AN Islamic legal scholar has argued hardline Muslim groups are holding Indonesia’s democracy hostage, the very political system that allows them to operate freely.
In an opinion piece published by Indonesian media outlet Geotimes this week, Dr Nadirsyah Hosen says radical elements that have rallied against Jakarta’s Chinese, Christian Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama are “no more than a noisy crowd.”
Hosen, who is a legal academic from Indonesia based at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, specialises in Syariah and Indonesian law. He is also the head of the Australia and New Zealand branch of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic organisation on the planet.
Rise of Indonesia’s “un-civil society”
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority nation on earth and the strongest democracy in Southeast Asia, which has historically practised a moderate form of Islam.
Since 1998, the country has undergone rapid transition from a military-dominated dictatorship under Suharto’s New Order to one of the most decentralised democracies on the planet.
Indonesia’s pluralism is encompassed by its state mantra of “unity in diversity”, boasting more than 300 languages and a variety of faiths.
Ironically, the democratisation era has also allowed for the re-emergence of a raft of hardline, anti-democratic elements that political scientist Dr Verena Beittinger-Lee has termed “un-civil society” for their use of intimidation and violence, particularly against minorities.
A wave of mass protests by hardline Muslim groups against Ahok in Jakarta in the past year, however, has led to fears of rising religious conservatism and intolerance.
They allege Ahok insulted the Quran in comments he made last year regarding Islam’s position on whether Muslims can be governed by a leader of a different faith.
In his opinion piece, Hosen notes groups like the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) were previously marginal, but that their perpetual demonstrations and violent acts have drawn significant media attention.
The FPI had previously focused on combating “social evils” like alcohol, gambling and prostitution in Jakarta and running protection rackets, often violently.
The campaign against Ahok, however, has allowed organisations like the FPI to galvanise large numbers of Muslims offended by the governor’s comments, catapulting fringe groups into the mainstream political arena.
Islam of the archipelago
Mainstream Indonesian Muslim groups like the NU and Muhammadiyah have stood in opposition to the movement, including encouraging their members not to participate in street rallies.
Reflecting the agenda of the NU, Hosen argues Islam Nusantara or “Islam of the archipelago” should be re-established – that is, the traditional form of tolerant Islam practised in Indonesia for centuries.
“Moderate Islam is Islam itself,” he said. “Whether in times of peace or war, being the majority or minority, powerful or not, Islam remains moderate.”
NU has particularly emphasised Islam Nusantara in recent years, in direct contrast to the extremist ideologies of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Without legal and democratic mechanisms to encourage political consensus, wrote Hosen, “we will continue to be held hostage by Islamic organisations with a small but loud voice.”