Indonesia’s rising tide of intolerance
Sri Mulyana, centre, with friends in Batang, where she wears a jilbab to work as a condition of her employment but otherwise chooses not to wear the headscarf, and for this she endures criticism. Picture: Budi Purwanto.
Flicking randomly through Facebook this week, Fitri* came upon a status update from an Indonesian blogger friend who recently had turned more religious. The woman, who now wears a long hijab and has given up playing guitar or listening to music, boasted of having burned her copy of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose— a “devil creation”, she called it.
A week earlier the same woman announced she had put the torch to her Harry Potter collection. For Fitri, a Jakarta-based journalist and blogger, the woman’s personal transition might have been little more than a curiosity if not for the fact it has become commonplace among neighbours and friends.
It was not even five years ago that Fitri threw herself a farewell barbecue in her outer-Jakarta residential compound before heading abroad to study, and nipped around to the next-door neighbour’s to borrow a corkscrew.
Fast-forward to her return to Indonesia in 2015 and that same neighbour — like all but two other woman in her compound of 30 houses — now wears a jilbab (the Indonesian term for hijab) and throws Koranic discussion circles instead of parties. The change was head-spinning, and the same thing had happened in her mother’s much fancier complex 15 minutes’ drive away.
“Now in my own community I feel like a minority,” she told Inquirer this week.
In the streets, on public transport and in her own neighbourhood, Fitri says, she feels increasingly that people look at her with hostility.
Her own 11-year-old son has questioned how she dresses — why she wears form-fitting shirts, and whether she will go to hell for drinking beer, as his school religion teacher has suggested. Nowadays she wears a coat on the train and has relented to her son’s request to dress in loose clothing for the school pick-up. But Fitri refuses to wear a jilbab.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, she is fast becoming a minority.
A survey of 1620 Indonesians released last September by the Singapore-based Institute for South East Asian Studies Yusof Ishak school found 82 per cent of respondents believed wearing a head covering was an important symbol of Islamic religiosity for women. Interestingly, it also found the higher the income level, the likelier an Indonesian Muslim woman was to wear the jilbab.
The poll was conducted last May, just after the bruising Jakarta gubernatorial election and the conviction and jailing of the outgoing Christian, ethnic Chinese governor, Tjahaja Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, on politically motivated blasphemy charges. The anti-Ahok campaign, fuelled by Islamic hardliners but orchestrated by rival political leaders with an eye on April 2019 presidential elections, drew a half-million Indonesians on to the streets on December 2, 2016. Fitri says almost all of her neighbours joined the march.
The anti-Ahok campaign spawned a movement known as 212, named after the date of the biggest mass rally. So-called “212 Marts”, purporting to sell cheaper products than their secular Indomaret counterparts, have cropped up across greater Jakarta.
Groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which pushed the anti-Ahok agenda, call for Indonesia to adopt sharia law in all provinces, not just Aceh.
The 212 march was a wake-up call for Indonesia’s so-called silent majority who, until that point, had believed the country’s Islamic hardliners were a fringe element with little influence.
Indonesians who say they feel oppressed by a new atmosphere of Islamic conservatism will often blame the Jakarta election phenomenon, in which millions of Muslims were successfully united around a common enemy — an ethnic Chinese, Christian governor with a bulldozer reputation for getting things done.
Others believe the change has been more gradual. One of Indonesia’s most respected pollsters, Djayadi Hanan from Saiful Mujani Research, traces Indonesia’s shift towards Islamic conservatism to the fall of Suharto — an equal-opportunity oppressor who crushed both the far left and the Islamic right to pursue economic growth and maintain social order.
The rise of democracy in Indonesia combined with the earlier introduction of religious education into state schools, and higher levels of education in general, have made Indonesian Muslims more aware of their identity and more confident to express it.
“Since Reformasi everyone has a space to express themselves, from the most extreme on the right to the most extreme on the left,” says Djayadi.
Though that is not strictly true. Where conservative Islamic clerics have carved out a role as moral arbiters, pronouncing fatwas on issues from the wearing of tight shirts to advocating in favour of vaccinations, leftists are considered inherently suspect in a country where the massacre of more than a half-million alleged communists in 1965 is still considered by many to have been a necessary purge. What the Jakarta election did, says Djayadi, was unite Muslims behind a common cause. “Indonesian Muslims have never been monolithic. They don’t have a (Ayatollah) Khomeini but Jakarta’s election made them feel they had a common enemy, and that their religion was under threat by this blasphemer.”
Feby Indirani, a writer who last year set up the Relax, It’s Just Religion movement to try to encourage Indonesians to wear their religion more lightly, agrees fundamentalism has crept up on traditionally tolerant Indonesians and that the “silent majority” live in fear of inciting the opprobrium of hardliners or more devout friends and family.
“Under Suharto it was hard for Indonesians to express their opinions without fear,” she says. “Now that regime has been replicated by the fundamentalist groups. Many people say they feel as though they have a censor in their heads — like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
In small town Batang, a heartland of Islamic conservatism in central Java, Sri Mulyana wears a jilbab to work as a condition of her employment with an Islamic microfinance service.
The 28-year-old, who doesn’t wear a headscarf outside her office, felt it was a small price to pay for a good job with a generous salary. But it has become a big issue for her co-workers who, she says, have progressed from teasing to sneering mockery.
“They treat me like a sinner,” she told Inquirer this week. “They say, ‘You’re playing with religion’ and that the jilbab is a sacred thing, a commitment. They say I am a fraud who wears a jilbab just to stay employed.”
Her co-workers aren’t the only ones who feel empowered to buy in to her personal choices. While her immediate family is relaxed about her decision to go uncovered outside work, she says extended family and neighbours chide her openly and even complain to her mother, a jilbab wearer, that her daughter is dressed inappropriately.
“When I was in high school there were only four girls out of 42 who wore the jilbab. Now everyone wears the jilbab. There is more pressure now for women to wear the jilbab, particularly from these new jilbab wearers who feel superior and look down on those not wearing the jilbab,” says Sri Mulyana.
“Everyone wears a jilbab in my town. Even the small children are forced to wear one. Women without jilbab are minorities and they stand out in a crowd.”
She can’t pinpoint when the change happened but says the vehement social disapproval she experiences on an almost daily basis frightens her. Now she worries what may happen if she does eventually feel a “calling” to adopt the head covering, something she has not ruled out, only to decide later it is not for her. Would people see her as a religious traitor?
The adoption of the jilbab by a growing number of Indonesian women and girls is the most obvious and oft-cited example of rising religiosity or Islamic conservatism in Australia’s closest northern neighbour, though Indonesian women are adopting the head covering for a multitude of reasons, including fashion. But the jilbab is not the only indicator.
The post-Suharto democratic transition and decentralisation of power has seen more than 440 sharia-style ordinances adopted at district level. Some require women to wear headscarfs. Others forbid the sale of food during Ramadan fasting hours, or ban alcohol.
While 87 per cent of Indonesia’s 267 million citizens identify as Muslim, it is not an Islamic state. Its constitution enshrines six state religions — Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Protestantism and Catholicism — and at its core upholds the principle of Unity in Diversity through a five-pillared national doctrine known as Pancasila.
There have been previous attempts to alter Indonesia’s constitution to enshrine the primacy of Islam as a state religion, most notably in 1999 by a cluster of new Islamic parties that contested elections on a promise to install an Islamic state. They were resoundingly defeated.
The consistent electoral failure of Indonesia’s Islamic parties (except in Aceh, which was allowed to introduce sharia law under a deal to end a long-running civil conflict) is raised frequently as evidence that most Indonesian Muslims retain a moderate outlook. Nonetheless, across time, and most effectively during the decade-long tenure of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who even allowed an international Hizb ut-Tahrir summit in Jakarta in 2007), conservative Islam has carved out a more influential space in public life and public policy.
Indonesia’s parliament is poised to consider a raft of amendments to its Dutch colonial era criminal code, including proposed legal reforms that would not only effectively ban the LGBT community and criminalise consensual gay sex, but also any sex between unmarried couples. The draft bill appears to have unanimous support from all parties, including President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo’s ruling Democratic Party of Struggle.
Earlier this month UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged Indonesia not to go “backwards on human rights” by introducing the new laws, and warned of “rising levels of incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence” across the country.
“These discussions betray strains of intolerance seemingly alien to Indonesian culture that have made inroads here,” Zeid said during a three-day visit to Jakarta in which he also raised concerns about the blasphemy laws with the President and senior government ministers. “If we expect not to be discriminated against on the basis of our religious beliefs, colour, race or gender, if Muslim societies expect others to fight against Islamophobia, we should be prepared to end discrimination at home too.”
Many Indonesians will have blanched at those comments, given how deeply entwined the national identity is with notions of religious and ethnic tolerance.
Djayadi Hanan argues the recent debate over LGBT rights, rather than highlighting intolerance in Indonesia, proves “we have never been more advanced than we are now”. A Saiful Mujani poll last month on attitudes towards LGBT found 87 per cent of those surveyed considered the community a “threat to private or public life”, though just over half of those who understood the term LGBT believed they had the right to live as citizens in Indonesia.
Djayadi says Indonesians are at least ready to have the debate over whether to formally recognise the LGBT community in law, even if many express deeply regressive attitudes towards them, though when it comes to elections they — like voters worldwide — will largely vote on hip-pockets issues.
Yet in Indonesia, as in many other countries, there is growing disquiet at the way social media is helping to propagate and disseminate intolerance.
Two weeks ago, the local Twittersphere erupted after a Jakarta marketing executive posted about her experience with religious intolerance on a city bus. The story was followed up on the BBC website.
“Just had a woman with hijab refusing to sit next to me because she thought I was a Christian. *still in shock*,” wrote the woman, who posts under the Twitter handle @Cho-Ro.
Hundreds of people responded by posting their own experiences of intolerance and religious pressure, while many others criticised the woman for airing the issue in public, and even accused her of making up the incident.
“Why would I lie? What do I have to gain from sharing this story?” the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told Inquirer. “One said, ‘If you’re truly a tolerant person, you should tolerate intolerance’ and told me that I should respect the woman’s religious belief and behaviour. Have you heard of the tolerance paradox? I thought these people who spread intolerant messages and hoaxes were bots and fake accounts or people paid to spread these things. But it made me realise that some people actually believe in it.”
She added: “I think intolerance, prejudice has always existed; when I was young there were parents who told their kids not to play with their Catholic friends, not to go to their houses for sleepovers. But there was no social media at the time so these kinds of prejudice and intolerance never got exposed.”
Now, she says, the proliferation of sectarianism on social media, pamphlets, billboards and in sermons has “emboldened and convinced people that it is all right to be intolerant, to discriminate against people of different religion”.
Philips J. Vermonte, a University of Adelaide graduate who heads the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says modern Indonesia has always swung from centre-right to centre-left and the present state simply reflects a trend back to more conservative religious values.
“On a scale of one to 10, one being most conservative and 10 being most Islamic Liberal, by definition the moderates will be those at number five on the scale,” he said this week.
“I think what we have seen is that the number 10s are wrongly considered moderates, particularly by Westerners, but in the context of Islam and Indonesia they are actually the other extreme of the spectrum.”
The difference today is while there are strong voices in support of a more conservative Islamic society, Indonesia lacks prominent advocates for a more moderate view, such as independence champion Sukarno and the moderate Islamic cleric and president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), he says.
Most agree a good test of just how far Indonesia has swung will be in coming elections — simultaneous local polls across the country this June, and the presidential election next year.
All eyes will be on how the local contests are fought in Java’s conservative Islamic heartlands for clues as to what Indonesia’s reformist president Jokowi may face in his own re-election battle.
Will he need to move further to the Islamic right or choose a running mate who brings those credentials to his re-election ticket?
Djayadi Hanan says there is no evidence the local elections will follow the playbook of the Jakarta poll in which political Islam and identity politics ruled the day, or that Jokowi will face a more conservative electorate and more malevolent election contest than he did in 2014 against retired general Prabowo Subianto, who is tipped to run again next year.
Jokowi’s latest numbers show he is in a better position — both in terms of approval (around 79 per cent) and the more important top-of-mind question about electability (around 40 per cent) — than former president SBY at the same time in his tenure, and well ahead of his closest rival.
Ahok, as a mouthy “double minority” — ethnic-Chinese and Christian — was a gift to the Islamic right whereas Jokowi is a Javanese Muslim. Yet consistently listed among the top vice-presidential contenders is Gatot Nurmantyo, the recently retired head of Indonesia’s defence forces who suspended military co-operation with Australia early last year over the discovery of training material at Perth’s Campbell Barracks deemed insulting to Indonesia’s state ideology of Pancasila.
Gatot, who previously suggested Australia’s meddling in East Timor’s secession from Indonesia was part of a proxy war to secure oil, also is seen to have supported the hardline 212 movement against Ahok, a key ally of President Jokowi and his former deputy during his own time as Jakarta governor.
Another top contender for vice-president is Anies Baswedan, the former education minister who defeated Ahok in the Jakarta elections by emphasising his Islamist credentials and cosying up to hardliners such as Rizieq Shihab.
Neither are natural bedfellows for the moderate Jokowi, who must make a choice by August to prepare for the unofficial start of campaigning in September. But the Indonesian President is first and foremost a pragmatist, says Australian National University Indonesia expert Marcus Mietzner.
“Ideological concerns or worries about his possible deputies’ actions after victory are secondary issues for him. Should he pick someone like Gatot or Anies — precisely because they could make inroads into previously hostile constituencies for him — he will be able to reduce the intensity of smear campaigns.
“If, on the other hand, he picks a pluralist as running mate, the floodgates of smear will open.”
Analysts say that is important for Australia and the region because Indonesia plays a critical role in containing regional security risks, both by suppressing extremist elements within its own country and the potential for cross-border terrorism, which has risen since last year’s five-month Islamic State siege of the southern Philippines city of Marawi.
Either way, Jokowi is preparing for a tough fight by shoring up political alliances and military support with strategic appointments and contracts.
He has appointed a Pancasila committee to counter the kinds of slurs and whisper campaigns he faced during the previous election, including that he was secretly ethnic Chinese and Christian. He has cracked down on extremist groups by pushing through laws banning organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir that are deemed a threat to Indonesia’s constitution.
Likewise, conservative clerics who supported the 212 movement have found themselves facing a slew of criminal charges, including sedition and even pornography offences.
Those efforts have had a mixed response. Polls immediately after Ahok’s jailing showed Jokowi’s popularity was even higher than before, and that he was unaffected by the political witch-hunt against his one-time deputy.
But Hendri Satrio, from Indonesia’s Paramadina University, fears Jokowi has painted himself into a corner by appearing to “criminalise the clerics”.
“It will be hard for Jokowi, for example, to stop plans to criminalise LGBT or sex outside of wedlock, which have the support of conservatives and some moderate Muslims,” says Hendri. “It will be hard for him to repeal discriminatory regional bylaws unless or until he secures his re-election.”
In any case, now is not the time for an Indonesian president seeking re-election to take a progressive stand on behalf of the LGBT community, or on any other moral or religious issue for that matter.
Where that leaves Indonesia’s minorities, and how this will play out with the country’s silent majority, is still anybody’s guess.