The Politics of Religion in Indonesia: Exploiting the Islamic Identity in a Fragmented Society

Participants gathering in 2018 in commemoration of a rally in 2016 calling for the prosecution of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Credit: Antara/Sigid Kurniawan 


The recent arrest of the hardline Islamic vigilante group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab signifies that Indonesia has yet to address concerns of hardline Islamic ideology in the country. The prominence of those like Rizieq in Indonesia belies a deeply rooted problem of rising hardline Islamic ideology which is partly driven by the continuous politicization of Islam by Indonesian political elites. Amidst the reality of growing Islamic conservatism in Indonesia, it is uncertain whether the government can maintain a secular constitution or whether it will accommodate Political Islam for the sake of future stability.

Secular Nationalism vs. Political Islam: The Dynamics of Indonesian Muslims

Indonesia has always had an uneasy relationship between secular nationalism and Political Islam. This “tense” relationship stems from Indonesia’s early inception as an independent state. During the formulation of Indonesia’s constitution, Indonesia’s first President Sukarno tried to bring together three factions for the task of nation building during the country’s post-independence period. The three factions in question were the nationalist, the communist and the Islamist camps with their respective political parties represented during the Preparatory Committee for Independence (PPKI) to draft the preambles for the Indonesian constitution or the Jakarta Charter. The first draft of the Jakarta Charter included the obligations for Muslims to abide by the Sharia Law. The requirements for Muslims to follow the Sharia Law were later removed by secular Muslim nationalists under the guidance of Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta arguing that Hindu and Christian dominated provinces of the former East Indies would refuse to join the new Indonesian State if the constitution were to contain Islamic elements. Eventually, the secular nationalist won and instilled a secular constitution for Indonesia under the 1945 constitution which formed the basis of Pancasila or the five principles ideology. Later in the course of Indonesia’s history, the communists were purged by Suharto and the Orde Baru (New Order) leaving nationalist politicians to go head-to-head with proponents of Political Islam.

The rise of Political Islam only came about after Suharto’s fall. Political Islam, which was previously repressed by Suharto, saw resurgence partly due to the dissatisfaction of conservative Islamic elements in Indonesia or the “Santri” who decried the domination of Islamic Seculars or the “Abangan”, Chinese, and Christians in Suharto’s cabinet. The Santri’s saw the collapse of the Indonesian economy during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis as the results of corruption and moral failures of the secular government. This culminated in tensions between Christian and Muslim communities, further propagated by socio-economic disparities, and led to violent conflicts in various cities. The emergence of hardline fringe groups occurred in reaction to the alleged injustices by Suharto’s regime who was deemed to favor the secular Islamist and Christian groups. The instability caused by the fall of Suharto’s regime was the precursor to the rise of organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

After Suharto’s fall, the new government had to grapple with growing instability and growing tensions between the Abangan and the Santri in the political sphere. During this time FPI allegedly served as an “attack dog” of the National Police (Polri) and the National State Intelligence Agency (BIN) while keeping their hands clean from any human rights violations. In this sense, FPI served as a proxy of state security officials to silence opposition while also serving as a tribute to appease the growing conservative Islamic base. This relationship was also why an organization like FPI could have existed for so long: it is an effective political tool.

Recently, FPI has fallen out of favour with the government with the arrest of its leader and its subsequent disbandment. The Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law and Human Rights Mohammad Mahfud MD’s citing Rizieq Shihab’s speeches on supporting ISIS as a reason for his arrest shows the government was at least aware of FPI’s ideological affiliations in the past, yet taken no earlier actions, is puzzling.

The Potency of Religious-based Politics and FPI’s Effectiveness as a “Muslim Agitator”

FPI and its leader Rizieq Shihab’s growing influence in the political arena, prior to its disbandment, also signals the growing influence of conservative Islam in Indonesian politics. The 2017 Jakarta’s gubernatorial election, between the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Ahok), against the former Minister of Education Anies Baswedan, signifies this longstanding conflict between secularism championing progress and reforms against a more conservative view of Islam in Indonesian politics. Ahok was widely popular for his effective and no-nonsense approach to governance, however his brash approach and the fact that he is a Chinese-Christian, did not resonate with hardline Islamic groups who labelled him kafir (infidel). The aftermath of the election marks the rise of strong conservative Political Islamic.

The main cause for concern regarding FPI’s influence is the fact that Rizieq is undoubtedly, an effective agitator and a strong rallying point for hardline Islamic elements seeking more political clout. Under the umbrella of 212 alumni, a union of Islamic groups spearheaded by FPI that joined in a mass protest against Ahok for alleged blasphemy in 2016, hardline Islamic groups went on to shape the course of the 2019 presidential elections. The election turned out to be one of the most divisive in the course of Indonesian democracy, where it saw an alarming increase of the political narratives. Incumbent President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) ran against former Military General Prabowo Subianto who did not hesitate to capitalize on the growingly conservative Islamic voter base and align himself with FPI and the 212 to garner support.

After Prabowo’s defeat, and his appointment as a minister in President Jokowi’s cabinet, the FPI and 212 alumni lacked a political figure to forward its hardline agenda. Undoubtedly this will be a cause for concern in future presidential elections, even with Rizieq behind bars, the political activism of hardline Islam will undoubtedly align itself with a new political figure. Judging by the effectiveness of the 212 alumni, it is highly likely that future political candidates will capitalize their influence in future elections. The irony in the use of hardline Islamic voices is the fact that Indonesian political elites are more pragmatic than they are religiously motivated. The fact that Prabowo, a candidate who came from a nationalistic oriented political party, the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra), was willing to court conservative and hardline Islamic elements to win depicts a worrying future for Indonesian democracy and its secular constitution.

Addressing the Problem

One cannot solely blame Indonesia’s growing conservatism on organizations like the FPI, since a political entity like FPI only gets in legitimacy by riding the tide of rising Islamic conservatism in Indonesia. Two research findings from Pew Research Center (PRC) conducted in 2013 found that 72%  of Muslims in Indonesia favours having the Sharia Law as the law of the land with a staggering 50% believing that the Sharia Law should be enforced to non-Muslims. In 2020, PRC highlighted that 96%  of Indonesians believed religion to be important as it equates having religion as having good moral values, making Indonesians one of the most religiously devout public on earth. Based on the data above, there are strong indications that more Indonesian Muslims want Islam to play a more significant role in Indonesia’s governance. However, the hard-handed tactics used by hardline Islamic organizations and the continuously exclusionary political narratives of Islamic-affiliated political candidates towards Indonesian religious minorities seem to paint a bleak picture of what their version of “Islamic” Indonesia might be.

The question that the Indonesian government will now have to grapple with is whether to accommodate Political Islam given the increasing number of conservative adherents. Recent government crackdowns of hardline elements have led the government to be deemed “thogut”, a leader that goes against the wills of god, which is also an increasingly “popular” narrative used by political candidates to discredit its competitors. While Rizieq’s arrest is a step in the right direction, albeit too late in its execution, the growingly conservative Indonesian Islamic environment will be prime ground for other similar figures to emerge. Indonesian news’ preoccupation with hardline Islam and the extensive coverage of Rizieq’s arrest will only serve to frame him as a martyr in the eyes of Islamic conservatives. The government could do better to increase moderate Islamic narratives in the media as a counterbalance to the over-exposure of hardline Islamic agenda and give more progressive Islamic organizations greater exposure to the public such as the two largest Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhamadiyah.

In a way, a rational measure would be to institutionalize a moderate form of Islam in Indonesia’s religious curriculums and Islamic boarding schools to ensure that any materials do not deviate from Indonesia’s secular constitution. Additionally, as a countermeasure, having already signed the 2018 anti-terrorism law into law, the government must take a more proactive role in ensuring that religious sermons and political campaigns do not include hate speeches or calls to overrule Indonesia’s secular constitution and the Pancasila as a counterweight towards growing religious conservatism.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Dwinda Adrianto currently holds a Masters degree in Asian Studies with various experience working with various consultancies and International Organizations. His research interest is focused on Indonesia investment climate, Southeast Asian Affairs and public policy.

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