Defending the Faith

As Indonesia’s presidential election draws ever closer, the two front-runners, Joko Widodo (popularly referred to as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto, are busy courting a wide range of national, local and religious actors in order to boost their campaigns.

But it is Prabowo, in an attempt to paint himself as the ‘Islamic’ candidate, who has overtly reached out to a number of Islamic conservative groups.

This includes legitimate ‘Islamic’ political vehicles but also several known instigators of attacks on religious minorities – such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, FPI) and Forum Umat Islam (Muslim Umma Forum, FUI) – as well as media outlets with linkages to religious militancy. Together, they argue Prabowo is the ‘Islamic’ candidate who can defend Muslims against un-Islamic influences. Yet, their affinity with violent action raises serious concerns as to what a Prabowo victory would mean for religious pluralism.

The nation has witnessed an increase in violence by such ‘vigilantes’ against Christian, Ahmadiyah and Shi’ite communities over the past 7 years. Prabowo’s engagement with religious conservatives raises serious doubts that, if elected, he would even attempt to reverse the trend. Rather, the proactive way his campaign team have courted the FPI, as well as comments by members of his coalition that they will ‘address’ the issue of Ahmadiyah and Shi’ite, indicate that a Prabowo presidency would more likely augment sectarian divisions.

It would also likely give religious conservatives greater influence to both define what should be considered ‘deviant’ religious behaviour and what methods should be mobilised to confront such groups.


Prabowo Subianto and Hatta Rajasa – are they trying to be the ‘Islamic ticket’? Photo credit: Tribune News

The Islamic Lobby

The portrayal of the Prabowo-Hatta candidacy as the ‘Islamic’ ticket has much to do with the coalition of political parties that have given their official support to the pair. They have received formal backing from the majority of legitimate Islamic-nuanced parties including the Partai Pembangunan Persatuan (United Development Party, PPP), Partai Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party, PAN) and Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party, PKS), who accumulated a combined total of 20.91% of the vote in last Aprils parliamentary elections. This latter party, who gathered 6.79% of the vote, is of particular significance given its extensive network of political cadres and schools across the country.

The former general has also been adept at winning over the support of several Islamic ‘intellectuals’ including segments of Nahdlatul Ulama (the nations biggest Islamic organisation) as well as the Reformasi era Muhammadiyah politician Amien Rais, much to the dismay of human rights advocates.

These actors, all of who condemn sectarian violence, provide a significant boost to his campaign given their extensive network of mosques, preachers, media outlets and cadres – all crucial playing fields in the upcoming elections.

However, Prabowo’s entanglement with Islamic organisations has also taken on a much more worrying character.

The FPI, notorious for its anti-vice raids and anti-Ahmadiyah actions, has recently expressed its conditional support for the Prabowo campaign. Indeed, Prabowo’s campaign team have publically wooed the group, as Prabowo’s running mate, Hatta Rajasa, attended several religious services with FPI core members in late May.

For its part, the FPI have stated they would back the pair as long as they banned the Ahmadiyah and dissolved the anti-terrorist police task force Densus 88, which it believes specifically targets the Muslim community.

The FUI, an umbrella group of Islamic conservatives also active in several anti-Ahmadiyah and anti-Christian demonstrations, has also backed the pair. The mouthpiece of the FUI, the Suara Islam (Islamic Voice), published a range or articles promoting the candidacy of Prabowo, including one of which states that he represents the Indonesian Islamic community. The site has also accused Jokowi and his party as being “corrupt” and lacking direction.

Adding there backing, several Yogyakarta based ‘Salafi-Wahabi’ preachers, including the young Abduh Tuasikal (popular amongst university students) have forgone their previous belief to not engage in democratic politics (as it is seen an un-Islamic) and have explicitly come out in support of Prabowo.

The former general has also received backing from several Islamic media outlets with ties to more militant strands of Islamic thought. These outlets often frame contemporary Indonesian politics as a battle between Islam and anti-Islamic (in particular Christian, Western and Capitalist) forces.

These include the Suara Hidayatullah (Hidayatullah Voice) and the Voice of al Islam (VOA).

According to the International Crisis Group, VOA was founded by a former militant who had undergone military training in Mindanao alongside members of Darul Islam. Suara Hidayatullah is a media outlet (both print and online) for a network of 127 strict religious schools that have been known to shelter Jamaah Islamiyah members.


The FPI hold a rally calling for the banning of Ahimadiyah in Indonesia. Photo credit:

Prabowo as the ‘Defender’ of Conservative Muslim Interests

There is little doubt these alliances have more to do with political pragmatism than a genuine newfound piety from Prabowo.

Indeed, his campaign team have also reached out to nationalist and ethnic paramilitary organisations such as the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) and Forum Batawi Rempung (Betawi Brotherhood Forum, FBR). Yet, by pursuing religious conservatives, the former general has made overtures to ‘deal’ with religious ‘deviancy.’

Taufik Ridho, the secretary general of the PKS, has, for instance, stated that Prabowo would ensure the issue of Shi’ite and Ahmadiyah communities – two Islamic communities subject to frequent physical attacks – would be brought under control if such groups continued to threaten the ‘nation’.

In a similar vein, the deputy leader of Prabowo’s Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia Movement Party, Gerindra), H. Fadli Zon, in an exclusive interview with Suara Islam, previously defined his party’s position as ‘religious nationalist,’ believing that sects, such as Ahmadiyah, must be the concern of any government.

The more extreme outlets have also been busy raising Prabowo up as the ‘defender’ of Indonesian Muslims, while simultaneously attempting to tarnish the ‘Islamic’ credentials of his opponent.

By engaging in anti-Christian and occasionally anti-China rhetoric, they have inevitably linked Jokowi to a wider “campaign by Christians” to “de-Islamise” Indonesia.

VOA has been most proactive here, arguing that Jokowi’s selection of Jusuf Kalla as a running mate was linked to Christian infighting within Jokowi’s Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P).

This is not the first time Prabowo’s cause has been supported by such ideas or conservative actors. Some of the rhetoric used by the VOA holds candid similarities to the conspiratorial literature that was circulated between 1996-98. It is widely known that during the final years of Suharto’s New Order, Prabowo was involved in courting conservative Muslims groups, whom played a vital role in denouncing the anti-Suharto opposition. With his tacit approval, these actors held rallies and circulated booklets arguing that the financial crisis was part of an anti-Muslim plot by Christian, Zionist and Chinese forces. The VOA, by referring to the Christian plotting of Moerdani and portraying Prabowo as its unfortunate victim, has attached a similar logic to the upcoming presidential campaign.


The FUI protest against the Miss World contest before it was held in Bali last year.

Rising Religious Violence and Politics

Prabowo, while perhaps only wishing to ‘play politics’ and pay lip service to the demands of such groups, seemingly has little qualms of capitalising on sectarian divisions and rising intolerance for his own benefit.

In this light, it is understandable that the Persatuan Gereja Indonesia (United Indonesian Churches), a coalition of protestant churches, has voiced its concerns over Gerindra religious political stance, while the Wahid Institute – an Islamic think tank advocating religious tolerance – have also condemned Gerindra’s stance. With mounting concern, Prabowo has attempted to stem fears by re-affirming his commitment to religious tolerance and amending his party’s manifesto accordingly. Yet as support from conservative political groups remains, it is questionable how genuine his back-peddle is or whether it is merely a symbolic attempt to allay very recent criticism.

Unfortunately, Prabowo’s political manoeuvring is also not without precedent, but rather builds on an established pattern of interaction between government bodies and vigilante actors, despite the latter continuously flaunting the law. Many groups, like the FPI and FUI, already have local political allies and are treated with a degree of legitimacy and impunity. A tragic recent example arises when looking at the attackers of a Catholic congregation in Yogyakarta on 29 May. The perpetrators, the Front Jihad Islam (Islamic Jihad Front, FJI) are a self-styled ‘anti-vice’ mob that has, since their formation in 2011, partaken in acts of violence against churches and interfaith leaders. Nevertheless, they continue to engage with the regions semi-governmental Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Ulama, MUI) who, upon the FJI’s request, declared the Shi’ite population of the city as deviant.

With the backing of a potential president, the sense of legitimacy these vigilantes feel can only increase. While Gerindra has quite rightly condemned the recent attack, the example holds similarities to many cases involving their supporters in the FPI and FUI, who use tacit support from local government or semi-government bodies to conduct their actions, often with impunity.

Engaging these groups as legitimate Islamic bodies rather than violators of public order is a dangerous policy that should not be sanctioned. The incumbent government has done little to stem such violence and the problem is worsening due to the lack of any serious initiative at interfaith dialogue.

While neither candidate has given any clear policy indication as to how they will deal with such entrenched issues, Prabowo is the only one openly reaching out to self-styled anti-vice mobs.

Indeed, by receiving support from the FPI and a range of conservative Islamic outlets, his election is likely to further entrench sectarian divides, capitalise on fears of ‘Christianisation’ and preference the political voice of Islamic hardliners over moderates; all of which threaten to further undermine already strained interfaith relations.

Chris Chaplin is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge conducting research into the dynamics of the Salafi Islamic movement in post-Suharto Yogyakarta.