Islam and Identity in Contemporary Indonesian Politics

On Wednesday, Indonesia will have elections for its president, legislature, and hundreds of regional governments. For watchers of religion and politics, national elections are always an opportunity for reflection on the apparent rise of Islam as a political force in Indonesian democracy. And yet the role of Islam in this country of 230 million Muslims (and 30 million-plus non-Muslims) is complicated, as much a statement about identity as it is a statement about religious observance or conservatism. This distinction is essential for making sense of Islam as a political force in Indonesia, and has lessons that travel to other contemporary democracies in plural societies.

What does it mean to conceptualize Islam as identity politics? Put plainly, it means that voters and citizens conceptualize politics in terms of people who share ascriptive characteristics with them. Identity is multidimensional—we all have many identities, some of which are more salient than others, and this salience can vary across social situations, as Judith Nagata showed in her landmark study of ethnicity in Malaysia. But in Indonesia, religious identity is one of a few dimensions of identity that is highly salient across social situations. One might vote for, or support the actions of, a politician who appeals to one’s shared religious identity. With a population that is nearly 90% Muslim, no credible presidential candidate can win office without the support of Muslims.

Contrast this to a conceptualization of Islam and politics that focuses on religiosity, piety, or conservatism. Here, politicians earn support through their religious credentials, their personal piety, or their ability to pass religious regulations. The past two decades of Indonesian democracy have seen the rise of a more conspicuous and expressive form of Islam,* more visible in everyday life in the form of dress and manner of speech as well as in religious observance. But there is scant evidence that expressive Islam corresponds to religious politics. It may, instead, be that expressive piety is a form of identity maintenance in the face of the complex changes associated with modernization, urbanization, and social change experienced by Indonesia’s Muslim population.

Islam-as-identity has very different implications for Indonesian politics than does Islam-as-religiosity. The former emphasizes the construction of Indonesian politics in terms of the status of groups and their representation by politicians qua groups. The latter emphasizes politicians’ religious character. The strategy for a politician running in an Islam-as-identity world is to establish that s/he looks like a Muslim candidate; the content of the candidate’s platform or his/her religious behavior does not much matter. And in a world in which Islam-as-identity dominates, a winning strategy to appeal to Muslim voters who are happy with the performance of a non-Muslim incumbent is to simply claim that Muslims must not vote for non-Muslims, as Liam Gammon and Eve Warburton showed in the April 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Such debates are visible today, in a contest pitting one Javanese Muslim versus another Javanese Muslim. On one hand, President Joko Widodo attempts to show his religious credentials. On the other hand, his opponents allege that he is a Christian. It is the latter that has more resonance than any commentary about how seriously he practices his faith, especially since neither Prabowo Subianto nor Sandiaga Uno have any particular reputation for religious piety themselves.** Instead, what they have is endorsements from Islamic parties and Islamists. That suffices to license them as “Muslim” candidates. Jokowi’s choice of an influential Muslim religious leader as his running mate, on the other hand, shores up concerns that he is a “Muslim” candidate too.

The lesson from Indonesian democracy is even though the “rise of Islam”*** may mean a more expressive form of Islam in public life, it also may harden political cleavages that are not, at root, about religiosity or conservatism. What might counteract this process? In the Netherlands, which had been characterized by “the politics of accommodation” among Protestants, Catholics, and seculars through the 1970s, the decline of religious observance undermined identity-based political competition. That does not seem likely in the near future in Indonesia.

The lessons of Islam and identity in Indonesian politics travel to other plural societies. Mayor Pete may be a more observant Christian than President Trump, but this does not much matter if he does not represent the social category of “Christian.” And President Trumps awkward relationship with the details of his professed faith may not matter if he does fit that category. There is no illogic here. The evidence of President Trump’s identity as a Christian is the fact that Christian elites endorse him. That they do so on the intuition that they will be able to shape his agenda in ways consistent with their Christian values reveals the indirect ways that religion-as-identity may be exploited by those who actually do care about religion-as-conservatism.

So, too, in Indonesia.


* This “Islamic turn,” however, preceded Indonesian democracy: see Hefner, Liddle, and the works of Indonesian Muslim thinkers like Cak Nur and Amien Rais.
** Sandi, however, is trying to build one.
*** I am not so certain that Islam is actually “rising” in Indonesia, but for the purposes of this discussion I proceed as if this were true.

Lee Hsien Loong and Mahathir Mohamad on “Fake News” Bills

In an era of “fake news” and social media replacing the conventional media, many countries have begun to pass laws designed to clamp down on the spread of misinformation via the internet. Southeast Asia is no exception: Malaysia passed an Anti-Fake News Act in 2018 (PDF), for example. Currently, Singapore is entertaining a draft anti-fake news bill called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (PDF).

Singaporean civil society has widely criticized POFMA, arguing that it will clearly have negative consequences for the freedom of expression and criticism, especially among academics (see e.g. here and here) but also more broadly across society (see e.g. here).

It is in this context that I stumbled across the following clip of a press conference between Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was recently elected Prime Minister in a stunning defeat of the Barisan Nasional government—he, in fact, was the first person charged under Malaysia’s anti-Fake News Act back in 2018. One of his coalition’s main campaign promises was to repeal that country’s anti-Fake News Act.

The clip features PM Lee defending POFMA, and then Mahathir explaining why his government repealed Malaysia’s fake news act.* For anyone who has watched Malaysian politics over the years, seeing Mahathir criticize government overreach—and alleging that governments will now be the ones making fake news—is a sight to behold.

Singapore and Malaysia are neighbors with close ties and a linked history, and until 2018 both had been led by strong electoral authoritarian regimes. PM Lee’s and PM Mahathir’s commentaries on government efforts to clamp down on fake news are a good summary of how things have changed in Malaysia,** and how they have not in Singapore.


* They are also gently insulting one another, in ways that Singaporeans and Malaysians often do.
** I do not mean to exaggerate, of course. New parties in government do not necessarily mean new politics or new policies, especially without new politicians.