Religion is one of the five pillars of Pancasila, the philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state. Indonesia is praised as the perfect example that democracy and religious faith are indeed compatible. Under the leadership of the country’s two largest religious organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), political Islam has historically rhymed with tolerance and integrity. The late president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid is until today acclaimed for his efforts to uphold the rights of minority groups.
But hardliners have been monopolizing headlines. The eruption of religious fundamentalism into politics reached a high point ahead of the capital’s gubernatorial election — with the campaign against incumbent Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama demanding his imprisonment for alleged blasphemy, resulting in a criminal investigation.
This anti-Ahok movement is often presented as a gathering of radical islamists and “for-hire” demonstrators. This would be a misconceived simplification of the movement, and a dangerous underestimation of the emergence of ultra-conservative populism in Indonesia.
This movement, initiated by hardliners, actually managed to gain support from a more moderate segment of the population, notably through social media. Indeed, while moderate and educated middle class groups played a limited role in early street protests, radical sounding ideas and anti-government rhetoric have found a surprisingly wide resonance in social media.
The anti-Ahok campaign was initiated by a few ultra-conservative religious organizations and was endorsed by neither Muhammadiyah nor the NU.
Despite such a lack of intellectual endorsement, a viral social media campaign based on edited and misleading footage of Ahok’s statement spread indignation throughout the web.
Despite later clarification on the actual transcript of Ahok’s speech and its context, a clear fracture in public opinion had emerged; there was no turning back.
The campaign successfully capitalized on a diffuse cultural and identity mal-être to polarize public opinion around the highest of issues for Indonesian Muslims: the affirmation of their religious identity.
Indonesians were implicitly invited to take a stance not on the legal aspects of the case, but on whether they defined themselves as Muslims or secular, whether they were ready to stand up and demonstrate their faith. The truth regarding the intentions and context of Ahok’s statement, or the legal strength of the blasphemy case became a secondary concern, almost irrelevant.
This really needs to be emphasized: Most supporters and sympathizers of the Bela Islam (Defend Islam) movement do not hate Ahok because he is Chinese or Christian.
Earlier calls by hardliners to reject Ahok as governor on the basis of his religion largely fell on deaf ears and were unable to reach out any farther than the hardliners’ own ranks.
However, the blasphemy controversy provided them with a great opportunity to develop a more compelling narrative about the demonstration of faith: popular support to the movement became a response to a higher call for the faithful to reaffirm religious identity as their highest defining value.
This narrative places religious values above democracy and justifies attempts to interfere in judicial and political processes in the name of religion.
It is mainstream political parties’ responsibility to insulate the political space from the intrusion of religion, to ensure that political processes do not drift from a confrontation of ideas to a confrontation of beliefs leading to sectarianism and division.
Yet recent developments in western democracies highlighted a global rise of right-wing populism and sectarianism. This global movement takes place across very diverse cultures but displays striking similarities: a general feeling of economic insecurity, distrust in traditional politics and a belief that the legislative and judicial systems fail to deliver justice for all.
Populist discourses also capitalize on fear of minorities to promise to the majority the privilege of political representation.
Western democracies have dismally failed to prevent the rise of far-right populism, because they applied to the far-right threat the same remedy they employed to deal with the far left throughout the 20th century: integrate and reinterpret leftist ideas to appeal to a dynamic and rapidly changing electoral landscape.
As mainstream political parties satisfied popular demand for individual and collective freedoms carried by leftist movements, the attractiveness of a more radical leftist agenda began to fade, sending the far left back into marginality.
This strategy has proven counter-productive when addressing the rise of right-wing populism. What kept far-right movements from breaking away from marginality into mainstream politics was the social stigma associated with far-right nationalism, its association with bigotry or fascism.
By progressively integrating far-right ideas into mainstream politics, conservative parties took down the wall separating mainstream politics from the socially stigmatized far-right nationalist discourse. The more you concede to far-right movements, the stronger they become.
The Bela Islam movement — and more specifically its treatment by mainstream media and political parties — has achieved just that: bringing far-right populism into mainstream politics and “un-demonizing” the Islam Defenders Front (FPI).
While the current administration is responsible for guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and electoral processes and to protect the rights of religious minorities, national media also have an important role to play in preventing the normalization and mainstreaming of religious intolerance in the public space, thereby sending radicalism back to the social and political margins.