If asked to name the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world, many would look to the Middle East. Yet, it is the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia which holds this tenuous crown.
The world’s fourth most populous nation, Indonesia is home to approximately 260 million people, 88 percent of whom follow the tenets of Islam. Until recently, Indonesia’s population served as an ideal of religious tolerance compared to many Asian nations, particularly when compared with the majority of Muslim nations.
Yet, the tide appears to be turning in Indonesia, with a young generation that has exhibited a desire to move the nation in a direction eerily reminiscent of Middle-Eastern blueprints. Several steps have been taken toward this authoritarian, Sharia-based form of governance, with the imprisonment of one former governor serving as the catalyst for the move toward fundamentalism.
Basuki Tjahaja Purname, known to Indonesians as “Ahok”, was the overwhelmingly popular governor of Indonesia’s capital province, Jakarta. As of September 2016, he garnered a 70 percent approval rating, despite being a member of the Chinese and Christian minorities in Indonesia.
However, in September of 2016 he noted during a campaign rally Islamic verses that warned against Muslims taking Christians and Jews as allies. After some sly editing, the video was virally circulated and Ahok was accused of blasphemy, a fatwa issued upon him by the FPI, a fundamentalist Islamic group in Indonesia.
He was formally charged, causing rifts within a country in which many Muslims would hang signs declaring both their Muslim faith and their support of Ahok. On the contrary, many, including FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, suggested Ahok be imprisoned or executed for his alleged crime. In ironic yet predictable fashion, radical clerics used verses from the Quran to argue that Muslims could not, in good conscience, vote for a Christian.
Ahok, now facing blasphemy charges, remained in the governor’s race. However, he ultimately would lose 58-42 percent to Anies Baswedan, a Muslim who gave at least one speech at FPI headquarters and began wearing conspicuously Islamic attire with more frequency.
When it came time for Ahok to stand trial, he was found guilty of blasphemy. The prosecutor suggested he receive only probation with a one-year suspended sentence. Instead, a five-judge panel doled out a two-year prison sentence, resulting in the promotion of three of the judges to the Indonesia Supreme Court the very next day.
While much of the nation remains loyal to Ahok and embraces the religious tolerance and secularism that has allowed the third-largest democracy in the world to remain intact, the seeds of radicalization have begun to sprout.
Informed observers note that some of the strongest bases of fundamental Islamic sentiment reside in the nation’s youth, in particular with University student. This alone casts a dark shadow over the future of a nation known for its religious, political, and economic freedoms.
It is alarming that a governor as popular as Ahok could be removed from power in a matter of mere months for stating an observation that materially accurate, and even more concerning that he was non-coincidentally a member of the nation’s two most prominent minority groups: Chinese and Christians.
Ahok was a farmer running mate of the Indonesia president, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi. Some rumors suggested that Ahok would be chosen as Jokowi’s running mate in the 2019 presidential elections.
Clearly, the judges (three of whom now sit on the nation’s highest court) and their influencers had different plans for the future of Indonesia, a vision that is decidedly Islamic.
It has been noted that the nation’s shift toward democracy in 1998 actually allowed for the rearing of radical Islamic heads. Under the pre-democratic Dictator Suharto, a Sunni organization called Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) rose to prominence, preaching pluralistic Islam and religious tolerance, becoming the most visible group for Islamic tolerance in the process.
For better or worse, a dictatorship at least ensured that radical groups would not rise to any position of significant power. Now that political freedom has removed restraints from the large fundamental Islamic segment of the population, Indonesia is in imminent danger of losing the tolerance it is known for, and perhaps ultimately its status as a democracy.
The fact that Saudi Arabia has long provided financial support to radical Wahhabis preachers (who establish madrasas to radicalize followers, particularly young men) contributes to this long dormant sect of ultra-conservative Muslims.
Since Ahok’s arrest, the escalation of fundamentalism in Jakarta has been rapid. A recent episode of Vice documents how patrols now dedicated to policing practices forbidden under Sharia law-drinking, gambling, cockfighting, etc.- have become larger and more frequent. This was a level of monitoring and social restriction that Indonesians never experienced under Suharto or the democratically elected governors before Anies Baswedan.
Those caught in violation of Sharia law are typically punished by being publicly caned; a mix of physical pain and social shaming that is a trademark of Middle Eastern Sharia states.
With a youth population that is more inclined to embrace Sharia law and the practices of conservative Islam, the fate of the nation is very much in the air. While the police still pursue the most radical Islamic clerics, the insidious emergence of fundamental Islamic practices has begun to manifest.
Indonesians are still far less likely to join ISIS than Muslims from America or England, but there are numerous factors that play into that statistic. When taking the quality of life and the long-term stability of Indonesia into consideration, the rise of hard-line Islam can only bode poorly for the once-tolerant nation.