Political Islam and the Ahok Verdict

In a forthcoming book, coauthored with Bill Liddle and Saiful Mujani and entitled Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam, I make the argument that individual piety does not explain much about Indonesian public opinion. Our book’s argument focuses on the beliefs and practices of individuals: what does it mean to be pious? And once we know that, do pious people think differently about democracy, or about Islamic banking, or about globalization? Although there are nuances, the topline result to all of these questions is not really.

Today, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—universally known as Ahok—was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison. The case focuses on statements he made in a public forum in which he references a phrase from the Quran (al Maidah, verse 51). From a legal standpoint, the Ahok case is simply a mess, a travesty of justice. From a political standpoint, it is dangerous setback for Indonesian democracy. There is no mistaking it: Indonesian Islamists will learn from this case that an effective, legally permissible way to silence non-Muslim Indonesian voices is to threaten them with prison if they speak about Islam at all.

How to square the argument in our book with this recent development? One may easily find statements by prominent Indonesian Muslim religious figures who criticize Ahok’s treatment (one example) and find the charge of blasphemy to be entirely specious. From an analytical standpoint, though, our argument is about individual beliefs. It is not about political process, or elite behavior. If one holds that there is no “autonomy of the political,” that individual preferences uniquely and exhaustively determine democratic political outcomes, then it would indeed be puzzling that Islam can be so mobilized for political purposes.

But that is not what we argue. A society in which piety does not determine political action may also be one in which those who act to further their own interests use religion to do so. And accordingly, here is the last sentence of our book:

To the extent that observers of Indonesia should worry about Islam as a threat to Indonesian democracy, it is not because of the beliefs of Indonesian Muslims. Rather, it is because of the choices of Indonesia’s political elites, or the strategies that Indonesia’s parties—Islamists and others—pursue to secure power. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Indonesia’s Islamists have made a choice to accept democratic elections as the procedure through which citizens allocate political authority. That is, they have accepted as legitimate that democracy is a procedure by which, in the words of Przeworski (1991: 10), “parties lose elections. There are parties: divisions of interest, values and opinions. There is competition, organized by rules. And there are periodic winners and losers.” Islamists in Indonesia have organized political parties, they have lost elections, and they continue to participate in them. Any threat to Indonesian democracy now comes from the often corrupt, sometimes ugly, process of democratic politics itself.

The question that our book raises, but does not completely answer, is why the invocation of Islam remains an effective elite political strategy.