Could Indonesia’s 2017 elections lead to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?

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Incumbent Governor Ahok seeks to retain his position as Jakarta’s governor, however many Indonesians are wary of a non-Muslim running for office in a Muslim majority country. Could Ahok’s re-election lead to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? Is Ahok really the best man for the job? How are radical Islamic groups using Ahok’s flawed character to their advantage?

By Rasa Sarwari

There are fears that rising contempt against one of Indonesia’s leading politicians may increase sympathy for the Islamic State, in the world’s largest Muslim country.  Indonesia’s capital will hold its gubernatorial election in February and the incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, is seeking to retain his position.

When Jakarta’s previous Governor Joko Widodo, went on to become Indonesia’s President in 2014, Ahok was promoted from his position as deputy governor to governor. Additionally, Governor Ahok is ethnically Chinese, and a Christian, which makes him a minority in Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim society.

Allegations of Ahok’s blasphemy towards Islam

Subsequently, Governor Ahok’s bid for re-election has caused uproar among Indonesia’s conservative Muslim base, who believe that “non-believers” have no place in Indonesia’s politics.

During a speech made on September 27, Ahok criticized a Koranic verse which states “Muslims should not take Jews or Christian as their allies or leaders”. In response Ahok stated that the latter verse was deceptively being used by his opponents, and Indonesians shouldn’t be misled by it.

Consequently, Ahok’s remarks of the Koranic verse sparked outrage among the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), which is the country’s highest religious authority. Despite Governor Ahok’s apologising for his remarks, and stating he didn’t mean to offend anyone, the MUI is continuing to insist that the Governor committed blasphemy by insulting the Koran.

Indonesia’s public has also been outraged by Ahok’s alleged blasphemy, as 10,000 protestors took to the streets in Jakarta last month. In addition, over 50,000 people showed up to this month’s Nov 4 protests, demanding that Ahok be charged for his alleged hate speech.

The anti-Ahok protests have just begun, as demonstrators are planning to organize an even larger protest after November 25, if Governor Ahok isn’t charged and convicted of committing blasphemy against Islam.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia

Despite the mass demonstrations against Ahok, political analysts such as Achmad Sukarsono, have stated that “the rallies won’t dent Ahok’s chances of victory next year because of the bulk of the Jakarta electorate maintains a more liberal stance”.

Rather, the bigger threat arising from these anti-Ahok protests, are the rising sympathies for Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia. Islamic State fighters even supported Indonesia’s Nov 4 protesters over social media.

Moreover, Sukarsono has explained that “the issue has gone beyond elections to become a rallying cry for Islamists pushing for Islamization … with Ahok in the race, these rallies will continue through the campaign period, with a risk of Islamic State supporters seeking to leverage them for their own gains”.

Indonesia’s national Police Chief Tito Karnavian also cautioned that radical Islamists may use Indonesia’s current violently for their own agendas, of spreading their radical ideologies.

The Director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Sidney Jones also attests to the rise of radical sympathies “over Telegram and other messaging services, [as IS supporters] have been encouraging each other to use the November 4 rally to fan the flames of jihad across the country”.

Terrorist groups have increasingly used social media to recruit followers and build their support base, but the Islamic State has also been working tirelessly on the ground in Indonesia with local militant groups.

The Islamic State has been linked to terrorist attacks throughout Indonesia since they launched a deadly assault on Jakarta this past January. Just last month a 22 year old Islamic State linked extremist, stabbed three Police officers on the outskirts of Jakarta and was found carrying a pipe bomb. Accordingly “IS supporters have specifically urged each other to emulate this young man, whose bravery was cited in IS bulletin Al-Naba” Jones stated.

Is Ahok’s character to blame?

Though this issue may be seen as another case of radical Islam threating secularism, it isn’t that simple. Governor Ahok’s crude and unforgiving leadership has ostracised a myriad of Indonesian’s, particularly moderates, which allowed Indonesia’s Islamist periphery to use religion as pretext to gain political momentum.

One of Ahok’s most provocative policies has been his forced removal of poor squatters from illegal homes. Though this policy has garnered him support from Jakarta’s middle and upper classes, it has been highly criticized on social media and news outlets.

In addition, to Ahok’s allegations of blasphemy and cruel polices of mass displacement of the poor, Jakarta’s governor is also involved in some corruption scandals.

Ahok’s financial scandals include irregularities in the purchase of the Sumber Waras hospital, which led to the state loss of over $14.5 million USD, as well as the improper purchase of other plots of public land. Those scandals have led many to believe that Governor Ahok used his position to pocket some of state’s investment money.

Moreover, Governor Ahok’s showed his true colours during his outburst at Jakarta’s public protests, when he stated he would “use gasoline cannons to burn the demonstrators”.

How can Indonesia stop the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?

The ramifications of Ahok’s persistence to run for the 2017 gubernatorial elections could be huge, not only for local politics, but national politics. Since the verdict of his blasphemy charge will likely spark more demonstrations demanding comprehensive political reform, regardless of whether he is pronounced guilty or innocent.

Subsequently, future protests might not be as calm as past demonstrations, and if protests were to turn violent, fundamentalists could use the civil disorder to strengthen their own position in Indonesian’s political arena, as they’d situate themselves as the champion of Indonesia’s marginalized Muslim community.

If the latter scenarios were to take place, Indonesia’s economy would suffer greatly, and the army would step in, to try and root out Islamic insurrectionists. Therefore, the best option for Governor Ahok, would be for him to admit his mistakes and forfeit the 2017 elections, otherwise Indonesia might face the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.