As hardline Islamists take aim at Jokowi, can they find an ally in military chief?
Some 10,000 Indonesian Islamists took to the streets again in Jakarta last week to protest against the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
The protesters made three demands: i) the revocation of a regulation that the government had introduced in July ostensibly to ban Hizbut Tahrir, an Islamic organisation that wants to establish a global caliphate; ii) the establishment of an Islamic system of government or khilafah and iii) the rejection of “the return of communism in Indonesia”.
The first two demands were to be expected, even inevitable, given that political Islam is now a force to be reckoned with in the country.
The Islamists’ anti-communist sentiments are also well-known but it was for a long time a peripheral issue. Therefore its emphasis in the latest protest was noteworthy, especially when it took place amid controversies around the same issue emanating from a different source.
A week before the protest, the Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) General Gatot Nurmantyo controversially ordered his troops to hold public screenings of a 1984 propaganda film depicting the Sept 30 1965 alleged failed coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party (KPI) in a bid to remind the public of the dangers of communism.
The move elicited mixed reactions from the government.
The Minister of Defence Ryamizard Ryacudu immediately branded Gen Nurmantyo’s order as “politically motivated.”
In spite of this, President “Jokowi” attended a public screening himself, a decision seen by many as an effort to deflect any accusation that he was defending Communism.
The president’s cautious reaction is understandable.
Since his 2014 election campaign, his political opponents have accused him of having a Communist father. Despite the lack of merit in the claim, the mud stuck; especially among hardline Muslim voters.
Given the sensitivity of the issue, it is therefore difficult to believe that Gen Nurmantyo’s decision to highlight an anti-communist propaganda film was without political calculation.
It had the effect of putting the issue of communism in the centre of public debate.
Given that communism also became a main theme in the Islamist protest the week after the general fired his salvo, it is worth asking whether the two were somehow related or a mere coincidence.
While it beggars belief that Indonesia is a breeding ground for communism, the claim is implicitly important in other ways.
First and foremost, with an incumbent president accused of having a communist family background, the claim that communism is alive and kicking could potentially hurt Mr Widodo.
Second, communism has throughout Indonesian history been a useful bogeyman to unify devout Muslims.
The PKI had a long history of enmity with its Islamic counterparts during Sukarno’s presidency. Indonesia’s then premier Islamic party, Masyumi, was locked in a power struggle with PKI throughout the 1950s.
To make matters worse, most Indonesians confuse communism with atheism, believing the two are interchangeable.
Islamist protest banners often proclaim “Secularism is PKI” or, as seen during last week’s rally, “Hizbut Tahrir disbanded but PKI left unmolested.” It has become increasingly clear that communism in today’s Indonesian Islamist parlance has come to mean “enemy of Islam”.
A GENERAL GEARING UP FOR THE POLLS?
Last week’s rally was the first credible rebound act by political Islam since the government officially banned Hizbut Tahrir and charged a number of Islamist leaders. These included the chairman of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Rizieq Shihab for pornography related offences.
It also offered us a glimpse into the strategy that the Islamists will be employing to discredit Mr Widodo in the lead-up to his re-election bid in 2019. Essentially, they will try to convince voters that Mr Widodo is anti-Islam or at the very least, not “Muslim enough.”
Equally important is the apparent convergence between the Islamists’ aspirations and those of Gen Nurmantyo. The general has consistently portrayed himself as pro-Islam.
When the police arrested a number of public figures and Islamist activists supporting the massive public protests taking place during the blasphemy trial against Purnama last year, Gen Nurmantyo told reporters that he found it incredible that Muslims “who fought for the nation’s independence” could ever be treasonous.
The general has also attempted to frame his “Islam-friendly” image at the expense of the police force (Polri), currently in rivalry for influence with the military.
By distancing himself from the claim by the police that the Islamist rallies last year harboured “treasonous” intent, Gen Nurmantyo reinforced the lingering suspicion among Islamists that Polri is far from being Islam-friendly.
Polri has long been stigmatised by hardline Muslim activists because it operates the country’s successful counter-terrorism unit the 88 Special Detachment (Densus 88), responsible for the arrests and deaths of various Islamist extremists.
Gen Nurmantyo’s latest attack of the police occurred prior to last week’s rally when he told a public gathering of ex-military officers that an “illegal” import of 5,000 units of military-grade firearms had been instigated by a “non-military” entity.
Condemning what he saw as a breach of rules, he said he was prepared to “storm the police” to rectify it. Following the uproar, the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Wiranto issued a statement to the effect that no illegal firearms import had taken place, and that Gen Nurmantyo had been wrongly briefed about 500 units of firearms purchased by the State Intelligence Agency to be used in training.
In a further twist, a shipment of military-grade grenade launchers and rounds were seized by military intelligence officers at Jakarta’s airport on Sept 29. The shipment was released only after Polri admitted publicly that the firearms were meant for police use, even though Polri insisted that the purchase had been approved by the Committee on the Defence Industry Policy chaired by the president.
The episode was embarrassing for the police as it seemed to confirm Gen Nurmantyo’s claim that non-military entities were arming themselves, expressly against a directive by the Ministry of Defence which states that military-grade firearms are exclusively for use by the military.
Despite Gen Nurmantyo’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the Muslim vote bank, it does not necessarily mean that the military as an institution supports his or the Islamist political agenda.
Already lampooned by an unnamed former TNI Commander as “the worst Commander in our history”, Gen Nurmantyo’s support base within TNI remains uncertain.
But his gambit may have paid off with the grassroots. A recent survey conducted by Lembaga Media Survei Nasional on the forthcoming 2019 presidential election saw Gen Nurmantyo’s name making it to the list of presidential candidates mentioned by respondents for the first time, although at 2.8 per cent he still has a lot of catching up to do with the others: President Jokowi at 36.2 per cent and Mr Prabowo Subianto at 23.2 per cent.
Mr Widodo may now well regret appointing Gen Nurmantyo as TNI Commander in 2014, therefore giving a platform to mount a probably political challenge.
With hardline Islamists now openly entrenched as his opponents, it is vital that the president mend the division within TNI and ensure its impartiality in the 2019 elections. He can do so by appointing a more responsible commander when Gen Nurmantyo is due to retire from active duty early next year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Johannes Nugroho is a businessman and writer from Surabaya.