Learning to live Indonesian Islam

Islam should not define Australia's view of Indonesia

Alia Huberman

Politics, Society and culture, International relations | Southeast Asia

29 October 2018

Panicked prophecies about a rise of conservative Islam in Indonesia do little to address the underlying issues, writes Alia Huberman.

On 18 August, images of an Independence Day parade in Probolinggo, East Java, hit Australian media. It appeared to confirm our worst fears of radical Islamism in Indonesia. Photos and videos showed children from a local kindergarten marching while dressed in Daesh style black veils and carrying cardboard cut-outs of AK-47s.

Swift apologies were issued by the kindergarten in question, its principal was removed, and the incident was widely denounced by state officials and social media alike.

In fact, the parade received Indonesian coverage more for its embarrassing coincidence with the opening of the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta. Nonetheless, concern spread rapidly that the incident was yet another omen of a long-feared and often foretold shift towards mainstream political Islamism within Australia’s largest neighbour.

Such panicked prophesying about a rise of conservative political Islam in Indonesia is misdirected. Its preachers fail to understand that they are observing symptoms of the same populist outbreak that has swept much of the democratic world – a locally-adapted franchise of the same conditions that manifested elsewhere as Duterte, Brexit and Trump.

Equally, they fail to apply to Indonesia the same treatments suggested for those cases elsewhere. Pundits in the US and UK have emphasised the need to address – rather than dismiss – the grievances of those voter groups swept up by the populist wave, scorning traditional politics’ failure to incorporate the ‘silent’ and ‘forgotten’ into their platforms.

The equivalent movement in Indonesia, political Islam, has attempted to gain power by working within democratic institutions. It has been rewarded with exclusion from them. Out of fear, Jokowi’s administration has sought to contain the growth of political Islam with moves like the banning of the pan-Islamist political organisation, Hizbut Tahrir in Indonesia last year.

In doing so, he has cast political Islamism in direct juxtaposition with the state’s pluralist Pancasila values, hardening its base rather than mellowing it through compromise.

Democratic states across both the West and the Muslim world must come to understand that the solution to Islamist violence is not decreeing that political Islam is incompatible with democracy. Islamism is undoubtedly unpalatable to certain secular values, but it cannot be magicked away by isolating and patronising its supporters nor by perpetuating their narrative of global struggle against an oppressive democratic foe.

It’s this same ‘struggle of Islam‘ that was supposedly the intended theme of the kindergarteners’ parade in Probolinggo, according to Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture. Just like in all other religions, perceived recurrent historical themes carry great weight in Islam. And so the story goes – Islam comes time and time again under attack by hostile non-believers who seek to diminish, undermine and defeat it.

If the aim is to minimise divisions along religious lines, then marginalising Islamism will only reinforce this narrative and incite further ‘struggle’. The Indonesian government will not preserve its increasingly fragile founding principle of ‘unity in diversity’ by suppressing and delegitimising a political movement that claims to represent up to 85 per cent of its constituents.

Australia would do well to learn this lesson too. Since the early-2000s watersheds of major Islamic terror, domestic discourse surrounding our largest neighbour has been defined by a fundamental discomfort with its Muslim nature. A 2017 Australian-Indonesia Centre survey found that 68 per cent of Australians associated Indonesia first and foremost with the word ‘religious’. Pieces across the broad spectrum of Australian media pick out clickbaity images of black-clad zealotry and medieval violence, propagating a conception of Indonesia as a hefty homogeneous beast of jihad and Wahhabi madrassas.

The same rule applies within Indonesia as it does towards it. When we fear Indonesian Islam rather than seeking to understand it; make prescriptive judgments about the radical/tolerable Muslim binary; attempt to paternalistically ‘guide’ it by praising and promoting what we perceive as moderate characteristics; and most importantly, when we otherise and isolate it, we merely heighten contrasts, deepen schisms, discourage compromise and disincentivise cooperation.

As the national security community comes to grips with the plausible impermanence of American aegis in Asia, more and more Australian eyes are turning towards Indonesia as a new candidate for a great and powerful friend.

Facing the same looming spectres of climate change, transnational crime and great-power conflict, far more unites than divides us. Newly-minted Prime Minister Scott Morrison has steered Indonesia policy in the right direction, setting the tone of his young administration with a visit to Jakarta and a commitment to sign a bilateral free trade agreement and upgrade the strategic partnership to a formalised “comprehensive” one. But a persistent distrust of Indonesia as a Muslim polity still undermines Australian domestic perspectives of the relationship.

Easy headlines like the Probolinggo parade are not representative of any major shift towards Islamic extremism in Indonesia. But even if we do see a sustained rise in religious conservatism, Australia cannot afford to let it define the bilateral relationship. Indonesia may be majority-Muslim, but to weather the storm of the next half-century in Asia, we have to learn to think about it as more than that.

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