University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Caroline Hughes

The banning of HTI and jailing of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama for blasphemy represent an illiberal turn in Indonesia. This should be understood against the backdrop of decades of state suppression and manipulation of civil society movements. Despite a democratic transition in 1998, Indonesia’s political economy remains characterized by an oligarchic order in which super-rich elites compete to control Indonesia’s natural resources. An emergent civil society remains weak and fragmented due to the legacies of past violence and repression. The ineffectiveness of democratization in combatting inequality and eradicating poverty is toxic to a moderate politics of reform.

Challenges to Indonesia’s secular nationalist orientation are not new: the Darul Islam movement, postcolonial Indonesia’s first significant insurgency, was formed in 1942 to promote a Syariyah state and by independence in 1949 controlled significant regions of the country. It was defeated in 1956 only after fierce fighting and declaration of martial law. The ideology of Pancasila responded to this uprising by guaranteeing recognition of five major religions, but also promoted state control and surveillance over religious groups.

From 1956, the weakened Islamic movement was coopted by the military for instrumental purposes: for example, in the “Indonesian killings” of 1965-66, when hundreds of thousands of communists, trade unionists, and peasant activists were brutally and arbitrarily murdered. Military units exhorted Muslim groups to send members into villages to hunt and kill communists, and many of these groups complied.

In the mid-1960s, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was 3 million strong, and its allied organizations reached up to a third of the Indonesian population, primarily blue-collar workers and landless peasants. Its violent destruction opened up recruiting space for Islamic organizations, but also left a legacy of terror and a lacuna of organizational capacity amongst poor communities that continues to hamper civil society activism today. Participation in the slaughter further subordinated Islamic organizations to the state, weakening and splintering the movement, in a politics of divide and rule.  After democratic transition in 1998, some Islamic groups maintained opaque relationships with military actors, evident in state-tolerated violent Islamic vigilantism and in continued opposition to truth-telling regarding the blood-letting of 1965.

The splintering of Islam’s organizational base in Indonesia has hindered attempts to form electorally competitive Islamic parties. These groups have been more successful in an ad-hoc, protest-based “mobilization of piety,” which mainstreams a political discourse of concern over minority lifestyle issues – LBGTQ rights, women’s dress, etc. – and sidelines questions of power and wealth, such as spiraling inequality and widespread poverty.

This is evident in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, in which the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was accused of blasphemy and ultimately jailed after popular demonstrations by Islamist groups. Basuki was liked by the Jakarta middle class, but unpopular with the poor, due to his penchant for high-handed slum clearance programs. The military regime’s destruction of organizations of the poor left a gap that has been partially filled by Islamic organizations. These provided assistance to evicted urban communities and mobilized prominently in the anti-Basuki protests. However, these demonstrations targeted his Christianity and ethnic Chinese identity, not his disregard for the poor. The affair also reflects oligarchic competition: 2019 presidential contender Prabowo Subianto was rumored to have sponsored the protests to embarrass incumbent President Joko Widodo. Prabowo is a former military general accused of widespread human rights violations, who owns huge plantation concessions in Borneo, where deforestation for palm oil development has been ecologically disastrous. The willingness of figures like Prabowo to manipulate Islamic organizations for political advantage matches the willingness of Islamic organizations to accept such patronage.

Widodo responded to the protests by selecting a conservative cleric as his 2019 running mate, while banning HTI in a rebuke to Islamic conservatives. HTI is a small, peaceful organization with transnational leanings, and Widodo was able to wield the ideological power of Indonesian nationalism and Pancasila successfully against it. The non-response of civil society to this rollback of civil liberties reflects its weakness, a legacy of authoritarian violence.

The incoherence in Indonesian post-authoritarian politics promotes ad-hoc mobilization around scandalous issues of blasphemy and piety as a means to compete for patronage from wealthy power-brokers. It inhibits peacebuilding agendas on vital issues of poverty, expropriation, environmental degradation, gender oppression, religious freedom, and the unresolved legacies of massive violence.

Caroline Hughes is the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Chair in Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Her areas of expertise include the political economy of aid and development in post-conflict and authoritarian contexts, with regional expertise in Southeast Asia.