The fluidity of Indonesian Islam

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Calling for the establishment of Sharia law are only minority groups, which counted much less in the last election on February 14 than in the past. This is probably due to the fluidity with which the Islamic faith has established itself in Indonesia and the constitutional approach contained in the Pancasila

By Francesco Mattogno

Being Islamic, in Indonesia, has always been a strategic choice. Or at least it is according to the theories of some historians. Some argue that Islam spread in the country from the 13th century as a result of trade relations with merchants from South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, particularly from Indian Gujarat and Yemen. Others that the Chinese Muslim admiral Cheng Ho, who landed in Java in the 15th century, also contributed to its expansion. But beyond proselytizing, much of Islam's success in Indonesia may be due to geography.

Indonesia's is a territory spread over 17,000 islands, totally surrounded by water, not particularly famous for the quality of its soils, and therefore forced to trade. "Tired of paying tribute to the large and prosperous Hindu and Buddhist empires in the region," historian Carool Kersten told TRT World, many Indonesian rulers saw it as an opportunity to convert to Islam and "seek allies in Africa and the Middle East" at a time when Muslims, after the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, controlled the world's sea routes.

It was not the consequence of foreign conquest, nor the result of the work of waves of preachers. Islam in Indonesia spread through a fluid, slow, diverse and probably peaceful process. Today nearly 90 percent of Indonesia's more than 275 million people are Muslim, a statistic that makes the country the largest Muslim-majority state in the world. A country not fully secular, but still democratic and tolerant. 

The preamble of the constitution still contains the Pancasila, or the five fundamental principles on which the Indonesian state is founded, stipulated in 1945. The first one states "faith in one God," and it is a deliberately vague concept. Early drafts of the text explicitly talked about introducing sharia, or Islamic law, into the constitution, a possibility later shelved in favor of greater religious openness. In fact, one cannot claim to be an atheist in Indonesia, but the constitution recognizes six other major religions (including Catholicism) and religious minorities are integrated into discussions of national interest. The vast majority of Indonesians, the offspring of this cultural and constitutional setting, are first and foremost nationalists and reject extremist currents that disavow the concept of belonging to the Indonesian nation-state. Islamic radicalism is present, but a minority, and the last elections on February 14 certified the marginality of the Muslim world as such within Jakarta's democratic system.

Extremist Islamic groups have rarely really mattered politically, but in 2014 and 2019 the dual clash between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto had also played out on the level of religious polarization. If Jokowi could count on the support of moderate Islam, in the second presidential race Prabowo had brought to his side the Islamist organizations that had developed from the "212" movement, which arose between 2016 and 2017 during the campaign for the Jakarta governor's post between Anies Baswedan and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama ("Ahok"). Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian and a favorite for reelection, was accused of blasphemy by Anies, who stirred up his more radical supporters against him and effectively started the trial that led to his opponent being sentenced to two years in prison.

On the wave of increased political relevance, groups that grew out of the "212" movement had chosen Prabowo as their spokesman for the 2019 presidential election. This was despite the fact that the history of the former general and Gerindra, his right-wing nationalist party, was totally unrelated to religious extremism. It was about mutual political opportunism. Prabowo was looking for voters, the Islamists for support to enter state institutions. Jokowi's victory extinguished their hopes.

After the Ahok case, the Indonesian president had already disbanded the radical group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia in 2017, later doing the same with the Islamic Defenders Front (FDI) in 2020. During Jokowi's second term, the rise of extremist organizations gradually lost momentum, due to government repression and reduced popular support, while moderate associations ended up tying themselves even more closely to institutions.

The two most important nonpolitical moderate Islamic organizations are the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah, to which tens of millions of people belong. Connected to them are various members of Indonesian civil society and the political class, distributed fairly evenly across the various political forces, not just the purely Islamic ones, indeed. Since the first elections in 1955, Muslim parties have never been strong enough to govern on their own, and even the preliminary results of the February 14 parliamentary vote confirmed their secondary status. In order to enter institutions, therefore, moderate Islam has always been forced to distribute its support among various political leaders, especially after the 1998 democratic reforms and the end of the Suharto era.

While maintaining a facade of neutrality, support for the right candidates guarantees NU and Muhammadiyah access to public office. For example, in the last Jokowi government, NU delivered Vice President Ma'Ruf Amin and four ministers, including Religious Affairs. In the face of the diminishing relevance of the ideological aspect, pragmatism and political opportunism led Indonesia's two largest moderate Islamic groups to support all three candidates in the last elections with different leading figures: winner Prabowo Subianto, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo.

The process of depolarization has thus reduced the value of political support from religious associations, making the role of Islam marginal in determining the outcome of the 2024 elections. For Anies, who given the precedent with Ahok was thought to be the more radical candidate, public support from Abu Bakar Bashir-the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group that organized the 2002 Bali bombings in which 202 people died-was indeed threatening to undermine his cleaned-up image as a moderate politician.

Rather than the ultimate goal, with the establishment of sharia law, Islam in Indonesia increasingly counts as a means to political ends and as a positioning tool, domestically and internationally. Although now extended to almost all political forces, the support of at least part of moderate Islam is an essential condition of legitimacy for any candidate aiming to govern the country, which is why NU and Muhammadiyah (lately more in trouble) are reserved for prominent roles in the executive. In foreign policy, moreover, the Islamic faith is used as diplomatic leverage to elevate Indonesia to one of the leading countries in the Muslim world, and generally the government is more inclined to tolerate Islamic mobilization of its civil society when international issues are at the center of public discourse.

The universal support for Palestine in these months of escalating conflict with Israel, both by the political class and the public, shows that Islam remains a very important identity component for most Indonesians. Some observers believe that the next few years could see a return of conservative groups, which during Jokowi's second term would only tone it down in anticipation of more favorable political conditions. But it remains a remote possibility. Indonesian Islam has never been monolithic and, after passing through a phase of polarization, seems to have returned to the fluid and opportunistic state that allowed it to penetrate the country between the 13th and 15th centuries.

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