Jakarta’s Election and Alternatives to US Policy Towards Muslims

by Asna Husin

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Jakarta near midnight on April 19 just hours after Anies Baswedan won Jakarta’s heated gubernatorial election against the incumbent Basuki Tjahaya Purnawa (better known as Ahok). Outsiders viewed the loss by Ahok, who is the ethnic Chinese and Christian governor of this important province, as “a victory for conservative Islamists and a defeat for pluralism in the world’s largest Muslim nation” (in the Financial Times). The New York Times regarded Anies’ victory as a test of the country’s religious and ethnic tolerance, while Reuters declared that it cast “a shadow over Indonesia’s reputation for practicing a tolerant form of Islam.”

To attribute the results of this Jakarta election merely to the conflict between the religious and secular or the role of passionate Muslims in toppling Ahok fails to understand the complexity of this election, the entrenched system governing it, and the many actors involved. With nearly 90 per cent Muslims among its 250 million people, Indonesia is not a secular country in the sense of a clear separation between religion and state. The first principle of the national ideology of Pancasila (Five Principles), after all, is “belief in one God.” According to this principle, Indonesia is a religious nation, with the government responsible for promoting and safeguarding the six officially recognized religions: Islam, two forms of Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Thus, Indonesia possesses a Ministry of Religious Affairs dealing with these religions, while parliament makes laws treating specific issues of faith and the government publicly celebrates religious events and holidays. Furthermore, public servants openly associate themselves with their particular faith, religious education is obligatory at all school and university levels, and citizenship identity cards identify the holder’s religion. Technically, an atheist has no place in the Indonesian socio-political system, and no laws contradicting religion can be promulgated. In the context of its democratic system, selecting a leader based on religious considerations is constitutionally permitted. At the same time, Indonesia is proud of its ethnic and religious pluralism, and its national slogan “unity in diversity” reflects such multiculturalism.

Nevertheless, throughout Indonesia’s modern history there have always been groups who wished Indonesia to be purely secular, while others seek it to be an explicitly Islamic nation. Although Islam plays a very important role in nation-building and development, these two contradictory persuasions represent small minorities, since the majority views their country to be neither secular nor Islamic.

For many Indonesians across the archipelago avidly focused on this recent Jakarta election, the clash between the populist egalitarian platform of Anies rooted in Islamic social values with the big moneyed interests of Ahok’s business backers symbolized the dilemma inherent in Indonesia’s modernization. Religion was indeed an important issue during this gubernatorial election, and Anies as a Muslim contesting the Christian Ahok clearly benefited from it. This was no surprise since the question of faith always comes to the fore in every national and local election, and all candidates have to justify their own religiosity, even when they are all Muslim, as in the case of Aceh province.

Rather the question is how did Ahok, whose reign as governor was satisfactory to over 70 percent of Jakarta residents, lose by a margin of nearly 18 per cent? And how did Anies, who took his MA from the University of Maryland and Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University, win with such a large majority? Many factors put the incumbent in a shaky position, yet three were most critical: his personality, his gubernatorial policy, and his campaign team’s strategy and political base.

Ahok’s Declining Popularity

Ahok was a polarizing governor who ruled in an “all-right & no-wrong” fashion, antagonizing people around him from the politicians in parliament and his own public officials to the general public including the urban poor and Muslim hardliners. His short temper and imprudent responses using discordant expressions were showcased in his controversial speech last September in Thousand Islands outside Jakarta, which led to a legal charge of blasphemy—based on his pejorative citing of the Quranic verse al-Ma’idah 5:51 in order to elicit Muslim votes. The court ruled on May 9 that Ahok had violated the nation’s blasphemy law and awarded him a two-year prison sentence (out of a maximum five years). Regarding his impulsive spontaneity, he remarked: “When I speak I don’t think.” This unwise mistake was repeated over and again irritating many others who would otherwise be neutral and could have been won over to his side.

Ahok’s policies were also divisive. Many, particularly in the upper class, appreciated his efforts to normalize Jakarta’s river floods and ease chaotic traffic jams. In doing so, however, he ordered the mass evictions of slum dwellers, often without constructive dialogue and proper planning for their wellbeing. His plan for the reclamation of Jakarta Bay, in some cases against existing laws and at the expense of environmental considerations, led to perceptions of him as governor for the rich and powerful. “It didn’t matter to us Ahok was Christian and Chinese, we never cared about race and religion. Now we have this problem [of evictions] because of Ahok himself. He is a troublemaker,” said a woman as quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald. Actually, Ahok initiated a number of programs that benefited the disadvantaged and deprived, but the overwhelming symbolism of evictions and reclamation made him unpopular among the poor.

Ahok’s campaign team and political base were also problematic. From the beginning, the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP)’s support for him generated internal protest: several key Jakarta leaders resigned from the party, crossed over to Anies, and became his dedicated volunteers. Likewise, other parties that backed the incumbent were not entirely united, as many of their grassroots leaders abandoned Ahok to support the challenger. These deserters all argued that Ahok’s controversial character and unpopular policies made him unfit to be a leader. His political campaign team also made unnecessary strategic blunders less than a week before people went to the polls.

Two gaffes clearly decided the results of this crucial election, giving Anies the surprising result of an 18 percent margin. One was Ahok’s final video campaign to attract voters, which presented images of protesters in Muslim garb acting violently. This sophisticatedly crafted video, by insensitively demonizing Muslims, generated protests from many segments of the Muslim society, which forced Ahok’s team to remove it just one day after its release. But the damage was done.

The second mistake was even more damaging and indeed illegal. Ahok’s team and supporting parties overtly indulged in money politics by massively attempting to buy votes through distributing packages of basic staples (known as “sembako”) and live cows during the three days before residents cast their ballots. The media widely reported this illegal practice of sembako-giving, alienating undecided voters, and this may explain Anies’ impressive final gain.

The Rise of Anies

In addition to benefiting from his rival’s evident weakness, Anies Baswedan stood on very solid ground. He consciously presented himself as a moral champion whose message was unity and social justice. He tagged his campaign with the theme: “Wellbeing for all, Advance of the city, Happiness of its people.” This message was translated into a number of important programs including quality education, health care, inexpensive prices for basic staples, affordable housing for low-income residents, and small-business job creation. Anies’s unequivocal rejection of his opponent’s land reclamation and unlawful evictions of slum dwellers strengthened his standing as the candidate for national unity and social justice. His evident quality as a thinker who delivered his ideas and campaign speeches with clarity and eloquence, as well as his personal integrity and calm dispassionate nature, all helped his candidacy.

Anies’s embrace of diverse groups ranging from the conservative Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to Christian Synods, Catholic leaders, Buddhist, and Hindu organizations, not to mention a Chinese Confucian group, showed him to be a true bridge-builder. Anies defended his meeting with the FPI master: “Jakarta needs a leader who could embrace and make peace with everyone. Dialogue…and interaction is the first step to develop Jakarta which respects and honors one another.” Thus Anies’s campaign messages were well received, and Indonesians understand his victory as an achievement of populist Islamic egalitarian aspirations against the wealthy interests of entrenched elites.

Jakarta’s April election is significant as an early step toward the next presidential contest in 2019. Anies received the support of the former general Prabowo Subianto, while Ahok was backed by President Joko Widodo, nicknamed Jokowi. Prabowo himself narrowly lost the last presidential election in 2014 to Jokowi. Both men will most likely compete again for the country’s top post in 2019, so winning Jakarta is an important index of their prospective popularity. Religion as well as populist Islamic egalitarian messages will reemerge again, even though these two men share the same faith.

Visit by Pence

When Vice President Pence arrived in Indonesia, Ahok had just conceded defeat and congratulated Anies on his victory. Although keenly disappointed, Ahok’s followers did not protest on the street, while Anies’s camp engaged in restrained celebrations through prayers and thanksgiving. If he had the eyes to see, Mike Pence could observe a mature political culture and dignified democratic process practiced by this largest Muslim nation. Indeed, Pence praised Indonesia’s democratic values and religious tolerance after meeting with President Jokowi: “Indonesia’s tradition of moderate Islam is frankly an inspiration to the world and we commend you and your people. In your nation as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn’t divide.” Such distinct praise of religion by Pence reflects his understanding of the importance of faith to many Indonesians.

The vice president discussed his visit on the official U.S. government website being “a sign of the high value that the United States places on our strategic partnership with Indonesia.” Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi described this strategic partnership as cooperation in the area of business and investment, combating terrorism, increased understanding of religious tolerance, and promoting a moderate Islam.

Pence’s visit may also be seen as an important effort to soften President Trump’s recent placement of Indonesia on his trade “hit list,” as well as an opportunity to explain to the Indonesian public about Trump’s proposed travel ban against certain Muslim countries. Undoubtedly Washington is looking for a commitment to fair trade and further access to Indonesian markets. So a prosperous and peaceful Jakarta as promised by Governor-elect Anies Baswedan would increase the consumption for high-end American products.

Islam and Terrorism

The issue of moderate Islam is directly related to both religious tolerance and to radicalism as the background for terrorism. Ömer Taspinar presents two types of analysis that have emerged in the West regarding terrorism: the development camp and the security camp. The first maintains that economic deprivation and social frustration are the root causes of terrorism, and thus social and economic development is a way to combat terrorism. The second camp holds that most terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated for the majority come from the middle class with ordinary backgrounds. Therefore, terrorism is “perceived almost exclusively as a ‘security threat’ with no discernible socioeconomic roots or links with deprivation.” It should be fought with counter-intelligence and coercive action.

Taspinar argues that both approaches, although valid in certain ways, possess important shortcomings. “The root causes of terrorism and violent radicalism are extremely complex, multifaceted, and often intertwined. They resist simplification and easy categorization,” he writes. “There is no unique panacea or simple formula to ‘end’ terrorism and radicalism.” He reminds us that “attempts to create a single typology of terrorism or generic profiles for terrorists are often misleading” since “an ideal breeding ground for recruitment emerges when various social, cultural, economic, political, and psychological factors come together.”

Understanding this complexity should enlighten nations such as Indonesia and the United States to engage in a long-term and multipronged strategy aimed at strengthening the institutional underpinnings of development, democracy, and security. The focus on human development—not just economic growth—should emerge as a new public narrative and long-term objective of strategic counter-terrorism. In other words, instituting socio-economic justice is an important mechanism for combating terrorism. Human security trumps military or conventional security. In the context of Jakarta, Anies’s campaign theme—“Wellbeing for all, Advance of the city, Happiness of its people”—is related to human development, human security, and the establishment of justice. It should be a beneficial remedy for preventing economic deprivation and social frustration.

The idea of moderate Islam is controversial among counter-terrorism experts in the West, but it has been embraced by both religious and political Indonesian leaders. The Indonesians often use Islam wasatiyyah, which derives from the Quranic ummat wasat, signifying a moderate, just, and balanced community of Islam (ummah). Islam wasatiyyah is understood to comprise a tolerant religious system that embraces religious diversity, engages in interfaith dialogue by promoting a culture of constructive exchange, and protects the minority “:other” as well as cherishing peaceful coexistence. Moderate Islam also refers to the Muslim values accepting the Indonesian political order based on Pancasila rather than on Islam alone, honors and respects different cultures and civilizations, sees diversity as strength rather than an obstacle, and develops constructive religious ethics for coexistence in a multi-religious and ethnically pluralist country.

Islam wasatiyyah, rooted in Quranic tradition, emphasizes that the Prophet Muhammad was sent “as a mercy to the entire world.” Its principles are inherent in Islam’s normative value structure and were not alien to Muslims in the past. Therefore the view of Islam “as naturally violent” is shallow and misleading. As a major Muslim nation, Indonesia is an example of Islam’s compatibility with modern universal norms. For instance, Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla asks: “Which country in the world like Indonesia formally celebrates all religious holidays?” In other words, moderate Islam is a dignified and humane Islam, not an emotionally reactive violent faith. It is, in the words of Jakarta’s governor-elect Anies Baswedan, “An Islam that promotes peace and upholds justice.”

In light of the new US administration’s approach to the Islamic world through unilateral military strikes in Yemen and Syria, Pence’s conciliatory statement in Jakarta offers an alternate model for its relations with Muslim peoples. The world expects to see more of such nuanced responses in place of kneejerk reactions to the complexity of Muslim societies. The Jakartan election facilitated a more mature civic engagement that could point a way towards a balanced and realistic search for mutual benefits between the US and Muslim nations worldwide.

Dr. Asna Husin teaches at Ar-Raniry Islamic University in Banda Aceh. She is currently a visiting researcher at Nonviolence International in Washington, D.C. Photo: Ahok debates Anies (Liputan). Reprinted, with permission, from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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