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Can Widodo stop Indonesia’s increasing Islamisation?

Posted By on November 22, 2019 @ 12:35

Joko Widodo’s campaign to turn back the rising tide of Islamisation in Indonesia may become the dominant preoccupation of his second five-year term as president, overshadowing his far-reaching infrastructure program and perhaps even efforts to revive the country’s maudlin economy.

Alarmed over a deepening divide between moderate and conservative regions, and the way Islamists have penetrated institutions of higher learning and the upper levels of the bureaucracy, Widodo has already embarked on a mission to defend Pancasila, Indonesia’s inclusive state ideology.

It might also be argued that creeping Islamisation, as much as a desire to shift the country’s centre of balance away from Java, lies behind Widodo’s plan to move Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta, in the heart of conservative West Java, to East Kalimantan.

Certainly, his intentions appear clear with the choice—unprecedented in the democratic era—of retired three-star general Fachrul Razi to head the Religious Affairs Ministry, former Constitutional Court chief justice Mohammad Mahfud as political coordinating minister and former police chief Tito Karnavian as home affairs minister.

Even former opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, whose appointment as defence minister stirred controversy because of his previous links to Islamist groups, can now be regarded as an ally in the struggle to meet a widely perceived threat to the secular state.

Prabowo promised last year to return exiled Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, firebrand Rizieq Shihab from Saudi Arabia if he won the presidential election, which would have given the radical 212 Movement a leader.

The alliance between Prabowo, whose family is Christian, and the Islamists was always built on shared political interests. Those disappeared with Widodo’s re-election and the co-opting of Prabowo into the ruling coalition.

Insiders say Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, a retired special-forces general and senior presidential adviser, proposed Razi for the religious affairs portfolio when Widodo told him he needed someone with the courage to stand up to the Islamists.

The only previous army officer to fill the position was American-trained Lieutenant-General Alamsyah Prawiranegara, who served between 1978 and 1983 after President Suharto became alarmed at the re-emergence of the rebel Darul Islam movement.

‘The mosque is not the right place for politics’, Prawiranegara counselled Indonesians at the time. ‘The mistake Muslims made in the past was in carrying forward a politically oriented Islam rather than a religiously oriented Islam.’

Widodo was laying down a marker in reviving the political career of Mahfud, his choice as vice-president before Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama forced him to accept ageing cleric Ma’ruf Amin, the architect of draconian religious policies introduced during Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency.

Amin’s subsequent support for hardline revisions to the criminal code suggest his views remain unchanged. But in what may turn out to be a clever move, Widodo has put him in charge of programs to prevent terrorism and other violent acts, which the less charitable would say he once helped inspire.

Far from rewarding Nahdlatul Ulama for the crucial role it played in Widodo’s re-election, Razi’s appointment has also deprived the influential organisation of the cabinet post it prized the most, leaving its political wing, the National Awakening Party, or PKB, with trade and two other minor portfolios.

Razi is a 1970 military academy classmate of Pandjaitan and a member of Brave 5, the group of 20 retired generals Pandjaitan first put together to help Widodo win the 2014 presidential election.

The former deputy armed forces chief was also a member of the honour council which sacked Prabowo from military service in 1999 for insubordination and the kidnapping of at least nine pro-democracy activists in the final days of Suharto’s 32-year rule.

When Razi was summoned to the palace in late September, Widodo didn’t say what he had in mind for the general but expressed concern about conservative teachings at the country’s schools and the way they were seen to be undermining Pancasila.

Later, the president made it clear that Razi’s mission was not only to quell radicalism, but also to address issues such as the new Halal law, which has the business community in an uproar, and the corruption that bedevils the management of the hajj pilgrimage.

At 65.1 trillion rupiah (A$6.8 billion), the Religious Affairs Ministry gets the fourth biggest chunk of the 2020 budget behind defence, public works and the national police. In his first week in office, Razi confided to associates that he was astonished at the degree of corruption at all levels of the ministry.

The sharp religious divide revealed in the April elections finally persuaded Widodo to act, but he had already been disturbed by a Defence Ministry study which found that 23.3% of high school and university students do not see Pancasila as the country’s guiding philosophy.

According to the survey, that same sentiment was shared by 19% of civil servants, 18% of employees of private companies, 9% of state enterprise workers and 3% of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), or 14,000 personnel. Other polls have revealed a similar picture.

Islamic studies director-general Komaruddin Amin announced early this month that the religious studies curriculum will be revised and textbooks that propagate intolerant views will be banned at state-run schools. He said the new textbooks will focus on moderate Islamic teachings and encourage students to respect people of different faiths.

Home affairs minister Karnavian, for his part, is expected to oversee the weeding out of hardline Islamic elements from key positions in the four-million-strong bureaucracy and perhaps put a brake on the proliferation of Islamic bylaws across the country.

Razi made it clear from the start he will be a minister for all religions, not just Islam. As an Acehnese and ostensibly a devout Muslim, he may also take a closer look at the doctrinaire excesses in his historically rebellious home province, the only region in Indonesia permitted to practise Sharia law.

He has already caused a stir by favouring a ban on civil servants wearing the full-face niqab in government offices for security reasons in the wake of last month’s assassination attempt on security minister and former army chief Wiranto.

The 212 Movement says it will not invite Prabowo to a reunion marking the massive demonstration on 2 December 2016 that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama, Widodo’s popular Christian–Chinese ally.

Even here, Widodo may have the last laugh. His promising political career at a premature end, Purnama is now being tipped to become president-director of the troubled state oil company Pertamina.

While the conservative lobby is largely leaderless, the level of religious intolerance is such that the government risks a backlash, particularly in West Java, if it moves too forcefully.

But what worries some analysts is that the anti-radical campaign lacks a clear direction and will turn out to have little cohesiveness. They say what is needed is a forthright statement from Widodo on why Islamisation is a legitimate concern and why he’s determined to preserve the secular state as laid out in the Indonesian constitution.

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