Faith, ethnicity, and politics

In the Indonesian presidential election this week, incumbent president, Joko Widodo is seeking re-election against Prabowo Subianto, a businessman and politician, and a former general in the old Suharto regime.  President Suharto, as we know, was deposed in the wave of democratization that finally reached this vast neighboring country in 1998.

In the ensuing political crisis, Prabowo, who once led the Indonesian army campaign to crush the East Timorese independence movement, was accused of committing human rights atrocities and was dishonorably discharged from the military.  With the fall of Suharto, he divorced the dictator’s daughter and sought to distance himself from the once-powerful family, running unsuccessfully as Megawati’s vice presidential candidate in the 2009 election.  Unfazed by this failure, he then ran against Joko in the 2014 presidential election, and also lost.

If this was all one knew about Indonesian politics, one might expect that the key issues in the 2019 election would continue to revolve around the completion of the democratization process in the post-Suharto era.  But that discourse seems completely out of place today.  Joko Widodo is not running on a program to preserve the gains of democracy. As in the Philippines, right-wing populism has foregrounded the need for wilful strongmen who could chart the path toward the realization of a national identity and a society free from Western colonial influence.  Joko is reinventing himself in the image of such a leader.

Two issues, instead, appear to preoccupy rival Indonesian politicians at present.  The first is the role of political Islam in the charting of this new path.  The second is the role that China might play in the country’s development.

Of the two, it is political Islam that seems to dominate the candidates’ frantic appeal to voters.   More specifically, this is evident in the turn toward a conservative Salafist version of Islam, as funded and promoted especially by Saudi Arabia.  Locked in a bitter grudge fight, Joko and Prabowo appear nonetheless to be united by a common belief in erasing all the markers of a secular state that believes in religious diversity.  Although Islam has always been a dominant component of Indonesian culture, not until today has there ever been an open endorsement of the possibility of adopting the Shariah law for the whole of Indonesian society.

The signs of increasing intolerance for other faiths are everywhere.  Prabowo, the disgraced former general, has begun talking in the vocabulary of hardline Arabian-style Islamic devotion.  Although his mother is Christian and he himself had been educated in the West, he is not above calling for jihad.  He once promised to bring home from self-exile the head of the Islamic Defenders Front, Rizieq Shihab.  This organization had gained notoriety for attacking nightclubs in the capital city.

Not to be outdone, Joko made a show of his recent pilgrimage to Mecca, a week before the election.  His running mate in this election, Ma’ruf Amin, is the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, which, not too long ago, issued a fatwa against homosexuality.  But, more significantly, a telling indicator of how fast things have moved in less than 3 years, Ma’ruf is the same man who led the protest marches against the then Jakarta governor, Basuki Purnama, a Christian who had been Joko’s friend and political ally. Basuki was sent to jail for 20 months for blasphemy against Islam.

The key issue that, at this point, seems to set the two presidential candidates apart is China.  Like President Duterte, Joko has been bitten by the “Build Build Build” bug supported by Chinese funds.  In 2018, he signed up for $23 B worth of projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  He has invited Chinese companies to invest in Indonesia’s industrial processing plants and mining.

Prabowo has questioned the wisdom of Joko’s pivot to China, rightly raising fears about the insidious nature of Chinese loans.  In the process, however, he has also succeeded in fanning anti-Chinese sentiments.  It may be recalled that, in May 1998, such racist prejudices exploded in ethnic violence and killed about a thousand people.  Racism has always been politics’ low-hanging fruit.  So powerful is the temptation to play the ethnic card that irresponsible politicians often do not care about conflating the criticism of Chinese state actions with criticism of all ethnic Chinese people even when they know this could lead to dangerous consequences.

There is much to learn from this explosive relationship between politics and culture in Indonesia, just as there is much to reflect upon when we compare the political situation in that country with that of ours. What is it about Indonesia’s experience with modernity that impels its people to turn to intolerant and harsh versions of the Islamic faith for spiritual fulfilment?  I can’t imagine anyone, least of all a public official, saying anything remotely blasphemous or insulting to the Muslim majority in that country.

By the same token, Indonesians must be wondering how Mr Duterte could routinely attack the Catholic Church in his own country — its clergy and its core beliefs — and get away with it, as though he were merely telling a goodtime joke.  I have never felt comfortable about anchoring electoral campaigns expressly on the religious loyalties and affiliations of voters. But, I do wish we Filipinos took our religious beliefs more seriously as a guide to life and learned to defend them rather than just laugh when these are mocked.