Progressives face an uphill battle wresting the notions of diversity and inclusive Islam back from the hardliners in Indonesia, Hew Wai Weng writes.

On 2 December I walked out of my hotel in central Jakarta to observe the rally, called “Defending Islam Action III” (Aksi Bela Islam III) by its organisers. The protesters are demanding action against Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), who they claim has insulted Islam. At first, I was a bit anxious; as a non-Muslim Chinese Malaysian it might be unsafe for me to join the crowd of predominantly Muslims gathered under the banner of ‘defending Islam’.

The first group I encountered on the street consisted of Hizbut Tahrir (HTI) members. HTI is a non-violent yet radical Islamist organisation which aims to establish an Islamic Caliphate. A young man from Bandung who was holding an HTI flag told me, “Ahok has insulted our religion. We come to defend Islam. Non-Muslims are welcome to join us to fight for justice.” His words puzzled me, yet assured my personal safety.

Later, I talked to a few middle-aged men. One of them told me, “From social media, we learn that Ahok has insulted Islam. We come all the way from Makassar to defend our religion. We do not belong to any religious organisation or political organisation. We paid for ourselves.”

Once I reached the cross junction near the Sarinah, a department store in the centre of the city, a female medical doctor from Depok gave me food and drink, “We are against Ahok, but not anti-Chinese. We appreciate diversity and peace. But Ahok breaks the rules. He does not respect Islam.”

I approached another group of younger female participants from Bogor. One of them told me, “We respect Christianity and Buddhism. In return, non-Muslims should also respect our religion. But Ahok has insulted the Qur’an.” However, she confessed that she had not really studied the details of the case, “I heard about it from social media… You could check on YouTube.”

Such narratives of ‘defend Islam’ yet ‘not anti-Chinese’ prevail among the attendees. As a Chinese-looking person, I gained some attention from the crowd. Many participants were friendly to me and asked me to take a photo with them. I suppose they might have posted such photos on social media to show that ‘they are not anti-Chinese’ and that ‘even a Chinese joins us to defend Islam’.

There might have been an undercurrent of ‘anti-Chinese’ sentiment among the participants, yet most of them refrained from using language and actions that were against ethnic Chinese and non-Muslims during the rally. Instead, they pre-empted the critics by showing that they appreciated ‘diversity’ and accused Ahok of being the one who had undermined it and created tensions among Indonesians. It seemed to me that many of the participants had uncritically accepted the accusation that Ahok is a ‘penista agama’ (one who insults Islam) and even a ‘perusak kebhinekaan’ (one who undermines diversity).

Although the rally went peacefully, the messages it delivered were far from inclusive and pluralistic. After the rally, an image was circulated on social media with the title ‘Unity in Diversity’ (Bhineka Tunggal Iga), and showed various ethnic groups in Indonesia gathered together to ‘defend Islam’. Unfortunately, ethnic Chinese were not included in that image. The rally might have also set a dangerous precedent by allowing radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam – FPI) and HTI to shape Muslim opinions and to redefine what ‘diversity’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘Islam’ means, as well as letting uncritical and unverified words and images (circulated on social media) dominate Islamic discourses.

From my observations, the crowd consisted of Muslims from all walks of life and different parts of Indonesia. The majority of them were men, but female participation was not low. A large part of the crowd came from the middle class. Given the huge turnout, good organisation and standardised narrative at the rally, it is reasonable to suspect there were political manoeuvres at play in financing the logistics, as well as assembling the support of Muslim figures and organisations. But it is unfair to say that many of the participants were paid to attend or they were not sincere in ‘defending Islam’. They performed their Friday prayers under the rain, and many of them were emotionally-charged.

It is clear that not all of the participants were hardliners or radicals. Many of them were just ordinary Muslims, who do not necessarily agree with the agendas of the hardliners such as FPI and HTI. Yet, the hardliners have strategically used the banner of ‘defend Islam’ to manipulate Muslim sentiments and mobilise their Muslim participation.

They aim to foster the perception that Muslims who are against the rally are those who do not care about Islamic struggle, and that the more ‘anti-Ahok’ someone is, the more ‘Islamic’ they are also. Unfortunately, this strategy has been rather successful, in persuading popular preachers such as Aa Gym, NU (Nahdlatul Ulama) followers, as well as ordinary Muslims to join the rally. Jokowi’s appearance at the rally may have also indirectly given legitimacy to the FPI and HTI.

Many progressive Muslims have been campaigning for inclusive Islamic discourses, yet it appears that some of them have spent little effort addressing the real problems that many ordinary Muslims face: issues such as social injustice and economic disparity. While Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah remain important organisations, popular preaching figures, social media and organisations such as HTI are increasingly having a bigger impact on the social and religious life of many Muslims. In the age of social media, it remains a huge challenge for the progressives to reclaim the notions of diversity and inclusive Islam from the hardliners.

Hew Wai Weng is 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.