Ma’ruf Amin and the inclusion–moderation thesis

After the series of mass mobilisations ahead of the 2017 Jakarta election, a discourse regarding the discontentment of the umat and the rightful role of ulama in politics has been prominent among Jokowi’s Islamist critics.

The political threat has not been overlooked by Jokowi. He has sought to show his commitment to the Islamic grassroots by visiting a large number of pesantren, and has recruited Islamic leaders and politicians into his political camp. Prior to Mar’uf Amin’s candidacy, Jokowi appointed Ali Mochtar Ngabalin into the Presidential Staff Office (KSP) in 2018, and appointed the conservative former Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin to a “special presidential envoy” position. The selection of Ma’ruf Amin as a running mate represents the culmination of a strategy of accommodation that began shortly after the fall of Ahok.

This is therefore a good moment to revisit one of the major concepts that has been used to understand the influence Islamic actors in Indonesia’s politics: namely, the inclusion-moderation thesis. This thesis argues that if potentially disruptive actors are absorbed into democratic political institutions and processes, then they are likely to modify their goals and/or behaviours from radical positions towards moderation.

The framework has often been used to understand the evolution of Islamist parties and organisations such as PKS, which over time toned down its religious outlook by officially endorsing Pancasila and even revising its statutes so as to allow non-Muslims to hold executive positions within the party. Taking a historical viewpoint, Jeremy Menchik has likewise argued that over the years Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah have demonstrated their capability to moderate themselves and “become part of the system rather than seek to overthrow it.”

Conservatisation from within

The inclusion–moderation thesis might predict that Ma’ruf would temper his conservatism and turn to moderation should he be elected alongside Jokowi in 2019. The vice presidency would require him to cooperate with more stakeholders, including those from minority ethnic and religious groups in Indonesia. Thus, it seems logical that he will become more tolerant as a vice-president than he was as the head of MUI, as Greg Fealy has recently argued at New Mandala.

Nevertheless, we think such an assumption is too optimistic.

There is a flipside to the moderation that engagement with democratic processes engenders in Islamist actors. While Islamists may well moderate when included in powerful institutions, democratic institutions can and do come to accommodate the agenda of political Islam at the same time. Over the long term, this has led to what Jeremy Menchik calls the “sacralisation” of the Indonesian state, as the price of incorporating the potentially anti-democratic Islamic actors.

This scenario we believe would be more applicable to comprehend the consequences of Ma’ruf Amin’s candidacy. Should he be elected, it is likely that Ma’ruf Amin will influence Jokowi’s second-term administration to become more conservative, particularly on religious matters.

Ma’ruf’s personal history of taking intolerant standpoints is well-known. Should he on occasion take similar public stands as vice president, it is unlikely that Jokowi would be willing to go against public pressure to defend minorities. During the height of Ahok’s case, Jokowi tried to distance himself from the governor and did not defend him from charges of blasphemy. The presence of Ma’ruf Amin will most likely bind him to a similarly hands-off approach to defending minorities, if not taking even more active role in legitimising the discrimination against minority groups in Indonesia.

A broader issue is that the nature of the institutions being “included” is also changing. Within the last decade, both NU and Muhammadiyah have been experiencing internal transformations whereby on each organisation the conservative sides are getting becoming more influential. (The appointment of Ma’ruf Amin as Rais Aam NU, one of the highest seats in the organisation, is an example of that development; Ma’ruf, of course, represents the conservative wing of NU.)

Ma’ruf Amin: Jokowi’s Islamic defender or deadweight?

Progressives may hope that Ma’ruf’s conservatism will be checked by realpolitik.

NU and Muhammadiyah’s statuses as the main sources of religious authority in Indonesia are also contested by other religious organisations. During the 212 rally, for example, despite formal statements from both organisations discouraging their members from joining the rally, many still came to join under the mobilisation from organisations such as Wahdah Islamiyah and FPI. As the latter organisations and their like increase their popular influence, it is likely that in the future more Islamists such as the NU “Garis Lurus” figure Abdul Somad or FPI’s Rizieq Shihab will follow the path of Ma’ruf Amin and expand their religious authority into formal political structures.

The tipping point

Regardless of who wins the 2019 presidential election, it is now almost impossible to ignore religious political actors in local and national politics in Indonesia. Since the 2014 election, a lot of people voted for Jokowi out of fear that Prabowo’s win would threaten Indonesian democracy. Such fears were legitimate given Prabowo’s problematic past actions regarding human rights, and his strong ties with organised political Islam. But the candidacy of Ma’ruf Amin is a strong reminder that political Islam is now fully accommodated by both political camps, Jokowi and Prabowo.

Given this reality, the candidacy of Ma’ruf Amin also calls into question a more basic assumption of the inclusion–moderation thesis that the biggest threat toward democracy comes from actors who reject democratic institutions. While government institutions and researchers may raise the alarm about organisations like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, they are not the biggest threat toward Indonesian democracy.

Rather, Islamic political actors who embrace democratic institutions yet maintain conservative attitudes might pose a bigger threat than organisations such as HTI. Figures like Ma’ruf Amin may not have any aspiration to change democratic system. Nevertheless, Islamic political actors like him are also strong believers in the importance of religious norms in public matters.

To be sure, Jeremy Menchik suggests that rather than seeing this “sacralisation of the state” as being solely a problem for Indonesian democracy, we should regard it as an inevitable historical outcome, given that safeguarding a public role for religion has always been an important part of state formation in Indonesia. He has asserted that to maintain a functioning democracy, it is essential for the Indonesian government to create a situation where religious elements never fully “lose” nor fully “win” within democratic institutions.

We acknowledge the importance of analysing Indonesian democracy outside of Western liberal frameworks. But a fundamental question remains unresolved: to what extent can Indonesian democracy accommodate Islamic political actors without losing its core values? For minorities in Indonesia, a system where Islamic political actors “never fully win nor fully lose” offers a perpetual lose-lose situation.

Moreover, since there is no clear boundary on the ideal balance between Islamic demands and democracy, by the time we comprehend the extent to which Islamic political actors affect the core nature of Indonesian democracy it will be probably too late. While this perspective might sound too grim, it is important to look back at the development of the 212 rally, which blindsided many people, scholars included. At this point, if we still believe in the merit of inclusion–moderation thesis, future studies need to draw the line where the accommodation of Islamic political groups starts to become a threat for democracy.

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