ISEAS Commentary: “Joko Widodo and the Issue of Minorities: His Only Blemish?” by Ahmad Najib Burhani

2019/2, 8 January 2019

Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s administration has been hailed for its success in several aspects, particularly in building infrastructure throughout the country. One salient blemish during his tenure, however, is perhaps related to the issue of minorities.

The displaced Ahmadis, often perceived as a heretical group in Islam, who have been living in Transito shelter, Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara since 2006, are still there until now. Efforts by government, at both national and local levels, to settle this problem through various methods, have failed to find a solution that is acceptable to both the Ahmadis and other Muslim communities.

Besides the issue of Ahmadiyya, the problem of displaced Shi’ite community who have been living in Puspa Agro shelter, Sidoarjo, East Java, since 2012 persists. Despite the strenuous efforts from the government to help them to return to their home village in Sampang, Madura, or to provide them with more permanent housing in new places, many remain in the Puspa Agro shelter.
The Ahmadiyya and Shi’ah are old issues and a legacy of Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government. The problem of Ahmadiyya in Transito and Shi’ah in Sampang has always been cited in Indonesian human right reports every year. They are usually perceived as a kind of “living monument” of intolerance in Indonesia.  This problem has become more complicated nowadays and is often part of contentious international discourse.

To avoid controversy, Jokowi has dealt with these two sensitive issues in a low profile way, employing the concept of “kerja dalam senyap” (working silently). However, the fact that they are still living in the shelters show that the problem has not been fully solved yet.

Although Jokowi cannot be fully blamed for those two issues, other issues of minorities have occurred during his tenure. The most prominent one are the issue of Meliana and Ahok (Basuki Tjahaja Purnama). Meliana (44), an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman from Tanjung Balai, North Sumatera, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to a year and six months for complaining about the noise level of a mosque’s adhan (Muslim prayer calling). Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, was also convicted of blasphemy for his comment on Surah Al-Maidah 51 during his speech as the governor of Jakarta in Kepulauan Seribu on 27 September 2016 and jailed for two years.

On both these issues, Jokowi did not show any sign of determination to protect minorities. Furthermore, by choosing Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate for the 2019 presidential election, he seemed to have compromised his religious ideals by accommodating the flow of religious conservatism. In fact, Ma’ruf Amin’s role in the issuance of MUI (Council of Indonesian Ulama)’s fatwa on Ahmadiyya, in the Ahok saga, and in the treatment to the Indonesian Shi’ite community was a prominent one.

Jokowi’s 2014 vision-mission stated clearly that the identity of Indonesia as a religiously harmonious country has been “torn apart by widespread sectarian conflict and various forms of intolerance”. One of his priority programs was to guarantee religious freedom and uphold the law for those who commit violent acts in the name of religion. At that time, his vision was in sharp contrast to the Manifesto of the Struggle of Gerindra Party on the issue of religion, which states “The government/state must regulate freedom of religion or belief. The state is also required to guarantee the purity of religious teachings of the recognized-religions from all forms of defamation and manipulation“.

Although guaranteeing freedom of religion and belief is still part of his vision in 2019, Jokowi seems to have weakened this slogan. The word “intolerance” appears only once in his new vision, whereas it appeared four times in his old one. What is missing in his previous vision, but becoming an important point in Jokowi’s new vision is “moderation”. “Strengthening moderation (wasathiyyah) as a religious character of Indonesia” become his first program on creating tolerance and social harmony in Indonesia.

Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow with ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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