Permadi Arya became famous – or infamous, depending on how you look at it – for his satirical YouTube videos lampooning extremism.
One of them, You are Shiite, sends up those who preach that only Sunni Muslims will be guaranteed a plot of land in heaven. “If you don’t believe it, it means you are Shiite,” he raps.
Permadi’s alter ego is Abu Janda, a parody of the late Indonesian Islamic State leader Abu Jandal, who once threatened to slaughter the military and police.
Not everyone was amused. Permadi received texts from strangers: “Hi infidel, you will die tomorrow”.
But more than 70,000 people watched You are Shiite and Permadi felt Muslim moderates like him were gaining traction. He was part of a cyber army taking aim at religious extremism using videos, funny memes and tweets as weapons.
“In 2015 we were facing radical doctrine conveyed through social media,” Permadi says. “We were successful. There were not many people interested in radical doctrine, they preferred our parody videos.”
But now he is more despondent. “[Now] the battlefield is different,” Permadi laments. “They changed strategy.”
Permadi believes Islamic hardliners have seized on tactless comments made by the embattled governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, and used it to spread radical doctrine.
Ahok, who is a Christian, told voters they were being deceived by his political foes. He claimed they had taken a Koranic verse out of context to argue that non-Muslims should not lead Muslims. Ahok is now on trial for blasphemy after mass rallies, spearheaded by Islamic hardliners, called for him to be jailed.
Permadi is a member of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic civil organisation in the world, which has 50 million members. Nahdlatul Ulama promotes Islam Nusantara, a pluralistic, tolerant form of Islam, as an antidote to extremist ideology and jihadism.
Permadi believes extremist groups have gained momentum on the back of the Ahok case and are now spreading radical doctrine that it is haram (forbidden) to have an infidel leader.
“Unfortunately moderate Muslims simply swallow it and won’t listen to our statements,” Permadi says. “We in NU are worried because the radical groups successfully took some of the moderates on to their side. And we have run out of ideas on how to counter this problem.”
The past year has seen a marked rise in right-wing Islamic political activism as Indonesian society becomes increasingly conservative.
The Constitutional Court is deliberating whether to criminalise sex outside marriage, which would made gay sex illegal for the first time in Indonesia’s history.
A proposed alcohol prohibition bill is before Indonesia’s House of Representatives, although the likely outcome will be more controls on alcohol consumption rather than a total ban.
A survey in October of Islamic education teachers in five of Indonesia’s 34 provinces – admittedly the most conservative provinces – found nearly 80 per cent supported implementing Sharia law.
It also found 74 per cent believed Muslims shouldn’t give greetings such as “Merry Christmas” to those from other faiths and 89 per cent believed non-Sunni minorities should not be accommodated within Islam in Indonesia.
“Divisions between Muslims at the grassroot level has taken place, namely division between Muslims who think Ahok is innocent and who think Ahok insults Islam,” Permadi says. “The division is wider than the Ahok case, look at the example of [the fatwa against Muslims wearing] Santa hats and Sari Roti bread.”
Yes, even bread has become polemical in Indonesia. At the most recent mass rally, volunteers handed out Sari Roti, the largest mass-market Japanese-style bread brand in Indonesia, with signs that said “free for Muslims”.
The bread manufacturer, Nippon Indosari Corpindo, whose CEO is Chinese-Indonesian, later issued a statement denying the company had supported the rally and stressing it supported Indonesia’s motto “Unity in Diversity”.
The bread company’s support for Indonesian pluralism outraged some of Indonesia’s netizens who called for a boycott of Sari Roti bread and posted photos of themselves stamping on it.
On Christmas Day, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic civic group, Muhammadiyah, started producing its own bread in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.
The secretary of Muhammadiyah’s Surabaya branch, Muhammad Arif’an, said the bakery had been planned since January last year, but acknowledged the Sari Roti controversy provided impetus.
“Honestly, Sari Roti created a polemic at that time and it attracted people and yes, we used the momentum of the third rally,” Muhammad told Fairfax Media.
The sectarian tension in Indonesia has been compounded by a deluge of fake news.
President Joko Widodo was forced to deny rumours that 10 million Chinese workers had been permitted to work in Indonesia, saying the figure was just 21,000.
Bank Indonesia denied bizarre claims circulated on social media that there was a hammer and sickle symbol on the 100,000 rupiah note. (Any activity which propagates communism, Marxism or Leninism is banned in Indonesia.)
The Chinese Embassy in Indonesia expressed alarm over claims China was waging biological warfare against Indonesia after four Chinese nationals were arrested for allegedly planting chilli seeds contaminated with a bacteria that can cause crop failure.
“The backdrop of that is also the income disparity that this country has,” Yenny Wahid, the director of the Wahid Institute, a research centre on Islam that promotes tolerance, told a forum recently.
According to World Bank data, she says, a small per cent of the population controls a large per cent of its assets.
“The Chinese issue here has always been a big issue because of the perceived dominance of the ethnicity in our economic landscape,” she says.
“Millions of Indonesians have Facebook accounts, so when you get … inaccurate or unbalanced articles about how Singapore was before the Chinese controlled it and how Indonesia is going to turn into Singapore with the Chinese controlling it and blah blah blah. So all of these articles are being sent to Facebook accounts of poor people in the villages who feel the economic crunch, who feel … [their] land is being snapped up by the Chinese … All these campaigns being sent out in massive ways by people who have access to this machinery really drove a campaign of hysteria.”
The Indonesian government has responded by vowing to crackdown on fake news and reinforce Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila. The five principles of Pancasila emphasise political pluralism, social justice for all the people of Indonesia and the unity of the state.
Senior Cabinet Minister Luhut Pandjaitan recently lamented that unlike during the authoritarian Suharto era, when Pancasila was well understood, “we don’t promote our ideology for many years”.
President Jokowi, as he is popularly known, abruptly announced a presidential task force last month to implement the state ideology, such as in the school curriculum. But critics claimed it was a reactionary move and establishing a taskforce would not address intolerance by people acting in the name of religion.
The influential Tempo magazine, while concerned about rising intolerance, suggested Jokowi was turning the clock back to 1979 when the Suharto regime established a board for applying Pancasila, known as BP7.
“It ended with the downfall of the regime in 1998,” Tempo noted in an editorial.
Acts of intolerance are usually a reflection of a particular group holding supremacist views, according to Yahya Cholil Staquf, the general secretary to the Nahdlatul Ulama Supreme Council.
“It is important for everybody to understand there is a kind of supremacist view that is embedded in and established in the orthodoxy of Islam. It is there,” Yahya told a recent forum. “That becomes a kind of ammunition for any political actors who want to use political Islam as a tool to gain victory.”
Yahya says Indonesia has a history of recontextualising Islam. Proof of this, he says, is Indonesian scholars accepting in the 1940s that Indonesia would be a pluralist state based on Pancasila rather than an Islamic state.
“You cannot find in the orthodoxy of Islam any elements that support the decision to legitimise a non-Islamic republic. But Islamic leaders at the time did that.”
Yahya says the fact Ahok was elected deputy governor in 2012 also illustrates Indonesia’s culture of tolerance. “That should be a proof that Jakarta Muslims are ready to have a Chinese Christian to be governor of Jakarta,” he says.
“But the problem is that supremacist view is still there in the orthodoxy of Islam. It is, to us, un-negotiable that this view of orthodoxy should be reformed.”
This year Nahdlatul Ulama will hold a conference in East Java which Yahya says will try to set a road map for the reform of Islamic teachings.
“We … need a powerful social movement to drive Muslim people to move toward the direction of reform. In Indonesia we have Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, the two largest [Islamic] organisations, that should play a role in this matter.”