“DO NOT confuse politics and religion,” Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said on Friday as he sought to drive home a crucial message on the merits of diversity to a nation still struggling between secular and religious politics.
“They should be separate so people know what is religious and what is political,” he said.
Jokowi was urging tolerance in the face of rising religious tension while speaking at the opening of the Tugu Titik Nol Pusat Peradaban Islam Nusantara, a monument representing the symbolic home of Indonesian Islam in Baru, North Sumatra.
“Let us always maintain harmony. It should not reach the point where there are disputes between cultures and religions,” he said.
— Sekretariat Kabinet (@setkabgoid) March 25, 2017
According to Jakarta Post, Baru “is a place where Islam harmoniously blends with not only local cultures but also influences from other great civilisations.”
Islam Nusantara or “Islam of the Archipelago’, as opposed to Middle Eastern conceptions of the religion, and has long been promoted by the country’s largest Islamic organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).
Tensions high again in Jakarta
Police in Jakarta have spent weeks removing similarly provocative and religiously-charged banners from across the city – primarily aimed at Muslim voters who put the incumbent governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama first on the ballot sheet in February.
Hardline Muslim groups have long campaigned against Jakarta’s first Chinese-Christian governor and are now rallying around Ahok’s opponents, Anies Baswedan and running mate Sandiaga Uno.
“Muslims who vote for an infidel or a blasphemer do not deserve a funeral prayer,” read one banner hung outside numerous mosques in Jakarta.
Deputy Governor and Ahok’s running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat said “these things have got to stop. You can’t exploit religion to get into power.”
But in Muslim-majority Indonesia – one of the most ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse countries on the planet – candidates certainly can and will exploit religious sentiment for political gain.
A spokesman for the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), which issued a fatwa in light of Ahok’s alleged blasphemy and has spearheaded protests against the governor, criticised Jokowi’s comments last Friday as “promoting secularism.”
But NU deputy chairman Maksum Machfoedz backed Jokowi’s calls for separating religion and political matters, accusing conservative groups of “transactional politics.”
Team Ahok shifts focus
Meanwhile, the Ahok camp has changed tactics in the lead-up to the April run-off election.
Famously outspoken and hot-headed when confronted in public, the incumbent’s team Teman Ahok will focus on online campaigning, while Ahok is taking a back seat to his running mate Djarot.
The campaign is now explicitly positioning itself as one of tolerance and aiming for a Jakarta that benefits all, regardless of ethnic or religious background.
A new campaign video, released via the governor’s Instagram account, depicts diverse residents of Jakarta and the candidate engaging with his constituents, including a man clearly dressed as an ustaz or Islamic scholar.
“Jakarta belongs to us all. It doesn’t matter your culture or religion, whether you’re young or old, everyone has the same rights,” says the song’s hook.
Saya diasuh dan tumbuh di lingkungan yang berbeda ragam budaya. Bertemu banyak orang. Inilah yang membuat saya yakin betul, keberagaman itu modal kebangsaan. Penyeragaman justru jadi kemunduran. Pilihan ada di tangan kita; apakah mau selalu mencari perbedaan, atau mencoba mencari kesamaan lalu barsama-sama membangun bangsa.
Ahmad “Buya” Syafii Maarif, the respected former leader of Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah, last week slammed hardline groups’ banners around the capital as inhumane and un-Islamic.
“They have sold these religious verses at a ‘cheap price.’ It is unfortunate people as savage as these can exist in our nation.”
Jakarta police have asked people not to participate in a so-called Al-Maidah Tour, where Islamic groups urge Muslims to attend polling booths during the run-off election and convince voters not to vote for Ahok because he is not a Muslim.
“Our law enforcement should not take the side of radical groups,” Buya said.
Despite the religiously-charged campaign against him, Ahok won the most votes in the first-round election in the capital, which comprises 85 percent Muslim.
People of Jakarta will vote in the run-off election on April 19.