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Will Conservative Islam Result in Another Year of Living Dangerously?

November 14, 2019

When Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, found the depth of his Muslim faith being questioned in his April 2019 presidential re-election campaign, he burnished his credentials by selecting Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. The Nikkei Asian Review covered that event in a March 19, 2019 article and then followed it with one on October 19, 2019 entitled New Indonesian Vice President’s Islamist Agenda Draws Scrutiny raising the concern of using radical religion for political purposes. That political ploy has been and continues to be an effective concept all over the world including the Crusades of the Middle Ages. However, given the economic class struggles of Indonesia, such an approach is akin to throwing petrol on a bonfire. President Joko Widodo is shown below with his running mate and now vice president immediately on his left.

Indonesia’s Muslim majority is generally considered moderate and tolerant of other religions since the 1998 “Year of Living Dangerously” when a new era of reform was enacted to eliminate ethnic and religious distinctions. However, extremist positions have become useful to adopt in elections for top leadership posts. Fifty-nine percent of respondents to a 2018 poll by the Indonesia Survey Institute said they would object to a non-Muslim president which was up 11% compared to a poll two years previous. If the poll is accurate, over 100 million people have this view.

In the most recent election, Widodo was running against former Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto who had been an advocate for more conservative Muslim positions. Although Widodo is Muslim, many consider the former businessman to be secular in his religious views. The incumbent president, therefore, gave himself a boost in the religious appeal category by selecting the 76-year-old senior cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, to join his ticket which resulted in an immediate 20-point jump in the polls. His explanation was “I am a nationalist. He is a devout religious figure. We complement each other well.” Ma’ruf has a reputation of introducing “fatwas” or rulings on Islamic law such as it is blasphemy to say the Quran does not prohibit Muslims electing non-Muslim leaders. The image below suggests that the two individuals and their respective wives do look a bit out of place together.

Recently President Widodo, following his re-election, received a letter urging him to support the swift passage of a controversial criminal code bill that would outlaw acts including extramarital and gay sex. “God willing, the Criminal Code will be an historical landmark in golden ink as one of the biggest achievements of President Joko Widodo, after several periods of governments never being able to finalize the revision.” The letter obviously included Widodo’s previous administration. One of the two signers was Ma’ruf as chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council and the country’s top Islamic leader. Ma’ruf has a well-established reputation of fueling animosity toward the country’s religious and gender minorities.

The 76-year old religious leader attended an Islamic boarding school known for nurturing future religious leaders. He also served eleven years in the legislature of Indonesia and helped found the National Awakening Party, the Nationalist Ulema Council’s new electoral vehicle following the downfall of Suharto’s dictatorship in 1998. His party made him chairman of the commission on religion and education. Their position is clear that “Foreigners are gaining jobs but our own citizens cannot.” That comment may be familiar to other populist politicians but most of them do not wrap it all in a religious context.

Therefore, historic massive disturbances have had an underlying core of income inequality justified by ethnic differences be it Chinese or simply foreign. To stir religion into the mix adds a measure of justification to create a “holy crusade against the infidels.” Therefore, if you happen to find yourself in an Indonesian hotel when the wheels come off, remember the adage to stay inside, near the bar and be prepared to head for an interior room when nearby shooting starts. Moreover, always stay in a “pribumi” or native ethnic Indonesian hotel with a strong Islamic clientele so it will not be overrun and ransacked. However, if it is a staunchly Islamic facility, it is unlikely there will be a bar. On the other hand, Emirates Airline serves some of the best wine on the planet.

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