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"Aksi Bela Tauhid: Manufacturing Religious Cleavages for the 2019 Presidential Election?" by Ahmad Najib Burhani

2018/98, 8 November 2018

With the appointment of Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate for the 2019 presidential election, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) is believed to have shielded himself from the prospect of a bitter campaign using religion. Instead the economy will become the key campaign issue. However, the recent demonstrations in several cities in Indonesia, named Aksi Bela Tauhid (Defending Tauhid [Oneness of God] Action), appear to be an effort to exploit Islam for political purposes and undermine Joko Widodo’s support base by attacking one of his main supporters, the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama).

A two-minute clip depicting members of Banser (Barisan Ansor Serba Guna), the paramilitary wing of the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama), burning a black flag bearing the Islamic declaration of faith (shahāda) during the National Santri Day (Hari Santri) in Garut, West Java, on 22 October 2018 sparked the current controversy. What was initially believed to be an act of nationalism by burning a flag associated with the HTI (Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir), a transnational movement that has been outlawed by the Joko Widodo government, is now seen as an act of defaming Islam or committing a blasphemous act.

Previously, the Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin camp had been attacked for promoting Islam Nusantara (Islam of the archipelago), which Ma’ruf Amin had reframed as Wasatiyyah Islam (Middle-way Islam). While the issue of Islam Nusantara did not attract many critics, the current controversy is different. Various individual Muslims and organizations, including Muhammadiyah and the MUI (Council of Indonesian Ulama), regretted the incident and demanded that Banser apologize to the Muslim community. The chairman of GP Ansor, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, said that he would give stern warning for the members of Banser who burned the flag, but has refused to apologize for the incident since he believed that the flag represented the HTI.

This led to a series of rallies attended by thousands of people in several cities after Friday prayer on 26 October 2018 and 2 November 2018. During the rally in Sukabumi, West Java, protesters demanded the flag burners to be prosecuted and Banser to apologize to Muslim community. If Banser did not comply, they would ask the government to ban this group. During the rally in Jakarta on 2 November 2008, one of their demands was for NU to apologize for that incident and the purification of the NU from liberalism and any other deviant beliefs. The organizer of the rallies is the same as the organizer of rallies against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in 2016 and 2017, namely the GNPF (National Movement to Safeguard Fatwas), which includes people such as Yusuf Martak.

Responding to the escalation and politicization of the issue, Vice President Jusuf Kalla invited leaders of mainstream Muslim organizations, such as Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, Al-Wasliyah, and Persatuan Islam (Union of Islam), to meet in his office on 26 October 2018. These leaders then issued a joint statement, calling on all Muslims to be united, refusing any provocations to divide them, and any efforts to pit them against each other because of this incident. The meeting was followed by similar meeting between leaders of Muhammadiyah and NU in the headquarters of Muhammadiyah in Menteng, Jakarta on 31 October 2018 which also issued a similar statement.

The issue of Islam Nusantara and the incident of the controversial flag-burning show that religion can still be politicized in the context of the presidential electoral contest. Although Jokowi has sought to shield himself from sectarian issues by appointing Ma’ruf Amin as vice-presidential candidate, he is still vulnerable to attacks based on the politicization of cleavages within the Islamic community.

Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow with 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.