Tolerance and terror: Islam in Indonesia’s Reformasi era



indonesia-logo  ON May 13, a family inspired by the ideology of Islamic State bombed three churches in Indonesia’s second-largest city Surabaya.The attacks – the worst Indonesia has seen since the Bali bombings of 2002 – came exactly a week before the twentieth anniversary of former dictator Suharto’s resignation on May 21, 1998, paving the way for a radical democratisation and decentralisation of power across the archipelago known as Reformasi.

As Indonesians took stock of the first 20 years of its democratic era, therefore, another, darker national conversation began to take place. The world’s largest Muslim-majority reflected with sadness and disgust at gruesome attacks against Christians which for the first time in Indonesian history, involved female and child suicide bombers.

SEE ALSO: #20TahunReformasi: Celebrating 20 years of Indonesian democracy

Within two weeks, national parliament had adopted tough new anti-terror laws, pushing through long-delayed revisions to the 2003 anti-terrorism legislation, allowing Indonesia’s military to become involved in fighting violent extremism under certain circumstances

The events have also revived a national debate about the emergence of Muslim fundamentalism and extremism in after 1998. Historically famed for its tolerant and syncretistic character, commentators have observed a conservative shift within Indonesian Islam over the past two decades which in turn has spurred intolerance and persecution of religious minorities.

Role of Islam in Suharto’s fall

Contrary to contemporary arguments that Islam is antithetical to democracy, Muslim civil society played a key role in the fall of Suharto and has continued to do so in its democratisation throughout Reformasi.

From the time it took power in 1966, Suharto’s military-backed regime brutally imposed a secular-nationalist policy platform. Indonesia’s state ideology of Pancasila was legislated to be the ‘sole basic principle’ for all social organisations in Indonesia, with the intention of suppressing religious and other ideological opponents to the regime – particularly Islamists seeking to replace Indonesia’s secular constitution with one based upon Quranic principles.

With their millions of members across the archipelago, moderate groups like the NU were also suppressed as another potential threat to the New Order regime. According to Ahmad Suaedy, a then-NU activist who is now responsible for handling social, cultural and religious issues at Indonesia’s Ombudsman, “NU was suppressed by Suharto because Suharto feared them.”



Former Indonesian president Suharto (R) chats with Abdurrahman “Gus Dur ” Wahid, the head of the country’s largest Muslim organisation NU at Suharto’s house in Jakarta on 19 December 1998. Suharto then agreed to join a national reconciliation dialogue with his successor President BJ Habibie. Source: AFP /Upa Labuhari

“In 1984, [NU] collaborated with the New Order to officially move from being a political party to a social movement and civil society organisation,” he said. Nevertheless, from the 1970s until the mid-1980s, Suharto began to court Muslim groups through policy changes like allowing female school students to wear the hijab, eliminating the permit system for people to become preachers, and establishing Indonesia’s leading Shariah-compliant financial institution, the Muamalat Bank.

The position of Islamic civil society was further strengthened in 1990, when Suharto allowed then-Secretary of Research and Technology BJ Habibie to establish the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI). In another effort to curry favour with Muslim groups, the aging president completed the hajj – the compulsory pilgrimage to Mecca – in 1991.

SEE ALSO: ‘Democracy isn’t always pretty’: Human rights in post-Suharto Indonesia

Suharto’s “softening” towards Islamic civil society was unprecedented, for previously he had feared “it would turn against him,” said Ima Abdulrahim, Executive Director of The Habibie Center in Jakarta which was established by Suharto’s successor BJ Habibie after he left power in 1999. People say Suharto’s change of heart occurred after his wife known as Ibu Tien passed away, said Ima.

Nevertheless, the “sectarian” ICMI was in fact a “political vehicle” for the New Order, said Suaedy, as opposed to pluralist elements from the NU and Muhammadiyah. From 1990 until the fall of Suharto, therefore, elements of NU became more active in promoting “an Islam that is more democratic, pro-human rights, women’s rights, and so on.”

Ulil Absar Abdalla, the Coordinator of the Liberal Islam Network, Director of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace and an NU member, told Asian Correspondent that under the New Order there developed an “unholy alliance between Islamic conservatism and political power.”



An Indonesian Muslim student protestor shouts “disband Golkar” during a demonstration at a main roundabout in Jakarta, 13 February 2001. Scores of Muslims staged a protest to demand Suharto to be brought to the tribunal trial and for the disbandment of Suharto’s Golkar party. Source: Oka Budhi/ AFP

“In my early activism I encountered the use of the political ideology of Islam for the maintenance of the New Order regime,” he said. “Orthodoxy is unavoidable in any religion but we should be critical of orthodoxy because it always tends to suppress, trample any kind of different interpretation, voice of reason, opposition or dissent.”

“During Suharto years Muslim activists were targeted, imprisoned. Now there is more freedom to express their religious identity – as we can see more and more people wear hijab,” said Ahmad Pathoni, a journalist who participated in demonstrations against Suharto and whose career began in 1998.

“But there is a worrying level of bigotry among conservative Muslims – their attitudes towards Shia and Ahmadiyyah Muslims – there is a negative side to the growing conservatism.”

Rising conservatism

Radical decentralisation of power under laws passed in 1999 saw the emergence of religious and community leaders, NGO activists, academics and media personalities into local politics. Suaedy said that his pluralist colleagues from Muslim civil society then became bureaucrats, elected officials, and commissioners in Indonesia’s newly established rights commissions.

The democratic era has seen greater freedom to discuss ideas, create spaces for debate and establish religious and other non-governmental groups. Last year saw Indonesia host a world-first: the International Seminar on Women Ulama. It culminated in three fatwas (Muslim religious edicts) against child marriage, sexual violence and undue damage to the natural environment.

But greater freedom has also seen stronger assertions of Islamic religious identity and a move among many Indonesian Muslims away from traditional, local interpretations of Islam.

“Indonesia’s Islamisation has been the single outstanding feature that altered the nation since 1998,” said Ariel Heryanto, Herb Feith Professor for the Study of Indonesia at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Monash Asia Institute. “For centuries the majority of Muslims in Indonesia adopted a significantly syncretic approach to their religious practice. They professed Islam while retaining various vernacular traditions and elements of Hinduism and Buddhism.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Dark forces’ of intolerance spreading in Indonesia, say parliamentarians

“To a significant degree, the rapid process of contemporary Islamisation has been made possible by the slaughter of the Left from 1965,” Heryanto said, referring to the massacre of up to one million alleged communists by the military, vigilantes and religious groups. “The more secular forces suffered legitimacy deficit due to its association with the militarist regime of the New Order that was brought to its knee in 1998.”

“But Islam is not one unified entity. Internal conflicts within the Muslim community appear to have been more serious than Muslims versus non-Muslims,” Heryanto said.



A man holds a Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia flag during a protest against the President Joko Widodo’s decree to disband Islamist groups in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 28, 2017. Source: Reuters/Beawiharta

Ironically, the democratisation era has also allowed for the emergence of a raft of hardline, anti-democratic elements such as the notorious vigilante group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). Political scientist Dr Verena Beittinger-Lee has deemed these organisations Indonesia’s “un-civil society” for their use of intimidation and violence, particularly against minorities.

“The fact that our political space is freer and allows people to voice their aspirations has something to do with the emergence of this Islamic fundamentalism,” said Ulil. “In the past this would not have been possible at all because everything was controlled by the government.”

He recalled that for many years groups such as Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), who espouse the establishment of a transnational caliphate by non-violent means, would turn up to his lectures and intimidate him in the hope that he would not speak.

Incidentally, Jokowi passed special legislation in 2017, giving the government power to ban the group in light of their contravention of Indonesia’s nationalist ideology Pancasila.

SEE ALSO: Jokowi signs decree granting govt power to disband radical groups

But the localisation of governance has also given authority to district, city and village level governments to impose discriminatory bylaws – most frequently against non-Muslim minorities.

Impunity has remained a major problem as persecution and violence against minorities have risen since 1998. Many police “cannot differentiate between their profession and their faith”, Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said.

Police must be better trained and pushed to have zero tolerance for persecution and violence in the name of any religion, he said, whether it be from hardline Muslims against Christians in Jakarta or Christians suppressing the rights of Muslims in Kupang.

Political Islam

Islam-based parties have traditionally fared poorly at the polls in Indonesia, despite marginal increases in their popularity in recent elections. Islamic parties currently hold less than a third of seats in parliament, and three out of four of them are in a coalition with Jokowi’s ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Attempts by Islamist groups to enshrine Islamic law into the constitution have failed.

Many commentators thus see lobbying on “moral issues” such as the panic around a perceived rise in LGBT people, as a deliberate strategy by Islamic parties to boost support ahead of the presidential elections in 2019. Suaedy noted that their political successes have been limited to niche areas of policy like the introduction of strict anti-pornography laws in 2008.

Jokowi’s alliance with these parties has required concessions. Indonesian parliament is currently considering revisions to the criminal code which would outlaw zina – the Islamic conception of adultery – which would make pre-marital sex and homosexuality jailable offences. “People choose to be popular rather than to do something right,” said Ima. “Until we get brave politicians that will want to do the right thing rather than do the popular thing, there will also be that level of pessimism.”

“Political Islamists want to impose what they consider Islamic Shariah into the society,” Harsono told Asian Correspondent. “I do not have a position on Shariah per se, but it is mostly used to discriminate against minorities like women and LGBT people.”


Horrific bombings in Surabaya this month have once again brought debates around violent Islamic extremism to the fore in Indonesia. In January 2016, amateurish IS-inspired militants attacked a Starbucks and an adjacent police outpost in central Jakarta, killing four civilians.

Just prior to Ramadhan 2017, two explosions ripped through a bus terminal in the working-class Jakarta neighbourhood of Kampung Melayu, killing five civilians, two police officers and the attackers themselves.

While in 2016 netizens had declared #KamiTidakTakut (we are not afraid), by May 2018 some had began challenging the sentiment. “We are fed up” became a trending hashtag. Recent violence has seen some accuse ultraconservative groups of espousing terrorism.

Eyes are now on the country’s schools and universities as hotbeds for radical ideas. A study from June found that 1 in 10 Indonesians support replacing the pluralist constitution with an Islamic caliphate. A subsequent survey found that among high schoolers and university students, the rate of support was 1 in 5.

SEE ALSO: Under Jokowi, conservative groups start to condemn terrorism



Burned motorcycles are seen outside a church, one of the three hit by suicide bombers in Surabaya, Indonesia May 13, 2018. Source: Reuters/Beawiharta

Nevertheless, many terrorism experts reject the notion that the spread of Islamic State’s ideology to Indonesia is linked to an overall trend towards conservatism. “Although the rise in religious intolerance is often associated with terrorism in Indonesia, by and large the two phenomena are separate,” wrote Sidney Jones, Director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict after the Surabaya attacks in the The New York Times.

“Supporters of Saudi-style Salafism may have played a major role in, for example, bringing down the Christian governor of Jakarta on blasphemy charges, but they are quick to criticise terrorism, and terrorists rarely recruit from their ranks.”

“Yet they may have an indirect influence: The more that conservative hard-liners reject Christians as equal citizens under the law, the more, perhaps, terrorists will see churches as appropriate targets,” she added. “Terrorism cannot be disassociated from its political environment.”

Insulting God

Rights groups have long criticised Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law, which they say is used to curb free speech and the rights of Indonesia’s many religious minority groups. Prosecutions under the law shot up under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and continue under Jokowi.

The most prominent prosecution was that of the former Christian governor of Jakarta and Jokowi ally Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in 2017, who is now serving a two-year jail sentence for allegedly insulting Islam.

It reflects a broader trend of targeting those who question religious orthodoxy, with minority sects of Islam such as Shia, Ahmadiyyah and the Gafatar movement the primary targets. In 2014, a former Muslim was jailed for writing commentaries critical of religion and explaining why he did not think God existed on Facebook.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is preparing changes to the so-called Religious Rights Protection Bill, which would allow harsher punishments for alleged insults towards religion.

A major change to the law would be a broadened classification of the offence of blasphemy – which is currently “showing hostility, abuse, or desecration” towards a faith, its scriptures or institutions – to seven different kinds of blasphemy with varying periods of imprisonment from six months to five years.



Jakarta’s former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (C), better known by his nickname Ahok, is escorted by anti-terror police as he leaves the North Jakarta court in Jakarta on December 20, 2016. Source: AFP/ Adek Berry

SEE ALSO: Indonesian religious ministry to propose tougher blasphemy laws

“In that sense we are not achieving much in terms of separating state and the mosque,” said Harsono. Ima remains optimistic, however, cautioning that civil society groups must strive to maintain an open environment for speech and debate.

“Sectarianism and religious intolerance are the problems right now, in a decade it could be something different,” she said. “What’s important is to build resilience in our communities. We need to make sure we are resilient as a nation to overcome these challenges.”

According to Ulil, recent changes in government policy like banning HTI and cracking down on terrorism bode well for the future of Indonesian Islam and democracy. While NU, Muhammadiyah and other mainstream groups are “big socially and culturally, we are lazy,” he said. Over the past two years, however, there has been a “massive reaction” against ultraconservative groups.

“This is a tendency of all Muslim radicals … they try to monopolise the social space in order to shut down the other voices. That is the task of the Muslim scholars and intellectuals, and also civil society,” concluded Ulil. “To maintain a space for open discussion.”


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