What Happened to the ‘smiling’ face of Indonesian Islam?

Indonesian Islam has often been described as having a ‘smiling face’. However, in the last two decades, scholars have argued for a ‘conservative turn’ – how Indonesian Islam twisted its smile into a grumpy look. The abruptness of this change seems suspicious: could it be that some murky forces are at work?

Giacomo Canetta, Contributor – The Hague, The Netherlands


Islam in Indonesia has always been looked at with global interest. Since the 1970s – and even more so since 9/11 – the study of Islam is increasingly framed into a discourse on ‘security’ and ‘clash of civilizations’. However, Islam has historically shown a different face in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world: Indonesia. Often referred to as “Islam with a smiling face”, Indonesian Islam is frequently considered a positive example of how Islam and secularism can coexist and accommodate one another. However, recent developments have threatened to overturn that reality.


From a smile to a frown

Since independence from the Dutch, Islam has had an ambiguous position in the newborn Republic of Indonesia – which was neither completely secular nor an Islamic state. The tensions surrounding the liberation process left an indelible mark in the relationship between religion and the state.

Nevertheless, after independence, the country experienced a long period of authoritarian rule. During this period, Islamism neither had space for development nor expansion. Both Sukarno and Suharto (the only two presidents between 1945 to 1998) heavily cracked down on Islamist groups, movements and thinkers, and others who opposed the regime – often through violent means. Simultaneously, both presidents tried to create a strong support-base in Muslim communities through classic co-optation tactics. They flirted with Islamic mass organizations (ormas), initiatives and intellectuals who were keen on cooperating with them. Especially acute during Suharto’s rule – many Indonesian Muslims began to emphasize their religious piety in cultural rather than political terms, resulting in the depoliticization of Islam in Indonesia. In summary, the increased role of cultural Islam, the hard repression of any form of islamism, and the support given to Islamic organizations that were cooperative with the regime, gave many the impression of Indonesian Islam as being tolerant and willing to compromise with secular values.

The same observers were probably shocked by the rise of religiously motivated violence on the eve of Suharto’s fall. Mostly the result of an extremely chaotic period of regime change, a series of violent events lasted roughly from 1995 to 2005. And even when violence came to an end, scholars warned for a ‘conservative turn’ in mainstream Indonesian Islam.

Several other events signaled a ‘conservative turn’. In 2005, the two biggest ormas, NU (Nadhlatul Ulama) and Muhammadiyah, held their 5 year congresses where they supported particularly conservative positions. A year later, MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – translated as ‘Indonesian Council of Ulama’) issued a number of controversial fatwa. One of the fatwa declared that secularism, pluralism and religious liberalism (often mentioned with the morally charged acronym ‘SiPiLis’) were incompatible with Islam. A number of vigilante Islamist groups used such fatwa to justify acts of violence towards religious minorities in the country, for example the Ahmadiyya movement. Since the issue of those fatwa, religious vigilante groups maintained high degrees of communal tensions in the country, with recurring manifestation of reactionary attitudes and violence.

This succession of events snowballed into what is perhaps, the most notorious expression of the conservative turn of Indonesian Islam. In October 2016, Jakarta’s mayor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok – a Christian, ethnic Chinese – was accused of blasphemy. After a controversial trial – which omitted the fact that Ahok was sabotaged by a fabricated video which made him appear anti-Islamic – Ahok was sentenced to two years of imprisonment in May 2017. Did Indonesian Islam radically change?

image-dua-saksi-dari-kepulauan-seribu-dihadirkan-pada-sidang-ahokAhok delivers the speech that put him into trouble.


Some doubts arising…

While studying this sudden change in mainstream Indonesian Islam I felt as if something was missing from the picture. True, anti-Ahok protests drove hundreds of thousands to the streets of Jakarta. Undeniably, a number of important ormas – which consist of millions of followers and members – and influential ulama (Islamic scholars) were increasingly supportive of Islamist positions. Moreover, radical, violent Islamist groups have always existed in Indonesia and will possibly continue to exist in the foreseeable future – as recent events have showed. Nonetheless, this begs the question: how deeply embedded is this conservative turn in Indonesian society?

Currently, sufficient research on the ideas and opinions shared by the majority of Indonesians is lacking. Nonetheless, looking at the few indicators at our disposal, it seems that the notion of a conservative turn in mainstream Indonesian Islam – and I emphasize again the term ‘mainstream’ – is somehow misleading. One of the most rudimentary indicators – the voting patterns of Indonesians – continues to puzzle me.

Year: 1999 2004 2009 2014
Religious: PKB – 13% PKB – 11% PKS – 8% PKB – 9%
PPP – 11% PPP – 8% PAN – 6% PAN – 8%
PAN – 7% PKS – 7% PPP – 6% PPP – 7%
PBB – 2% PAN – 6% PKB – 5% PKS – 7%
PK – 1% PBB – 3% PBB – 2% PBB – 1%
PDS – 2% PDS – 1%
Total % Islamic parties: 34% 35% 27% 32%
Total % Islamist parties: 14% 18% 16% 15%
Secular: PDI-P – 34% Golkar – 22% PD – 21% PDI-P – 19%
Golkar – 22% PDI-P – 19% PDI-P – 14% Golkar – 15%
PD – 7% Golkar – 14% Gerindra – 12%
Gerindra – 4% PD – 10%
Hanura – 4% Nasdem – 7%
Hanura – 5%

Table 1: percent of votes received by major Indonesian parties in free and fair elections since reformasi. Most parties with less than 2% of votes, as well as most parties that did not obtain any seat, are omitted. The parties indicated in the table are therefore by myself chosen as representative. The majority of religious parties are Islamic parties. Between them, parties considered to be Islamist are written in green. Christian parties are colored in blue. Note that ‘Islamist’ is a very slippery term. In this case, between parties counted as Islamist there is a great variety of ideals and proposals. The reader will hopefully forgive these necessary simplifications.


If we look at Table 1 – and remember that roughly 90% of Indonesians declared themselves as Muslims in 2010 – Islamist parties have never performed well since 1999. And even among these Islamist parties, many of them have relatively moderate positions. In contrast, in the last free and fair election before 1999, in 1955, parties that advocated for some variant of an Islamic state obtained more than 40% of votes.

On one hand, mainstream Indonesian Islam has allegedly shifted towards an increasingly conservative and regressive position. On the other hand, votes for Islamist parties have remained stable, or even declined. How is such a discrepancy possible?


A few people pulling the strings?

There are many ways to explain this ‘anomaly’. One is, for example, to analyze the media. Scholars like M. Syafi’i Anwar have argued that actions from “radical-conservative” Islamic groups are often “magnified” by the media, which tends to create a distorted image of their size and effectiveness. On the contrary, “progressive-liberal” groups have many ‘marketing problems’. However I will focus on a different explanation.

Studying Indonesian Islam, I constantly had the intuition that powerful minority groups were more influential than their meagre numbers would suggest. This is common in most democracies: the minority of financial elites, Media magnates and powerful criminal organizations often disproportionately influence the decision-making process and the public sphere. It is in a way paradoxical that in most democracies today, where everyone’s vote is equal, there is still an inequality of power among citizens. That’s why we should always analyze and expose the actions of potentially influential minority groups.


A meaningful example: the maturation of MUI

As earlier stated, in 2005, a number of mainstream Islamic organizations and institutions (most relevant between them: NU, MUI and Muhammadiyah) were thought to have undertook a ‘conservative turn’. Zooming in on MUI, the reason for doing so is simple.

MUI was originally established in 1975 as an adviser organization to Suharto’s government on religious matters and as a mean to communicate and establish positive relations between the government and the multitude of Indonesian Muslims. The members of its council were directly chosen by the government and, as a consequence, MUI’s positions were mostly conforming to the will of the state. As earlier mentioned, during this period of authoritarian rule, Suharto did not tolerate any form of political Islam. Thus, since its foundation, MUI was representative of an Islam able to compromise with power, often promoting the authoritarian government’s interests. For example, in 1983 MUI supported an extensive family planning program wanted by Suharto’s regime. This also reminds us that, at times, MUI supported the views of a religiously progressive minority – when Suharto’s developmental and political goals required it. After the collapse of the regime, in the middle of a severe political crisis, MUI suddenly found itself free from government control.

With radical-conservative positions and religiously motivated violence seemingly on the rise, this now independent body of religious scholars decided to embrace what was then considered the “wave of the future”. MUI’s ‘conservative turn’ was, in a way, fruit of a mere survival instinct.

Already in their 2000 and 2005 congresses, membership expanded to include various Islamist thinkers, including activist members of Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. At the same time, no liberal, Shi’ a or Ahmadiyah – the latter two are minorities in the country – Muslim was admitted to join MUI. Membership to MUI is based on co-optation, where council members have the arbitrary power of appointing their new colleagues. Incidentally, this was also the period during which MUI became increasingly involved in political processes and indirectly backed several street demonstrations through groups like Forum Ukhuwah Islamiyah (FUI). Further, the various controversial fatwas were issued in 2005.

I would summarize the maturation of MUI as follows: a highly hierarchical institution, designed to influence the masses and to further a specific agenda manages to survive a troubled regime change, with its structure almost unaltered. It suddenly found itself embedded into a young and dynamic democracy, struggling to find a new role. It managed to survive till today as an independent body with its own agenda. MUI has since reached out to many Indonesian Muslims, who came to trust it as an important religious institution.


Suspicious parallels: FPI

MUI only serves to represent one example of a non-democratic institution which, because of its societal status and role, has had a greater influence on the public sphere than the number of its members would suggest. A similar dynamic is also present in other situations. For instance, notwithstanding the incredible size of a 200.000 people crowd at the anti-Ahok protests, how can we consider them representative of a nation of 260 million people? Besides simple maths, there are strong reasons to doubt the representativity of the anti-Ahok protests. An insightful piece of investigative journalism by Allan Nairn, published one year ago on The Intercept, sheds light on the likely orchestrators of the massive demonstrations.

bn-qq143_1104in_m_20161104105301Mass protests in the streets of Jakarta


It is clear that the main actor that led the street rallies was Front Pembela Islam (FPI, translated as “Islamic Defenders Front”), a hard-liner Islamist group. FPI was created by Indonesian security forces in 1998, at the threshold of the political crisis that succeeded Suharto’s fall. However, soon after its establishment, the vigilante group went on its own way, furthering an independent agenda. FPI was often responsible for violence towards religious minorities, such as the events following MUI’s controversial fatwa in 2005.

Given FPI’s reputation for Islamic militancy, Allan Nairn implied that FPI street protests for Ahok’s conviction were mostly financed and backed by powerful army officials and businessman. From the interviews he conducted, it appears that Ahok’s character assassination along religious lines was simply a public facade to attract support for a much more political purpose.

Behind this thin layer of Islamic piety lies an intricate power-game with the ultimate goal of ousting the current President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, and give room to a government even more army-friendly and supportive of big businesses. FPI, like MUI, tries to portray itself as a defender of Islamic moral values and appeals to many conservative Muslims in the country. It is clear however that both groups have used their power to influence the public sphere in order to further their own agenda and interests. Highly hierarchical and authoritarian, MUI and FPI are paradoxically embedded into Indonesia’s complex and dynamic democracy, making it more difficult for Indonesia to consolidate its democracy.


A dangerous elite game?

Notwithstanding the relative moderation of the Indonesian electorate – as earlier shown in table 1 – actions of groups like FPI and MUI undermine freedom of religion and political freedoms in the country. Moreover, when powerful elites are able to control such influential and undemocratic organizations, the realization of substantive democracy is certainly hindered. True, religious matters have usually been managed by groups of learned and pious scholars. It is important, however, to maintain under scrutiny all politically involved actors that participate in a democratic system. Problems arise when such groups and/or institutions have a disproportionately strong influence in the public sphere while lacking transparency and accountability. Moreover, organizations such as MUI are often masked as independent and impartial decision-making bodies, while a private political agenda is just hidden in their backyard.