“Islamist Mobilization and Cryptic Campaigning in Indonesia” by Quinton Temby

2018/104, 11 December 2018

The third annual Action to Defend Islam (Aksi Bela Islam) rally was held on December 2, in celebration of the popular Islamist mobilization that occurred two years’ ago on December 2, 2016. The original rally was sparked by an allegation of blasphemy against then Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok) and culminated in Ahok’s imprisonment. Like the first rally, hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Jakarta and nearby provinces were mobilized to the streets of the capital.

But with Ahok in jail, Aksi Bela Islam is a movement without a cause. It is all the more remarkable then that this “reunion” rally was a success given that the movement lacks three of the key ingredients it had in 2016: a catalyzing incident, a broad coalition of Islamist groups, and a charismatic leader. This “212” was almost entirely an Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) show, even if the hardline group’s Grand Imam, Habib Rizieq Shihab, could only appear by video and audio from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia.

What brought so many people to the streets this time—including many middle-class Muslims who approached the event like a family pilgrimage—is the subject of much debate. The Islamic flag burning incident last October was a major theme of the rally, but has not taken on the same significance as the Ahok case.

The answer appears to be superior organization and logistics. Unlike the protest against the flag burning on November 2, which saw only a modest turnout, the 212 rally was preceded by targeted messaging on WhatsApp and other channels offering protesters travel packages and soliciting financial support for the mobilisation. Transportation by airconditioned bus to Jakarta could be booked in advance, with meals included.

The reunion was facilitated by the same nationalist-Islamist alliance that underpinned the original 212 rally. The clearest political beneficiary of the event was presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, leader of the opposition Gerindra-PKS coalition. Speaking for only four minutes, and only to praise the peacefulness and orderliness of the crowd, Prabowo had the luxury of watching on as the masses chanted the opposition slogan “change the president”.

Due to an Election Monitoring Agency (Bawaslu) rule that limited large campaign rallies to between March 24 and April 13 in 2019, the event was infused with cryptic campaign messages. No party symbols were visible, and most anti-government statements were made in code. Superficial adherence to the Bawaslu regulation helped organisers frame the event as a sacred duty, appealing to all Muslims, rather than a profane and sectarian political act. The closer one was to the main stage, however, the more likely one was to hear that it is forbidden (haram), as Habib Rizieq told the crowd, to vote for “parties that support blasphemers”.

Jokowi’s running mate, Ma’ruf Amin—a conservative cleric whom the President hoped would neutralize his Islamist opponents—was not in attendance. Amin, as head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama, had been a central figure in the 212 movement of 2016. But the day before the rally, the organizing committee released a statement announcing that the invitation to “Jokowi and his regime” had been cancelled because they were “anti Aksi 212” and attempting to “criminalize 212 ulama and activists”. In any case, Amin’s political relevance appears to be waning as his opposite number, Sandiaga Uno, sidesteps him to campaign directly against Jokowi as a younger and cooler version of the president.

What impact will the Action to Defend Islam movement have on the 2019 elections? Although most rally participants are unlikely to vote for Jokowi anyway, the psychological impact of the larger-than-expected turnout may run deep. At the very least, the rally has boosted the confidence of the opposition and demonstrated that they retain the power to occupy central Jakarta. Now all they need is a cause.

Dr Quinton Temby is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.