Recent protests and riots have put a sharp focus on sectarianism, political opportunism and Jakartans’ grievances against their Christian-Chinese governor, Ahok. But a lot of this opposition is being spurned on by Indonesia’s Muslim middle class. Chris Chaplin takes a look at the sustained campaign.

This past Friday an estimated 150,000 conservative Muslims poured onto the streets of Jakarta  demanding the trial of incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy.

Given the timing of the protests, just months before the gubernatorial elections, calls for Ahok’s trial point to a combination of political opportunism, sectarianism, and genuine grievances by those disenfranchised by Ahok’s policies. These factors, eloquently elaborated upon by Sidney Jones and Ian Wilson, were evident at the demonstration. But one crucial element has remained missing from the broader analysis: the involvement of conservative middle-class intellectuals who have been gaining confidence in translating Islamic faith into public social activism.

A sustained anti-Ahok campaign
Religiously inspired opposition to Ahok, a Christian from Indonesia’s Chinese ethnic minority, has existed ever since he ascended to the position of Jakarta governor in 2014. The vigilante Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) have, for instance, frequently protested outside Ahok’s office, even ‘swearing in’ their own alternative governor at one point. Yet, Friday’s protests were notably different, although the prominence of the FPI does underscore that it is not entirely separate. The size of the demonstrations, that took place not solely in Jakarta but also Medan and Makassar, is one dissimilarity; but so too is the convergence of different elements of Indonesia’s conservative Muslim community. It is not just made up of vigilantes but teachers, students and university lecturers.

Significantly a loose network of conservative preachers with a middle-class following have been heavily involved in anti-Ahok actions over the course of 2016. These include Bachtiar Nasir, the secretary general of the Council for Young and Intellectual Ulama of Indonesia (Majelis Intelektual dan Ulama Muda Indonesia, MIUMI) and chairman of the Family love Alliance (Alliansi Cinta Keluarga, AILA); Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin, the leader of Wahdah Islamiyah and a secretary general of the Indonesian Ulama Council; and Yusuf Mansur, a popular preacher who runs the Daarul Qur’an Islamic school. They follow a strict interpretation of Islam – both Bachtiar Nasir and Muhammad Zaitun attended Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia – and have a core support based among well-educated Muslims across the country.

Their recent efforts against Ahok began in June when they formed the Council of Jakarta Assistants (Majelis Pelayan Jakarta, MPJ). The MPJ charged itself with finding a suitable Muslim candidate for governor and came up with an initial list of seven candidates for the upcoming election, before throwing their support behind Sandiaga Uno. Santiago, a businessman who had the backing of Gerindra, the party of 2014 presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto, trailed far behind Ahok in early polling, and MPJ support did little to improve his chances. In the end, both the MPJ and Santiago’s campaign floundered, although Santiago did end up becoming the running mate of Anies Baswedan on a joint Gerindra-PKS endorsed ticket.

Not perturbed, these preachers quickly revived their efforts, changing tact to oppose the governor directly. On 18 September, they held a large gathering at Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque under the Alliance that Cares for the Ummat and People (Aliansi Peduli Ummat dan Bangsa, APUB). The protest spread through social media via the hashtag Save the Capital City (#SelamatkanIbuKota). The gathering was meant to be followed by a long march to the Indonesian Anti-Corruption Commission to demand Ahok be chargedwith corruption. Things didn’t go according to plan; the long march cancelled due to a lack of permits. Nonetheless, those gathering under the Alliance did hold a ceremony at the mosque, attended by former Speaker of the Peoples’ Consultative Assembly, Amien Rais. At the end of their gathering, they produced a nine-point proposal, which called on all Muslims to vote in the 2017 election and to form an alliance to ensure a Muslim was given the governorship. These efforts received little public attention outside Islamic lectures and political circles.

This quickly changed after 27 September when Ahok made a public joke of Quranic verse al-Maidah 51, which warns Muslims about taking Christians and Jews as friends. Once his statement began circulating on social media, the same preachers behind the MPJ and APDB were quick to demand Ahok be charged with blasphemy. Zaitun’s Wahdah Islamiyah even held a public meeting at the South Sulawesi parliament to press this issue and garner local political support.

Ahok quickly apologised for his remarks, and police acknowledged they would investigate the case. But, for anti-Ahok forces, the issue proved opportune as it gained massive media attention and offered a frame under which disparate opposition to Ahok could be brought together and mobilised on 4 November.

An Islamic public sphere
This anti-Ahok alliance may have garnered momentum through genuine grievances as well as political point scoring by politicians such as the deputy speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives Fadli Zon (who joined protesters). But for followers of MIUMI and Wahdah Islamiyah, the primary concern is the religious nature of Indonesian society. For them, the fundamental issue has always been that Ahok is Christian and nothing else. As one follower of this alliance argued, Indonesia was a predominantly Muslim country, and so could only be led by someone with the correct aqida (Islamic creed).

Explaining further, a preacher based in Makassar argued in a public lecture that non-Muslim politicians and political aides had corrupted the current generation of Indonesian Muslim politicians. According to them, practices like serangan fajar (dawn raids) — where political candidates hand out money to potential voters the morning before an election — were introduced by non-Muslims and were unIslamic.

This is part of a more sustained campaign to regulate public and political spaces via conservative Islamic doctrines. Ahok may be the current rallying cry, and street protests may be a new tactic for these preachers, but last Friday’s demonstration was one action in a wider portfolio of campaigns that seek to re-orientate Indonesian social norms.

MIUMI, AILA and Wahdah Islamiyah differ from the more hostile, threatening and violent behaviour of the FPI. To ease their supporters attending the demonstration, they passed rulings stating such actions were allowed if peaceful, while students of Yusuf Mansur were visibly attempting to clean up after protestors.

Except for Ahok, their campaigns do not challenge the political establishment directly. Rather they push for the promotion of Islamic values through legal challenges, lobbying decision- makers through public meetings, and via their own broadsheet daily newspaper Amanah. Bachtiar Nasir has, for instance, led a judicial review to the Constitutional Court that challenges the legality of extra-marital and same-sex relationships.

This has made them more amiable to political figures, as they pose no explicit political threat. Politicians and security officials have made increasing overtones towards them too, as they become useful allies for those wanting to reinforce their own religious credentials.

Indeed, when Jusuf Kalla met rally leaders on Friday, followers of Wahdah Islamiyah were quick to circulate positive messages of the Vice President via social media. But political point scoring and lacklustre efforts by Indonesian politicians should not obscure the fact that these scholars hardly speak for the majority of Indonesian Muslims. Ahok remains, for now at least, the most popular gubernatorial candidate, and Jakartans have seen politicians play the ‘religion’ card before (most recently in the gubernatorial election of 2012).

It didn’t work then, and it is unlikely to work this time either. But, the conservative Muslim middle class is still likely to carry their demands into 2017.

Chris Chaplin is a sociologist and researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KITLV).