jakarta Post.