Unholy Alliance: Ultra-Conservatism and Political Pragmatism in Indonesia

The article is originally published at Thinking ASEAN Issue 19/January 2017.

Friday mass prayers-cum-rallies on Nov. 4 and Dec. 2, 2016, in Jakarta’s National Monument complex were tip-of-the-iceberg displays of Islamic conservatism that has been emerging in the past 15 years. Beneath this tip lies a huge mound of religious fanaticism within a widely touted moderate Muslim society. Indeed, Indonesian Muslims have been dubbed widely as “moderate” — an elusive term which can connote many things. In the first place, it means a neutral position between the extreme outlooks on the left (liberal-secular) and on the right (extremist, hard-liner) sides. It can also mean an open and tolerant attitude towards people of different faiths.

Discussions on moderate Muslims in Indonesia among scholars and media often refer to those qualifications. They argue that the majority of Indonesian Muslims are generally tolerant and adhere to democratic values, as is evident in the works of Mirjam Kunkler and Alfred Stepan (Democracy and Islam in Indonesia, 2013) or Jeremy Menchik (Islam and Democracy in Indonesia, 2016). One of the key achievements of Indonesian democracy, they suggest, is the social capital within its Muslim society. The prime example of this is the existence of two major Islamic organizations, namely Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). They are moderate groups who have shown strong support for democracy time and again.

However, the rallies and current political circumstances in the country have made scholars question how moderate Indonesian Islam is as well as the future of Indonesia’s democracy. For example, Greg Fealy argues in his latest article that the rallies indicated “a triumph for the hard-line Islamists” and “evidence of deepening conservatism in Indonesian Islam” (Bigger than Ahok, 2016). The scale of the crowd, the interplays between the hard-liners and the government during the mass mobilization, and how Indonesians handled these issues, reveal a compelling situation that poses two serious questions: how did Islamic conservatism rise in Indonesia? Why were the hard-liners able to mobilize the masses?

Political Intricacies

To answer these questions it is important to see the bigger picture of Indonesian politics from the past five years. In this context, it is visible that the hard-liners are not new to the Indonesian political scene. The key players behind the two big rallies in Jakarta were the usual suspects from radical Islamic groups. One of them was Rizieq Shihab, chairman of the Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI). He has been very active in mobilizing masses and campaigning for Islamic sharia in the country since early 2000. His organization is notorious for its intolerance, attacking public discussions, or raiding cafes and restaurants during Ramadhan. Rizieq himself has been imprisoned for acts of violence. Moreover, FPI is actually a relatively small organization based in Jakarta, which inspite of the violence and vandalism it has committed, still manages to survive as there seems to be no serious commitment on the part of the government or police to contain their actions.

Other leaders of the rallies were religious conservatives with openly intolerant views. Bachtiar Nasir, the rallies’ coordinator, was responsible for the creation of the National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwas (GNPF-MUI), a coalition of Islamist groups founded to organize the mass protests against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaya Purnama. Bachtiar is an ultra-conservative preacher known for condemning minority groups, particularly Christians and Chinese Indonesians.

As conservative as Bachtiar but less aggressive is Abdullah Gymnastiar, better known as “Aa Gym” — a cleric who runs a large pesantren in West Java. He has been criticizing the Jakarta governor for being Christian and called on Muslims not to vote for Ahok, since he claimed that Islam does not allow Muslims to be led by non-Muslims. Like Rizieq he was also very active in mass mobilization for the rallies.

Several hard-line organizations such as the political party Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, PKS) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) were involved in the rallies, although they kept a low profile. No less important was the role of the Indonesian Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) in the rallies. MUI is a semi-governmental institution whose religious edicts (fatwas) are known to be intolerant towards minorities. They played an especially significant role in the Dec. 2 rally as they are the organization that issued the fatwa in response to Ahok’s alleged blasphemy. Indeed, the fatwa seemed to be quite influencial in triggering the anger of Muslims.

Despite their important role in mobilizing huge crowds, many believe that the success of the rallies was not merely due to the hard-liners alone. Mass mobilization requires preparation, funds, and effective tools of communication. It is believed that certain politicians, members of the elite and businessmen were involved in the rallies. Bachtiar Nasir has openly acknowledged that he had secured more than Rp 100 billion (Tribunnews, Nov. 1, 2016). While he did not say where the money came from, it seems unlikely that it was from the protesters who are mostly poor residents who arrived to Jakarta from other areas. 

There are suspicions that the rallies were financed by various stakeholders who did not necessarily agree with the ideology embraced by the hard-liners, particularly the FPI, but utilized them and the alleged blasphemy case to defeat Ahok. In this context, the rallies are not meant to stop Ahok from participating in the Jakarta gubernatorial election but to weaken his electoral support. The impact is quite visible. According to various pollsters, Ahok was leading the competition prior to the rallies. No one could challenge him until the blasphemy issue was dragged into the race. Indikator, a Jakarta based pollster found that Ahok’s support has declined for the first time since he assumed the office in 2014. According to this survey, in November the support for Ahok decreased to 26 percent from 53 percent in June. His position was taken over by Agus Yudhoyono, the candidate backed by most of those who were involved in the rallies.

Following this logic, the next question is: who would want to intertwine the alleged blasphemy case with the Jakarta gubernatorial election?

Firstly, the main beneficiaries from the rallies are the governor’s competitors in the election: Agus Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and Anies Baswedan, former minister of education. The statements by their campaign teams show that in general they agreed that Ahok had insulted Islam and therefore should be put into trial. They also campaigned to criminalize Ahok and urged Muslims not to vote for him.

SBY, in particular, publicly claimed that Ahok should be brought to court. A day before the rally on Nov. 4, he delivered a staggering political speech during a press conference. He blasted the government for its inability to tackle the current political unrest, particularly with regard to the blasphemy case and recommended that the police should bring Ahok to justice before the situation gets worse. This type of fiery speech is unprecedented for SBY. Renowned for his politeness and manners, SBY made people speculate that he was no longer the person he used to be. Yet, as he is now supporting his son in Jakarta’s gubernatorial race, he seemed to choose politicking over civility.

Anies’s supporters have likewise been aggressive in using the blasphemy issue. One of the central figures in their play was Buni Yani, a university lecturer and close friend of Anies and his running mate Sandiaga Uno. Buni acknowledged that he was close with both of them, as the three belonged to the same network of United States graduates. Buni obtained his Master’s degree from the Ohio University, where he studied mass communication. Furthermore, he was also among the first persons, if not the first, who uploaded to Facebook a doctored video of Ahok’s speech, which later triggered anger among many Muslim groups.

Meanwhile, the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerakan Indonesia Raya, Gerindra) Party and PKS, which support Anies, have been tirelessly campaigning against Ahok, using all their means to prevent the governor from winning the election. However, unlike SBY, Gerindra founder Prabowo Subianto chose to remain silent. It seems that he is not too enthusiastic about Anies, who was a spokesman of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo — his rival in the presidential race of 2014. Also, Anies is not a member of Gerindra and has never been associated with the party.

Secondly, other stakeholders benefitting from Ahok’s case are businessmen who have been disappointed by his policies, particularly regarding Jakarta’s development projects. Under previous governors, these businessmen had good access to the government and to the city’s administration. Since Jokowi became the governor in 2012, and two years later was replaced by Ahok, the influence of these businessmen has  been gradually decreasing. Jokowi’s and Ahok’s bureaucratic reforms have limited their access and affected their businesses.

This hurts their lifeline as Jakarta is a hub of development. Jakarta is currently in the midst of infrastructure development, ranging from the management of traditional markets, waste management, renovation of roads, property development, to the reclamation of rivers and coastal areas. Billions that circulate in Jakarta’s economy were partly controlled by those businessmen. Now they have lost some of their privileges.

In the past, those businessmen enjoyed their privileges by working together (collusion) with the local parliament (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah, DPRD) and bureaucrats, either by helping in drafting regulations that would suit their particular interests or through bribery or markup projects (corruption). By these means of collusion and corruption, the businessmen obtained government projects. It was relatively easy to gain permits for property development or land use. Many regulations were often tackled by money. This way of managing businesses have been the rules of the game since the Soeharto era.

In 2012, Jokowi and Ahok started to reform and manage Jakarta. They began by improving the quality of bureaucracy, increasing the salaries of civil servants, upgrading their work system, and implementing rewards and punishments schemes for public officials. Additionally, budget spending was tightened during Ahok administration. He ensures that any allocation of funds have to meet the needs and specific criteria. Regulations that benefitted the businessmen and harmed the state were revised and changed into fairer ones. In the case of reclamation, for example, Ahok requires a 15-percent contribution from the developers for public services. This regulation, however, has not been effectively implemented yet, due to bribery and still existent collusion bonds between the businessmen and bureaucracy.

The disappointed businessmen might also have supported the campaign against Ahok and were willingly supporting the rallies. The attitude of anti-Ahok’s businessmen is visible through their own media. For example, Hary Tanoesoedibjo who owns five TV stations is among the businessmen who chose to go against Ahok and support Anies Baswedan. When the rallies of Nov. 4 and Dec. 2 took place, his television stations ran live coverage and assumed a very negative angle towards Ahok. Although himself a Chinese Christian just like Ahok, Tanoesoedibjo chose to ally with ultra-conservatives to topple the governor.

The Conservative Surge

The involvement of politicians and businessmen while important did not diminish the significance of the Islamic sentiments that were played during both rallies. In this connection there are a number of questions: why and how did the hard-liners capture the national stage? Why are Indonesian Muslims so resistant against a non-Muslim leader? Why are major Islamic organizations, such as Muhammadiyah and NU, unable to play an effective role in this situation? Where are the moderates?

Indonesia is witnessing the rise of conservatism. Since the fall of Soeharto, Indonesian political arena has undergone a dramatic change. Democracy and freedom have created an opportunity for many people to express their views openly. Something that was forbidden for decades. Indonesian democracy has become a stage for the contest of ideas. Economic growth has upgraded the country’s lower class to the new middle class. Those who lived in the rural areas migrated to the cities or even created their own towns. The change in the political system and economic structure has widely influenced the attitudes and lifestyles of Indonesians. As it is a Muslim majority country the most affected segment of the society is naturally Muslims.

A number of studies find that Indonesian Muslims have become more religious. Evidence for this phenomenon is virtually seen everywhere: the increase in Islamic symbols in the public sphere — such as the use of hijab by Muslim women, a growing number of places to pray in malls, more and more Muslims going for pilgrimage to Mecca, and the exponentially growing number of Islamic programs on TV and other media (Greg Fealy and Sally White, Expressing Islam, 2008). These phenomena hardly existed in the Soeharto era.

Religion is by nature conservative. The liberal understanding of it is an exception. In the case of Indonesia, liberal understanding of Islam comes from elite Muslim intellectuals whose number is obviously limited. During Soeharto’s times, liberal Muslim intellectuals were represented by scholars such as Abdurrahman Wahid, Nurcholish Madjid and Dawam Rahardjo. They controlled the Indonesian Islamic discourse. Conservative figures were relatively secluded to boarding schools or isolated religious institutions. However, since 1998, the situation has changed diametrically. Democracy enables the birth of mass media, both print and electronic. It also enables people to speak whatever they want. There is no more control over the mosques and religious forums. Religious preachers (khatib) are free to deliver their speeches (khutbah), including those that contain messages of intolerance and hatred.

A dramatic increase in the number of internet users in the past five years worsens the situation. Most of them are active on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Indonesia always ranks second or third in the number of Facebook users worldwide. Religious preachers (ustad) use Facebook and Youtube to spread their mostly conservative views. Clerics such as Yusuf Mansyur and Abdullah Gymnastiar have millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, Indonesian Muslims who have no time to study Islam rely on the feeds of such clerics. It is with this background that technology has been helping conservative messages reach a much wider audience in Indonesia.

However, it does not mean that liberal Muslim intellectuals are absent. They are simply outnumbered by ustads and religious motivators who use simple and understandable language. While in the Soeharto era liberal Muslim intellectuals more easily obtained media coverage, they now have to compete with hundreds of thousands of preachers, mosques and religious circles with simplified religious opinions that are often intolerant and radical.

It should also be mentioned that Middle Eastern Islam, particularly that of Saudi Arabia, has been crucial in influencing the religious views of Indonesian Muslims. Since the early 1980s, the Saudi government has been aggressively campaigning for the spread of Wahhabism. They have been spending billions of dollars to disseminate Wahhabi teachings in Indonesia. They have been building Islamic centers, mosques, and translating Wahhabi books to Indonesian and distributing them for free across the country (Assyaukanie, Islam and the Secular State, 2009). The fruits of these Wahhabi campaigns are now apparent with many Indonesian Muslims trying to embrace a Saudi Arabian lifestyle.

The changing political situation and the tireless Saudi campaigns have apparently created a new formula for Indonesian Islam which mixes conservative and intolerant views. The face of Indonesian Islam which was once known as pluralist and moderate is being challenged. Unfortunately, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama seem to have failed in tackling the influence of Wahhabism. Elements of Saudi puritanism are even gradually entering these two organizations. Since Abdurrahman Wahid left NU, conservatives are increasingly dominating. Meanwhile, in Muhammadiyah the Wahhabi outlook is gradually blending with the organization’s doctrines which are generally puritan.


The Muslim rallies in November and December should be seen as an alliance between two powers on the Indonesian political scene. On the one hand, the rallies were the tools of pragmatic politicians who oppose the current government and supported by a group of businessmen disappointed with the Jakarta governor’s policies. On the other hand, the rallies were a vehicle for expression of Islamic conservatism. Hard-liner groups which used to be on the peripheries have suddenly captured the national stage. Their presence in current politics reveals the intolerant, exclusivist and fundamentalist side of Indonesian Islam.

To some extent, the effort of this unholy alliance has been successful. Their target to deflate Ahok’s support seems to have been reached, as we can see from the polls made right after the rallies. The pressure to bring Ahok to court has also been successful. Although the evidence for blasphemy is very weak, the rallies have been successful in transforming a blasphemy allegation into a blasphemy case.

Finally, the unholy alliance between the hard-line Islamists and pragmatic politicians should be seen as a serious challenge for Indonesia’s democracy. With masses and big funds, it uses all means available under democratic conditions to prevent Ahok from becoming Jakarta’s governor again. Indeed, as Greg Fealy rightly said, the rallies were not really about Ahok’s governorship, but about something much bigger — the rise of conservatism and intolerance, and the opposition against the current government.

*Luthfi Assyaukanie is Researcher at Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC), Jakarta


Luthfi Assyaukanie. 2009. Islam and the secular state in Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS

Greg Fealy. 2015. Bigger than Ahok: explaining the 2 December mass rally. Retrieved from http://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/bigger-than-ahok-explaining-jakartas-2-december-mass-rally/

Greg Fealy and Sally White. 2008. Expressing Islam: religious life and politics in Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS

Mirjam Kunkler and Alfred Stepan (eds). 2013. Democracy and Islam in Indonesia. New York: Columbia University Press

Jeremy Menchik. 2015. Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: tolerance without liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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