By Alexander R Arifianto
The 2024 Indonesian elections are fast approaching. Prospective presidential candidates are already on the campaign trail and holding ‘horse-trading’ negotiations to select their vice-presidential nominees. It is a good time to re-examine the potential role of a powerful interest group that increasingly has sway in the largest Muslim-majority nation — conservative Islamists.
‘New’ Islamists movements — including the Tarbiyah (religious nurturing) movement affiliated with the Prosperous Justice Party, Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and multiple Salafi groups — are long known for their religious activism which sought to reform Indonesian Islam and encourage Muslims to return to the fundamental Islamic teachings of the Quran and the Hadith. These movements emerged as a powerful political force during the 2016–2017 Action to Defend Islam rallies against former Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama.
Concerned that Islamists were going to transform themselves into an influential opposition force during the 2019 presidential election, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo initiated a crackdown on their political activism. The crackdown was signified by the legal ban against HTI and the arrest and conviction of key Islamist leaders like Rizieq Shihab — the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). Jokowi’s regime successfully banned the FPI in December 2020 with little pushback from the Islamist camp.
In addition to the suppression by state apparatus, Islamist organisations are also facing crackdown measures from Banser, the paramilitary wing of Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)’s youth affiliate, Ansor. Banser often forcibly cancelled proselytisation activities of Islamist-leaning preachers like Hanan Attaki and Abdul Somad.
Due to these repressive measures, most Islamist groups have largely retreated from the public sphere and returned to non-political da’wa activities. This is particularly so for influential Salafi preachers like Bachtiar Nasir and Khalid Basalamah, who are facing legal challenges of invoking ‘identity politics’ from the state prosecutor’s office.
But some ‘new’ Islamist movements continue their preaching and other forms of ‘non-political’ activism. They increasingly do this via social media applications like Telegram which are securely encrypted, making it harder to be penetrated by security officials and external observers.
At the same time, it is increasingly difficult for external researchers to contact these groups. Prior to 2019, it was still possible to arrange face-to-face meetings and discussions with activists affiliated with these Islamist groups. Today, such meetings are very unlikely to take place, given the increased fear of these groups about being infiltrated by state authorities.
But the da’wa activities of these groups continue. In many cases, ‘new’ Islamists continue to conduct these activities successfully throughout Indonesia. This occurs both in major cities like Yogyakarta and Surabaya and in rural areas — including those which are considered NU strongholds in Central and East Java. Religious institutions run by ‘new’ Islamists can continue their operations in these areas due to the extensive relationship between their leaders and local clerics from NU and Muhammadiyah — Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organisations.
Islamists and mainstream Islamic clerics often form alliances in certain Indonesian provinces and regencies to pressure local governments to implement regional Sharia regulations. Such alliances were seen in 2022 in West Sumatra which passed a regulation enacting Sharia Law throughout the province.
HTI and most Salafis formally reject participating in an election on the ground that it is part of a democratic system that is contradictory to Islamic governance. Yet some clerics affiliated with these groups invoked a ‘one-time’ exception during the 2019 election. They argued that their followers’ participation is necessary to prevent an undesirable leader from winning the election.
It is quite feasible that they might invoke such an exception again during the 2024 election on a similar ground. Despite their ‘quietist’ posture, Islamists do keep an active interest in electoral politics since they believe that the government will continue to suppress them to the point of threatening their survival if they cease all political engagement.
Third-party sources with strong ties to Islamist groups concluded they would most likelythrow their support towards either Anies Baswedanor their 2019 chosen candidate Prabowo Subianto if Anies’ candidacy failed to materialise. It is unlikely that Islamists would support Ganjar Pranowo — Jokowi’s likely first-choice presidential successor — given his ties to the outgoing president and to the secular nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle that they largely despise.
‘New’ Islamist movements tend to have less visible political activities in the run-up to the 2024 Indonesian elections. For the most part, they engage in preaching and other forms of activism that are not visible to the public. At the same time, they remain engaged in electoral politics, albeit with a far less public profile. It is premature to conclude that Islamists would not play any major role in the 2024 elections. They might just do so in a discrete manner.
About the author: Alexander R Arifianto is a Senior Fellow in the Indonesia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum