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The violent trajectory of Islamism in Indonesia

The recent spate of protests against the official announcement that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has won the presidential election is reflective of the deep divisions within Indonesian society.

The violent trajectory of Islamism in Indonesia

Protesters against the official announcement of the President Jokowi's electoral victory clash with police in Jakarta on May 22.

The recent spate of protests against the official announcement that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has won the presidential election is reflective of the deep divisions within Indonesian society.

The last decade has seen Islamist groups preaching the need for Indonesia to implement more comprehensive Islamic laws and warning Indonesian Muslims that President Jokowi is an anti-Islam leader who is seeking to impose restrictions against the religious freedom of Muslims.

Despite having little basis, such rhetoric has hardened attitudes within the Islamist opposition, so much so that some are willing to use violence, as shown in recent events.

The 2019 presidential election saw Islamist movements such as the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) and the Muslim Community Forum (FUI) rally support for the camp of Prabowo Subianto, President Jokowi's rival in the presidential election.

These groups were involved in rallies aimed at removing former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok) for insulting Islam. These rallies resulted in Ahok’s defeat in the governor’s election and subsequent conviction for blasphemy.

Emboldened by their success, the groups have rebranded themselves as “Alumni 212” to target President Jokowi.

Some political leaders, including those from secular parties such as Golkar and the Democratic Party, calculated that the Alumni 212 movement could be a potent force.

After the Ahok experience, these politicians are convinced that Alumni 212’s support can ensure their electoral success. So they have opportunistically sought the support of FPI spiritual leader Habib Rizieq Shihab, by visiting him in Saudi Arabia where he is on a self-imposed exile.

This is ironic given that Rizieq was previously seen as a marginal figure in Indonesian politics.

The Alumni 212 movement was viewed seriously enough by President Jokowi that he banned the hardline Islamist group, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, for opposing Pancasila, the Indonesian state ideology.  

The move was viewed as a warning to other component groups within the Alumni 212 movement that they could face a similar fate if they pushed the envelope too far.

In addition, President Jokowi picked Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulama and supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) — the country’s largest Islamic group — to be his running mate.

Ironically, it was Mr Amin who first issued a fatwa (Islamic edict) referring to Ahok’s remarks as blasphemous.

Mr Amin was also closely aligned to figures of the 212 movement and a number of key meetings of the movement were held in Mr Amin’s residence. President Jokowi’s choice of Mr Amin was clearly aimed at driving a wedge within the Alumni 212 group.

As such, the notion that President Jokowi’s electoral victory indicates Indonesian Muslims’ continued support for moderate Islam is not entirely accurate. His strong majority was partly due to Mr Amin’s mobilisation of NU’s voters, not all of whom are moderate in their religio-political views.

Mr Amin remains a respected figure within Islamist circles and even amongst leaders of the Alumni 212.

These figures were careful not to attack Mr Amin during the election campaign, preferring to focus their attack on President Jokowi.

Sobri Lubis, leader of the FPI, told me in an interview that he had warned leaders of the Alumni 212 to avoid attacking Mr Amin.

He added that if Mr Amin becomes Vice-President of Indonesia, “one of us will be in a position of power”.

This indicates that the relationship between the Alumni 212 and Mr Amin is a complicated one.

While the group’s leaders are opposed to the Jokowi-Amin pairing, some like Mr Lubis believed that Mr Amin can act as a check on the President’s so-called “anti-Muslim” policies and represent the interests of conservative Muslims in government.

This is especially important for the Alumni 212 as it aims to effect policy changes with the ultimate goal of implementing Islamic laws in Indonesia.

The influence of the Alumni 212 is not limited to its ability to organise street demonstrations, The group is now able to dictate its terms to mainstream politicians, including those from secular parties.

Since mid-2018, Muhammad Al-Khaththath, the chairman of the Alumni 212 steering committee, has created a list of “pro-Islam” candidates who agreed to sign a declaration of commitment to implement Islamic law in Indonesia.

In doing so, the movement has been less concerned about party affiliations and is focused instead on the candidates’ commitment to Islam.

In exchange, these candidates will receive the official endorsement of the Alumni 212. This list includes politicians from secular parties such as Golkar, Democrat and Gerindra.

As such, it can be argued that the Alumni 212 is not only able to mobilise large numbers in the streets, it is now able to officially influence mainstream politics.

What does this mean for Indonesia?

A key concern in the near term is the propensity of some of Alumni 212’s component groups towards violence.

Two of the rioters arrested in the protests against the official election results have links to the Islamic Reformist Movement, a radical group that had pledged support for the Islamic State and Iraq and Syria.

The protests across Indonesia have so far claimed several lives, with hundreds more injured.

Abu Jibril, a key ideologue of the Jemaah Islamiyah, is an important leader of the Alumni 212. Groups like the FPI and FUI have previously incited violence against the Ahmadiyyahs, a minority sect considered deviant by most Muslims.

Leaders of FPI have openly encouraged their supporters to destroy Ahmadiyyah mosques and violently attack them.

In the current highly emotive climate, it is indeed unsurprising that some supporters of the Alumni 212 movement have resorted to violence to express their opposition to the election outcome.

Indeed, the results of the Indonesian election indicate that the Islamists in the Alumni 212 have become important power brokers within the political system. President Jokowi will need to bridge the gulf that is growing wider between the different segments of Indonesian society.

A failure to do so will only lead to the strengthening of these Islamists, which ultimately could lead to their stronger influence in a future government.



Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is Assistant Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University and author of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and Political Islam: Identity, Ideology and Religio-Political Mobilisation.

Related topics

Indonesia Islamism Jokowi

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