An early test of strength in Indonesia

Nov 24, 2020

Just a year into its second five-year term, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government is under threat. Opposition is being powered by a hate group led by an incendiary preacher demanding the nation abandons democracy for a sharia state. How serious is the menace? We’ll know next week.

On Wednesday 2 December the 212 Alumni Brotherhood plans a mass rally at Medan Merdeka (freedom square) the one hundred hectare park in central Jakarta to commemorate a shameful event four years earlier.

That’s when about half-a-million Muslims from the capital and bussed in from the regions protested against the city’s governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama. They alleged he’d committed blasphemy by commenting on the right of non-Muslims to lead Muslims – their evidence a doctored video.

The ethnic Chinese and a Christian is a double minority in the Republic of 270 million where almost 90 per cent claim to follow Islam. Purnama was jailed for two years. Denouncers included a senior Islamic scholar Ma’ruf Amin, 77.

He used to chair the world’s largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (revival of the guardians of Islamic doctrine) with a claimed membership of 57 million. Now he’s the nation’s vice president and has since apologised for testifying against Purnama.

The leader of what’s now known as 212 (after the date) is Rizieq Shihab, 55, – self-styled Great Imam for life of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI Islam Defenders’ Front). As reported earlier he came back to his homeland on 10 November after three years exile in Saudi Arabia.

(For those with long memories the jubilant welcome reminded of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. He was the ShiaMuslim leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution which overthrew the Shah. Shia Islam is banned in Indonesia where people follow the Sunni denomination.)

Police claim they expected only a few supporters would greet the portly cleric at the airport. Instead they were overwhelmed by maybe 50,000 or more, densely packed and with few wearing masks. Flights were disrupted and roads blocked for up to seven hours. More worrying is that some police were caught posting messages of support for Shihab.

President Joko Widodo immediately sacked the city’s two top police chiefs for being unprepared, suggesting that intelligence is as sloppy as the response to the pandemic – rapidly approaching half a million cases and 16,000 deaths. Shihab’s plans were known well in advance.

His estimated 15 million backers across Java, swelled by rent-a-crowd mobsters, is a formidable force. The police, who can probably muster no more than 600,000, claim they’ll not let the 212 rally go ahead next month, setting the stage for confrontation.

It’s not just the government worried about the FPI destroying law and order, particularly after Shihab allegedly called for the killing of blasphemers and celebrating the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty in Paris last month. NU chair Said Aqil Siradj issued this appeal:

‘Fellow Muslims in this country, please don‘t get easily provoked by some groups who want to divide us and break up this Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia … Let’s fight against this common enemy.’

For many Shihab is not the enemy but their saviour, come to fulfil destiny. In 1945 the committee writing the Jakarta Charter – which became the Constitution – included a seven-word sentence obligating Muslims to follow sharia religious law.

To keep the multi-faith nascent nation intact Mohammad Hatta, later to become vice president, persuaded delegates to drop the clause. Since then radicals like Shihab have demanded the words be returned, the secular government be purged of liberal policies and kafir (unbeliever) ministers sent packing.

The close economic dependence on the Reds of godless China, now Indonesia’s major trading partner and lender, is also another target.

The fact that Indonesia is in a recession with ten million unemployed, poverty increasing and the Covid-19 toll the highest in Southeast Asia has created fertile ground for dissent. The government has managed the pandemic badly leaving much running to the regions.

Particularly concerning for Widodo are the actions of Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, 51, the man who replaced Purnama. Before winning his present job with his campaign endorsed by Shihab, Baswedan was Education Minister in the first Widodo administration. In 2016 he was abruptly sacked by the president after less than two years in the job.

Before being shown the door the US-educated academic and former university rector looked set to shake up Indonesia’s dysfunctional school system. For a while he was internationally famous for his Indonesia Mengajar (teaches) project putting uni grads into remote schools for a year.

At the time Baswedan told this writer he didn’t know why he’d been booted, but the dogs were barking he’d been critical of Widodo who saw the intellectual as a threat. This now looks the case as he’s widely tipped to be a candidate in the 2024 presidential election.

As soon as Shihab had a shower and a change of his pure white gear he was off not to the Palace but the Governor’s home for chats. These were billed as a meeting of ‘scholars’.

That’s not a word associated with Widodo, who’s best described as a modest doer with no regal, revolutionary, military – or Arab ancestry as claimed by Baswedan and Shihab. The Javanese commoner’s more rabid opponents label him communist, ignoring the fact the party has been banned since he was a toddler drawing stick figures in the mud outside a riverbank squat.

Although he follows religious rituals the president isn’t strikingly pious. Till recently his wife Iriana often went bareheaded in public, though the move to wearing jilbab seems to be growing more fashionable by the day.

Sympathy for a more religious society quietly spread by scarfed women wouldn’t suit the turbaned roughies. They want change by cracking heads.

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