A Secular Backlash Against Islamism Is Brewing in Indonesia - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Secular Backlash Against Islamism Is Brewing in Indonesia

A Secular Backlash Against Islamism Is Brewing in Indonesia

By Nithin Coca

A muslim woman walks infront of Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church, as they clean the road following a blast at the church a day earlier on May 14, 2018 in Surabaya, Indonesia. At least 10 people were injured on Monday at a police headquarters during a suicide bomb attack by a family of five in Surabaya after a string of suicide bombings which killed 13 people on Sunday morning, targeting churches in Indonesia's second-largest city Surabaya.
SourceUlet Ifansasti/Getty


Secularism is gaining ground again in the world’s largest Muslim nation. 

By Nithin Coca

Only 15 months ago, a right-wing Islamist-led uprising helped defeat Jakarta’s ethnically Chinese, Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok.” Then, earlier this year, a radicalized Muslim family killed 14 people at churches in Surabaya, sending shock waves through the Islamic world’s most populous nation. But now a secular backlash is brewing, and it’s arming itself against this Islamist threat ahead of next year’s national elections. 

In May, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government passed a tough new anti-terror law, and in late June, a Jakarta court issued a death sentence to radical Islamic cleric Aman Abdurrahman, whom prosecutors say masterminded five deadly terror attacks from his prison cell. In late June, Indonesia voted in key local and regional governor elections. Secular and reform candidates connected to Jokowi, himself a moderate Muslim, or his Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), beat Islamist-oriented candidates in gubernatorial races in four of Indonesia’s five largest provinces. Most of the winning candidates emphasized their faith in Indonesia’s secular national ideology of Pancasila. 

Voters are certainly aware, and smarter than many people give them credit for.

Charlotte Setijadi, analyst

A strengthened Jokowi now has the mandate to implement his new anti-terror law, and law enforcement agencies  are taking firmer action. On July 14, national police shot dead three suspected militants in the city of Yogyakarta. By the end of the month, they had killed 21 militants across the country, and arrested more than 200.


People’s support for secular candidates is finding expression beyond the national or provincial stage, filtering down to local communities like Bekasi, a Jakarta suburb with 2 million residents. There, Rahmat Effendi, the sitting mayor — a Muslim — faced fierce criticism from the Islamic right for approving the construction of a new church. He was accused of betraying his religion. But voters re-elected him in June. 

H 3.00587019

Sufi attending a meeting in upper west Jakarta. 

Source Antonio Zambardino/Redux

The shift in favor of secular politics comes after Widodo’s controversial use of economic nationalism as a rallying call against Islamism. Indonesia has nationalized oil and gas firms and taken majority ownership of a gold and copper mine previously run by American firm Freeport-McMoRan. Jokowi pulled out those credentials as recently as Aug. 10 during a public appearance. But the pushback against Islamists is also a sign, experts say, of a broad revulsion at the extreme forms of terror that some radical groups have adopted. 

“Voters are certainly aware, and smarter than many people give them credit for,” says Charlotte Setijadi, visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

To conclude a certain win for secular forces in the country’s 2019 elections, where Jokowi is up for re-election, may be premature, analysts warn. Regional elections and politics have a complex relationship with national politics in Indonesia, as do the roles of religion, identity and coalition-making in the diverse country of 266 million people, where 10 different political parties are currently represented in Parliament. And a November 2017 poll, while showing that a vast majority of Indonesians support a secular nation, also had troubling findings — a fifth of Indonesian youth said they may be willing to fight to establish a caliphate in the country. “It is difficult to predict developments in the 2019 elections based on an analysis of the 2018 executive government head elections,” says Michael Buehler, an Indonesia elections expert at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Questions around Islamic identity are expected to remain central to the political debate in the country. The Gerindra Party, the principal opposition, has declared former Gen. Prabowo Subianto as its presidential candidate. Prabowo played a key role in the Islamist-influenced election of his party mate Anies Baswedan over Ahok last year, and he’s expected to use identity politics in his campaign. 

“Despite the local election results, I expect issues of Islamic identity to be central in the presidential race [as] Islamist groups try to wield more power,” says Josh Kurlantzick, an Indonesian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Widodo knows that, and on Aug. 10 he announced that he had picked Ma’ruf Amin, the 75-year-old head of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, as his vice presidential candidate, even while buttressing his own nationalist credentials. Experts say Widodo’s choice shows his need to pander to Islamic sentiments even while battling radicalism.   

But those opposed to an Islamist takeover of Indonesia stand strengthened today compared to just a few months ago. “In the wake of the Jakarta elections [in 2017], the Islamist coalitions said they would try to replicate their success in Jakarta in other parts of the archipelago,” says Setijadi.

Gettyimages 1014936480

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (center) after registering for the April 2019 presidential election in Jakarta, on Aug. 10, 2018. 

Source Dasril Roszandi/Getty

Instead, it is secularist politics that appear to be gaining ground. In the country’s most populous province, West Java, the reformist mayor of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, won the June race for governor, beating an Islamist challenger. In central Java, the incumbent governor and PDI-P member Ganjar Pranowo won re-election, while in East Java, Khofifah Indar Parawansa, a former member of Jokowi’s cabinet, beat the incumbent governor. And in South Sulawesi, in a shocking result, Nurdin Abdullah, an outsider supported by PDI-P, beat a longtime family dynasty seeking to maintain power. “For Jokowi, the results were very positive,” says Philips Vermonte, executive director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Islamists will try to turn the equation around for the 2019 elections. They will have “more synergy with their [the opposition’s] presidential candidate” than they did in the recent local elections, says Kurlantzick. “In a national race, it will likely be easier to [bring] identity issues more [to] the forefront.”

But the Indonesian president is a notoriously astute politician, and many expect him to combine his outspoken support for religious tolerance with frequent references to his own Muslim identity as the country heads toward the national elections. He has the wind at his back. In the race for Indonesia’s future, secularism is once again taking the lead.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories