The Jokowi administration has successfully manoeuvred the Ahok blasphemy case to make important security and political gains that have largely been overlooked.
A.S. Hakim is right in his article that the 2 December demonstration at Jakarta’s National Monument heralds a new phase in Indonesia’s post-reformasi politics. However, the issue is less about the emergence of the phenomenal strength of political Islam, and more about the steps Indonesia is taking to successfully integrate post-reformasi political Islam into Indonesia’s existing political order.
A clear observation of a post-reformasi Indonesia is that Indonesia’s leaders are reluctant to contain the rise of political Islam. Any attempt to do so may do more harm than good if Indonesia wishes to continue its path towards being the world’s largest Muslim majority democracy.
The sheer size of Indonesia; its diverse makeup – culturally, ethnically, religiously and linguistically; and its conflict-ridden post-independence history, makes Indonesia naturally prone to ‘SARA’ tensions – an Indonesian security acronym used to describe ethnic, religion, race, and inter-group inspired conflict.
The case of Ahok falls neatly within the SARA paradigm. He is an ethnically distinct politician from Belitung (an Island off Sumatra), an Indonesian Chinese Christian (a double minority in Indonesia), and he is running for re-election as Jakarta’s governor in his own right – Indonesia’s most contended city in terms of competing political interest groups that ripple across the archipelago. His alleged blasphemy statement was only the latest catalyst to fuel pre-existing tensions for Jakarta’s Islamic hardliners over the issue of Ahok’s right to govern Jakarta.
Historically, Suharto’s New Order Indonesia was able to limit the impact of SARA issues by devising internally focused security doctrines, alongside a wide surveillance and coercive security apparatus to secure both the state and its politics. Indonesia was also strengthened through its state ideology Pancasila and the national motto Bhineka Tunggal Eka (Unity in Diversity). Suharto had the power to use both the state ideology and security apparatus to ensure that SARA issues emanating from right wing and left wing groups were either contained or eliminated.
The challenge for a post-reformasi Indonesia is that democracy gives the opportunity for political participation of a wider range of new and old political actors from across the political spectrum. The rising participation of Islamic “hard line” political groups in Indonesia’s post-reformasi politics is no exception to this rule. Indonesia, however, can longer deal with these groups through the New Order security approach as the wider region secretly hopes it will.
Indonesia needs to find a new security approach to SARA tensions alongside its pre-existing state ideology; one that brings the right and left wing groups into the political order, while also clipping their wings in the process.
The Jokowi administration’s handling of the Ahok case thus far has demonstrated a tacit security and political manoeuvre that deserves more credit than has currently been portrayed.
At the security level, the Indonesian police have chosen to take a calculated soft security approach during the anti-Ahok inspired November and December demonstrations. Police officers were banned from deploying with firearms during both demonstrations. The November riots were also handled through the use of non-lethal tactics resulting in minimal casualties and injuries.
A large group of frontline police were also selected on the basis of their advanced religious knowledge. They were deployed wearing white turbans and the peci (traditional Muslim cap) alongside hijab-wearing female officers in a calculated effort to calm protesters.
This was a clear risk after reports emerged that Indonesian jihadists were urging supporters to use violence during the November demonstration. The Indonesian police backed by the military, would have planned and deployed for such worst-case contingencies. The police’s low profile limited the perception of a demonstration of force against protesters.
The Indonesian police and military opted to demonstrate their solidarity in an interfaith rally prior to the December demonstration – an important sign of institutional, religious, and national unity to Indonesia without the need to go toe-to-toe with demonstrators.
Together, this soft security approach demonstrates a shift towards enmeshing the religious element of SARA disputes within Indonesia’s post-reformasi internal security doctrine. It shows potential as a means of softening the perception of the Indonesian state security apparatus as an ultimately secular institution, when facing Islamic hard-line inspired demonstrations.
At the political level, Jokowi has proven to be a pragmatic political actor who has learnt quickly how to make political gains from the issue. He has exposed the political elite that were perceived to be taking advantage of the situation. Jokowi has also used to the opportunity to consolidate power with the Indonesian security apparatus, the important leaders of Indonesia’s Muslim organisations, and the Islamic parties within his coalition.
Jokowi has successfully utilised these political gains and closer ties to serve both tactical and strategic gains. First, he has managed to negotiate a political compromise turning the 2 December rally into a peaceful mass prayer instead of a November-like anti-Ahok repeat. Second, the quick processing of the Ahok case has reduced tensions significantly, and limited the time the issue can be used as political capital by opponents.
Third, Jokowi’s last minute attendance at the December demonstration alongside important political players in his administration was more than a tactical gain to win over anti-Ahok supporters. Jokowi has used the event to further strengthen his relationship with Jakarta’s rising Islamic hard-line groups. This is a strategic move as these groups are viewed as both a potential asset and threat to national security, and their voices are increasingly amplified through social media.
Finally, the arrest of eight suspects for alleged treason serves as warning to the political elite and Jokowi’s opponents. Political exploitation of future SARA issues against his administration will be handled through a much closer internal security apparatus – raising a spectre of Suharto.
Everything thus far points to realpolitik in much more diverse post-reformasi political order, where it serves to keep both enemies and friends closer than some observers may like.
Bradley Wood is a Master of Strategic Studies student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. He tweets @bradleywoodAU and his main research interest focuses on Indonesia. His previous work can be found on his Academia profile.
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