Recently, increasing numbers of Indonesian politicians and religious leaders have publicly discussed socio-economic inequality, amid the perceived rise of ethnic and religious intolerance. Such inequality has been often either explicitly or implicitly framed along ethnic and religious lines, between Chinese and non-Chinese, between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Certainly, issues of social justice and religious tolerance are intertwined, yet I am concerned that a simplified reading of the intersection between class and intolerance might also be misleading. By suggesting a closer examination on competition among middle classes, this article suggests another way to look into class dynamics in contemporary Indonesia, that does not reproduce a perception of ‘rich Chinese vs poor Pribumi’ which does not actually reflect the realities.

Here, I use middle class in a broader sense to include both economic statuses as well as consumption patterns, both the aspiration to attain and to sustain middle class status.

In early May, I attended a symposium on Chinese Muslims in Indonesia held by Suara Muhammadiyah, a news outlet affiliated with the Muhammadiyah mass Islamic organisation. It featured prominent figures such as the current chairman of Muhammadiyah, Haedar Nasir, and former chairmen Syafii Maarif and Din Syamsuddin. While all of them reiterated Muhammadiyah’s commitment to Pancasila and kebhinekaan (diversity), they appeared to have different approaches and understandings as to what constitutes diversity and how to engage with it.

As expected, Syafii Maarif set the progressive tone, while Haedar Nasir spoke from the middle ground. Din Syamsuddin repeated his usual rhetoric. He spent most of his time explaining that he appreciates diversity and differences. According to Din, what happened in Jakarta is not about race and religion, but about politics and personality. He emphasised the importance of respecting of each other, and indirectly framed Ahok as someone who is not respecting Islam and diversity. In other words, he is subtly portraying Ahok as a ‘perusak kebhinekaan’ (destroyer of diversity).

Many people might think that the argument that Ahok is ‘perusak kebhinekaan’ is unacceptable and baseless. Yet such rhetoric is gaining resonance among many Muslims who might be conservative and assertive, but not radical and exclusive. Such rhetoric is popular not only among the poor, but among middle class Muslims. Many urban middle class Muslims I encountered at the ‘Defending Islam 3’/Aksi Bela Islam III rally in Jakarta shared a similar line of argument. A few residents at the Muslim gated communities in Depok also repeated the same rhetoric: as I observed, many of these middle class Muslims are neither ‘anti-Chinese’ nor ‘pro-poor’.

Nevertheless, the notion of inequality, framed along ethnic and religious lines, has been used intentionally by some politicians and religious leaders to serve or to justify their political or religious interests. During the Suara Muhammadiyah event, Din Syamsuddin and a few other participants also highlighted economic inequality as a key issue behind the recently-concluded Jakarta elections.

Of course, there are some religious leaders who are sincere in their commitment to fight against inequality. In a brief interview, Syafii Maarif, one of the most progressive leaders in Muhammadiyah, who has openly defended Ahok in his blasphemy case, also mentioned the importance of addressing socioeconomic inequality. Although he did not specify what constitute inequality and how to solve it, he made brief reference to New Economic Policy (NEP) in Malaysia.

But NEP is not necessarily a remedy to address perceived rising socioeconomic inequality and ethno-religious intolerance in Indonesia. In Malaysia, NEP has certainly played a role in wealth redistribution and economic restructuring, which might have helped in preventing racial conflicts and religious radicalism. Nevertheless, the NEP and its successor policies have not stopped religious conservatism and Islamic populism from growing in Malaysia. Indeed, as recent developments in Malaysian politics have revealed, despite the inter-ethnic economic divide having been reduced, politicians continue to use racialised politics and religious issues to divide Malaysians.

Just like in Malaysia, when we talk about socioeconomic inequality in Indonesia today, we should debunk two myths: first, that Chinese are rich and non-Chinese are poor; second, poor Muslims are more easily prompted to embrace religious intolerance. For sure, not all Chinese Indonesian are rich. Moreover, there is an expansion of both emerging and well-established classes of Muslim entrepreneurs and professionals.

As I and other researchers have observed, middle class Muslims constituted a considerable number of those who joined anti-Ahok rallies and those who supported Anies-Sandi. Many study have also pointed out that the class dynamic is a crucial factor in Jakartan election. Complementing such analysis, instead of a divide between classes, ethnic and religious groups, I would like to highlight the contestation of values, aspirations and interests among urban middle classes in Indonesia, especially in Jakarta and its surroundings.

Some analysts tend to use religious radicalism, conservatism and populism interchangeably in discussing the role of Islam in Indonesian politics. While these three phenomena are inter-related, each of them might have different dynamics. Like Vedi Hadiz, I tend to see what happened in Jakarta as representing the growth of Islamic populism, manipulated by the radicals and supported by the so-called conservatives. In order to expand influence, to challenge ruling elites, and to gain popular support, some radicals and politicians are manipulating and mobilising the sense of insecurity among conservative-inclined Muslims, especially the young and new middle class Muslims.

As my ongoing research on pious urban middle class Muslims has indicated, there is competition for resources and influence, as well as juxtaposition of lifestyle and consumption patterns, between the new, aspiring, yet somehow insecure middle classes, and the existing middle classes and urban elites. Sometimes, the contestation between them is also layered with religiosity—new middle classes tend to be pious Muslims, while existing middle classes have been perceived as mainly non-Muslims and not-so-religious Muslims—though of course, this is a simplified generalisation. In other words, some emerging middle class Muslims see Islam as an identity marker or a symbolic capital to compete with their existing counterparts.

While sharing similar aspirations of being Islamic and modern at the same time, these emerging pious middle classes are of course not homogenous. Some of them might be affiliated to key Muslim organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, while many others are more likely to be a participant in a religious study group, a follower of popular preachers such as Yusof Mansur and Arifin Ilham, a sympathiser of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), or even a follower of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI).

Interestingly, these new pious Muslim middle classes are in many ways imitating the lifestyles of their non-Muslim counterparts. For example, there is a growing number of Muslim gated communities (similar to Chinese-majority gated communities) and Integrated Islamic schools (similar to private Christian schools) in periurban Jakarta areas, which are popular among pious Muslims.

Through involvement in political parties such as PKS, participation in Islamic study groups and engagement in Islamic economy, these pious Muslim middle classes are expanding their influence in Indonesian society. Jakarta being a capital city, capturing power and governing there is crucial for them. Therefore, while many analyses have pointed to the contestation between political elites and the discontent of urban poor, I would like to point to another key dimension underlying Jakartan politics—the competition among middle classes, which deserves further attention.

Addressing socioeconomic inequality is an important initiative, yet we should be more critical and careful in examining what constitute inequalities and who are the rich, the poor and middle classes in Indonesia today. Certainly, we should go beyond the perceived gap between ‘rich non-Muslim Chinese’ and ‘poor Muslim Pribumi’. It is important to explore who are the existing and the emerging middle class Muslims, as well how their different cultural aspirations, economic interests and political values are shaping and shaped by Indonesian politics and Islamic discourses.


Hew Wai Weng is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His research interests focus upon the intersections between ethnicity, religiosity, class and politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. He has been writing on Chinese Muslim identities, Hui migration patterns, and urban middle class Muslim aspirations in Malaysia and Indonesia.