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Insights and Analysis

Indonesia: Normalizing Intolerance

June 6, 2018

By Sandra Hamid

The stunning, 2017 electoral defeat of Jakarta’s popular, non-Muslim governor, and his subsequent imprisonment for blasphemy, caught most Indonesians off guard. Indonesia was built on the premise of pluralism, writes Asia Foundation country director Sandra Hamid, and appeals to Islam had been largely ineffective in past elections. But as politicians prepare to contest more than 170 local elections later this month, and a presidential race in 2019, appeals to Islamic identity are now increasingly common.

In a recent paper for CILIS, the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam, and Society, Dr. Hamid argues that political contestation in contemporary Indonesia must be understood within a larger context of intolerance, fueled by the commoditization of religion and marked by a deepening movement towards public expressions of piety, that has been quietly rising in the world’s most populous Muslim country for two decades. She points to a vicious cycle of identity politics, mass-media representations, and political opportunism that has brought religious intolerance in Indonesia suddenly to center stage.

Many observers were shocked by the strong religious tone of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, which reverberated across the country. Religious hard-liners had long protested against Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the capital’s ethnic-Chinese, non-Muslim governor. He had made careless comments on the campaign trail about the opposition’s use of a Qur’anic verse to argue that Muslims could not vote for him. This resulted in the largest mass demonstrations in decades, with hundreds of thousands of Muslim protesters turning out to “defend Islam,” demanding that Ahok be prosecuted for allegedly offending their religion. While not totally unprecedented, the use of religion in the 2017 Jakarta campaign occurred on a scale never seen before in the world’s third-largest democracy. Despite a 70 percent approval rating close to the elections, Ahok lost in a landslide. Within a few weeks he was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for two years for blasphemy.
These events should be understood in the broader context of the decades-long trend in Indonesia towards exclusivism in the practice of religion in the private and public spheres, the so-called “conservative turn” of the Indonesian Muslim community…The intolerant narratives that dominated the Jakarta election were an amplification of what many ordinary Indonesians were already experiencing in their lives.

Read the whole paper here.

Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions, Good Governance
Related topics: Elections, Religious Conflict


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