Amy Freedman on Political Islam in Indonesia

Dr. Amy Freedman is professor and department chair of Pace University's Political Science Department.  She is also an associate research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.  Professor Freedman's work focuses primarily on Indonesia and Malaysia.  She is the author of several books and articles, the most recent of which includes Nontraditional Security Challenges in Southeast Asia 2017 (with Ann Marie Murphy) published by Lynn Rienner, as well as work on democracy, and ethnic and religious politics.  
Sabrina Hartono CMC 21' interviewed Amy Freedman on Oct. 24, 2018. 

Indonesia has called itself a secular state since its independence, but it appears that Islam has always been an integral part of the nation’s identity. How do you think Islam, particularly political Islam, has evolved in Indonesia over the past decade?

Islam has always been an part of the Indonesian identity and certainly since the nation’s independence. But Islam has also been part of a political calculation. It is not just a question of what the national identity would be--a question of nation building; it is also a question of how to manage the different perspectives on the role of Islam in the political sphere and in the public sphere. From the recent events during the last few years, there seems to be a renewed energy or power given to Islamic voices and an increasing use of religion as a political tool. This does not seem to be new phenomenon, it is something that has been revived.

In the 1960s, there was an attempt by the political forces in Indonesia to balance the Communist and secular forces. This proved to be a challenge. The turn of events happened in the late 1990s where there were several violent militant attacks on the streets of Indonesia. This then raised the question of the character of Islam in Indonesia and the goals Islamists are trying to achieve.

Conservative political Islam voices never actually disappeared, but they are taking on a new salience. Part of this is a function of democracy. One can use a blasphemy charge against someone and it is very hard to rebut. The blasphemy charge is a very powerful tool and we see it as being used as a political calculation. This is a disturbing trend for me as I would rather see a more tolerant and slightly more secular version of Indonesia.

** Not sure if it is okay to add anything, but if you’d like to add a bit I would also mention that I do think religious practice is different today in Indonesia; religious observance is more prevalent and more regularized.  I would like this back to democracy, or at least to the end of the New Order.  Suharto had outlawed some elements of religious observance but by the late 1990s had increasingly turned to Islam as a way of legitimating his rule; democracy continued this trend and opened up new avenues for religious practice and religion in politics. 


There has been growing religious intolerance since May 2017, when former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama allegedly insulted the holy Quran. What is the significance of Ahok’s conviction and imprisonment for alleged blasphemy?

There is a range of Islamic parties in Indonesia, all of which have never really
had a harmonious or friendly relationship with each other. There is a very big and fragmented religious political voice in the country. The governor’s race of Jakarta and the blasphemy charges were concerning because it exposed how powerful an Islamic identity and a kinship with Islam can be used as a political tool or a political weapon. Particularly for Ahok, who is a “double minority” in the country, as a Christian and a Chinese, made him a very vulnerable target. There have been some surveys that indicated a reluctance among Jakarta citizens to vote for him during that time because he was a Christian and because he was a Chinese. But the case was framed as a law-and-order issue and since he broke the law due to blasphemy, and should be prosecuted and held accountable. People used this as the reason to not vote for Ahok. This is just a manipulative way of using religious identity, regardless of how you frame it.


How does the rise of ISIS and radical Islamist thought influence attitudes toward Islam among Indonesian youth?

I have not read enough about specific attitudes among the youth towards radical Islam. I’ve been doing more in-depth research about movements during the turn-of-the-century, like the Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant extremist Islamist rebel group. It is one thing for the U.S. or the world to criticize Islam and it’s another thing for Indonesian Muslims themselves to criticize themselves. I don’t think the vast majority of young people in Indonesia support radical Islamic movements at all, which is especially evident from the case of the Indonesia bombing last spring that provoked a great deal of anger in Indonesia.

We should also be more cautious on lumping all Muslims together with militant groups. To equate Islam to terrorism is a blanket criticism that forgets that 99.99% of Muslims are not radical and violent.  *** I would add here that politicians play on or use anti-Islamic sentiment in the West to bolster their own support; creating a sort of religious-nationalism that again is hard to counter. 


How does political Islam in Indonesia affect the attitudes and treatment of minorities in Indonesia’s diverse demographics?

If we look back to the period of 1998-2000, there was a break in the effort in Indonesia to normalize how the Chinese in Indonesia were integrated into the rest of the community. After the targeting of Chinese in 1997-99, there was an effort to openly discuss anti-Chinese feeling and how that led to violence against the community; there was an effort to create new norms which were more inclusive of the Chinese community as part of the fabric of Indonesia. For the larger minority groups of Indonesia, there was an effort to promote tolerance that is being undone over the last few years; there is a breakdown of norms and minority communities like Christians and Chinese now have less support from their neighbors. Politicians, particularly conservative Islamic forces, are stoking these tensions. Practices and attitudes among the people don’t shift by themselves. They are very much driven by larger phenomenon.


Incumbent President Joko Widodo has announced Ma’ruf Amin, a high Muslim cleric and chairman of the MUI [Indonesian Ulema Council], as his running mate. How do you interpret President Jokowi’s decision? Does this signal a shift in the nature of politics in Indonesia?

It signals a fear by the president that he could be voted out of office as well, and that is a weakness of his. We have seen the governor’s race and Jokowi wants to make sure that is not attacked from a religious point-of-view. His choice of Ma’ruf as a running mate is an insurance policy that he can send the vice president to signal, very obviously, to the public his Islamic intentions. And this is a way to keep the Muslim parties within his coalition. It is certainly disappointing because Ma’ruf Amin’s party has issued several fatwas (a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority) against LGBTQs and minority communities. Should Ma’ruf become vice-president, the public perception would then be that doing this is a legitimate political tactic. Although it is distressing to the political landscape in Indonesia, understandably this may simply be Jokowi’s political strategy of trying to manage Prabowo’s influence.


The big challenges facing Indonesia have long been economic development, poverty, and corruption. These are really big, intractable problems that Jokowi ran on. For a politician to run on an anti-corruption platform and poverty-alleviation is very challenging, especially in Indonesia. Jokowi could enumerate his “successes” in these fields but it really is hard to show success in these areas. Relating this to Islamic politics and Islamic identity, using an affinity to Islam is an easier political tool to appease the public and indicate success. It is easier for a government to pass laws about the use of alcohol or to scapegoat LGBTQ community, or outlaw homosexual relationships than it is to show success in economic development. Politicians can say, “We’ve achieved these moral values.” Islam sells well politically and it is possible to win people over by mobilizing emotions.


The April 2019 presidential elections may see a “round 2 showdown” between Joko Widodo and General Prabowo Subianto, the two candidates who ran against each other in the 2014 elections. How has the context of Indonesian politics changed since their meeting in the 2014 elections?

Prabowo probably took some lessons away from the 2014 elections: dirty tricks using social messaging and advertising seem to work. The Jakarta governor’s election in Jakarta in 2017 showed that, not only did social media-based campaigns work, but they are more effective now than in 2014. Despite high approval ratings, Jokowi has real cause for concern as his position is now vulnerable, especially because of the recent natural disasters impacting Indonesia.  It is definitely harder to identify the crowd’s opinions, and Jokowi left himself out in the open for a challenge.

I’m not sure if there is a lot of discussion in Indonesia about external forces meddling in national elections. Certainly, the U.S. has withdrawn itself from extensive involvement in Asia and the U.S. has revealed their clear self-interest with the whole trade war with China. China is much more powerful than in 2014, especially in the South China Sea and the build-up of bases. And Indonesia is faced with this conflict, which breeds a different context in the upcoming 2019 elections than in 2014.

Prabowo can present himself as a strongman leader that Indonesia needs because of this rising external threat. And the reason these international dynamics could lend themselves more favorably to Prabowo is because Jokowi is not very interested in foreign affairs, which could be seen as a weakness on his part.


Early campaign efforts from both camps are deliberately targeting the youth vote, a group that makes up about 42 percent of total registered voters in Indonesia. Jokowi’s actions during the Asian Games and Prabowo’s running mate Sandiaga Uno’s engagement with youth groups are testaments to this. What do we know about young Indonesians’ attitudes toward these elections or the state of Indonesian politics more broadly?

Although I’m not very informed about youth public opinion in Indonesia, given the high percentage of non-voters and young voters I would estimate that Indonesia is one of the largest users of social media. People are definitely getting their information from user-generated content posted on social media, and this has profound political implications for Indonesia. This opens up for discussion all the things we have seen in the American elections, the British election about misinformation and the nasty tone of political campaigning. Politicians are now exploiting social media for the defamation of the other party. If someone has already created defamatory, mocking, satirical content, like “gifs” or “memes”, the campaign team’s job becomes much easier. Thinking beyond Indonesia, it raises thoughts about how social media is being used and the potential of use of it in campaigns and political movements.


Aside from ethno-religious tensions, what are other major issues or factors driving these campaigns?

The political issues that are always at the forefront in Indonesia are jobs, poverty, and, corruption. The question is what can politicians point to or where do they find a solution.

 Major political parties all put up a front. Of course all parties would claim themselves to be for clean government, but can they really clean up corruption? I don’t think the bread-and-butter issues are gone. There are hard grounds on which people can run a campaign, because progress is slow and over the long term: politicians need short term/immediate things to point to as ‘successes’.

I go back-and-forth in my own head about what we are seeing in political Islam. Is political Islam really just politics as a campaign tool? Is this is truly a new phenomenon or is it simply returning and playing more salient role. Will political Islam have more of an impact in 2019? In the past we have seen political Islam playing a role, but nothing major that has caused a significant shift. The governor’s race in 2017 does suggest that political Islam could be more significant, potentially on the national level. It is too soon to know whether or not that is true for the coming year.

Sabrina Hartono CMC '21Student Journalist

By Cabinet Secretary of the Republic of Indonesia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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