Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Progressive Indonesian Muslims need to wake up and smell the coffee

Christmas is around the corner and Islam Defenders Front (FPI) members have clamped down on Santa hats at shopping malls in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city. That is not a picture of a merry Christmas.

What is worse, however, is that the police were escorting the hard-liners when they entered the mall to prevent “disruptions” during what the FPI called, without a sense of irony, aksi damai (peaceful action).

No matter how the FPI and the police explain it, the Surabaya incident is a serious blow to the nation’s dwindling pluralism. It is disturbing for three simple reasons.

First, the Indonesian Ulema Council’s fatwa banning Muslims from wearing Christmas paraphernalia is not legally binding and therefore should not be enforced; second, FPI militants, a fringe group (at least until recently), may not be the best people to disseminate the fatwa to the Christians; third, the police helping the FPI to carry out its antics sends the wrong message to minority groups who are wary of the group’s growing clout.

The incident, depressing as it is, is a clear reminder of two indubitable facts: that retrograde forces are gaining ground in the country and a fringe group, like the FPI, has become more mainstream and

The Dec. 2 rally against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in Jakarta, the largest gathering of people the country has seen in history, is a testament to the popular support the hard-liners currently hold.

It appears that as Islamic parties succumb to realpolitik for their survival, forcing them to act more secular and nationalistic and thus making them less appealing to their core constituents, hard-liner groups have filled the void and emerged as political demagogues that have exploited the inevitable rise of identity politics.

That shift has huge ramifications. The police have often been accused of being too soft on the FPI, as the vigilante group allegedly has the backing of the powerful elites. That may still be the case, but the problem we have now is perhaps the police are unwilling to get tough on the FPI because they fear it would trigger backlashes from mainstream Muslims.

If that is the case, we should be more alarmed. The last thing we need is a vigilante group empowered by both the elite and the masses.

The question is: how did we get to this situation?

The power hungry political elites played a role in empowering radicals to advance their short-term interests, but the elephant in the room is the failure of Indonesian progressives to keep the FPI

Progressive Muslims are complacent. They should push the hard-liners further to the fringe. What they have been doing is the complete opposite: pushing mainstream Muslims, who traditionally have a moderate view of Islam, closer to the FPI and thus making the fringe group mainstream.

Many Indonesian Muslim intellectuals are fixated on shaming and discrediting the hard-liners that they end up alienating most Muslims. This problem persists even after the two major anti-Ahok rallies in Jakarta.

A renowned liberal Muslim intellectual, for instance, called those who joined the Nov. 4 rally “brutal” and “stupid”. A female Muslim academic disparages women who joined the Dec. 2 rally as mere “child caretakers”.

Such comments disregarded the complexity of Indonesian Islam. The people joining the anti-Ahok rallies are not monolith and should not be put in a single basket of degrading stereotypes. If anything, those words would do nothing but widen the ideological divide, making it more difficult for other progressives to reach out to mainstream Muslims and change their views about Islam, democracy and the need for peaceful coexistence.

On social media, most progressive Muslims also turned out to be as gullible as their retrograde rivals in sharing half-truths, fake news and hoaxes. That bad habit has deepened ideological polarization to the advantage of the radicals, who typically excel at exploiting conflicts and divisions.

The other issue is the double standards exposed by many progressive Muslims when responding to the state’s actions against their ideological rivals. There is an alarming tendency, for example, among progressive Muslims to consider state repression as “normal”, as the only way to keep the FPI and its ilk under control. This kind of attitude will only bring sympathy to the hard-liners.

Perhaps the greatest blunder progressive Muslims have made is their failure to go beyond identity politics — or “identity liberalism”, to use the term coined by Columbia University historian Mark Lilla.

For progressives, the only democratic goal worth pursuing is for minority groups — Christians, Shias, Ahmadis and LGBTs — to live in peace. It is as if Indonesia’s problems will magically go away if the FPI is gone. Consequently, they were mostly, and regrettably, silent when the political powers they supported persecuted the poor.

They ignore the fact that the economically marginalized are mostly part of the Muslim majority. The hard-liners will find it easy to sectarianize the issue of economic equality, by claiming that progressives do not care about the majority, who then feel excluded from the progressives’ agenda.

Indonesian progressives must learn from American liberals who spent months before Election Day in November shaming Donald Trumps’ supporters, the white working class who felt excluded from Hillary Clinton’s liberal identity campaign. The result is nightmarish: Trump’s victory.

So, wake up and smell the coffee before it is too late.

By Ary Hermawan

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