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The Politicization of Islam in Indonesia: Its Causes and Effects
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In recent years, right-wing parties have gained popularity across the globe. Most countries in Asia, including Indonesia, are not immune to such shifts occurring in the contemporary international system. Oscillating between authoritarianism and democracy in the past, Indonesia's current political landscape is marked by the rise of right-wing Islamist groups that want to transform the country from a secular pluralist to a sharia-based state. In fact, a tenuous relationship has existed between Islam and the State right from the country's independence, which is best exemplified by the processes undertaken to draft the Jakarta Charter (1945). This document would later constitute the preamble of the Constitution. The Charter was formulated after secularists, communists, and Islamists manufactured a consensus among themselves. The influence of Islamists over the provisions of the Charter cannot be undermined, as they were able to give legal embodiment to their demands that Muslims follow Sharia Law and the State adopt theism as its religious doctrine (Adrianto 2021). Although their demand for Muslim adherence to Sharia law was later dropped from the Constitution (Elson 2013, pp.380-81), the country continues with its theistic doctrine. In a way, Islamists were instrumental in shaping the country's future. Besides, they were prominent in the country's first democratically held elections in 1955 and gained around 42.4% of the votes (Fakih 2019). Thus, under a democratic setup, Islamist groups have always had a strong presence in Indonesia. In the present democratic order, the Indonesian political system is dotted with multiple Islamist parties and groups, most of which, unlike in the past, are on the extreme right of the political spectrum. This paper analyses why radical Islamists gained prominence in Indonesia and how their rise has impacted Indonesian politics since 2014. It argues that democratization, existing economic inequalities, and transboundary influences have propelled their rise. It also argues that their rise has resulted in the politicization of Islam and the regression of liberal democracy.  

From Authoritarianism to Democracy.  

Although Indonesia started as a parliamentary democracy, it increasingly became an authoritarian State under the rule of the country's first President, Sukarno. In 1965, the military overthrew his government, and General Suharto began to run the country's affairs. However, he formally assumed power in 1967. Under his authoritarian rule, there was little space for individuals to express dissent or political parties to organize their activities, as he targeted his political opponents, communists, and radical Islamists alike (Keller 2018). Concurrently, as his rule was authoritarian and without a legal basis, he began to instrumentalize moderate Islamic groups, such as Nahdlatul Ulama, to gain legitimacy (Barton et al. 2021, 7). The state-backed Islamist groups further shrank the space for radical Islamists and their ability to mobilize people.

Nonetheless, the anxiety that political parties and Islamists experienced under Suharto's rule ended abruptly once he resigned from the post of President in 1998, after thirty-one years. The political participation restricted in the country for almost three decades was resurrected in the elections of 1999, as 48 new political parties were formed, out of which 20 had Islamist leanings (7). Unsurprisingly, radical Islamist groups, such as Front Pembela Islam (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), burst onto the Indonesian political scene to realize their agenda of making Indonesia an Islamic state. Since the democratic transition, the likes of FPI have engaged with people at the grassroots level to gain their support and confidence (10). As such, having realized their popularity, several secular parties have tried to cultivate ties with them for electoral purposes. It is worth mentioning that Suharto's rule had significantly impaired the financial capabilities of secular parties (Buehler 2017), because of which they had to use popular Islamist groups to spread their election message among the masses. Therefore, the democratic transition and political expediencies of the major secular political parties in Indonesia led to the rise of radical Islamist groups.  

Economic Equalities in Indonesia  

 Due to corruption, crony capitalism, and a lack of welfare policies, economic inequalities are prevalent in Indonesia (Barton et al., 2021, 16). As per the report published by Oxfam in 2017, the country ranks sixth in terms of wealth inequality in the world (Gibson 2017), and one of the reasons for this gap is the absence of political will to devise fiscal policies that would drive the redistribution of wealth. In essence, politicians are still trying to navigate their way through the new democratic set-up the country has adopted since 1999 and lack the necessary roadmap to bring about economic equality. In such circumstances, through their welfare policies, radical Islamic groups, such as FPI and HTI, have reached out to poorer sections of the Indonesian population to alleviate their poverty. In other words, they exploit the fault lines present in Indonesia's economic system to gain support, enabling them to present the political battle in Indonesia between "the poor people vs the corrupt elite" (Barton et al. 2021, 2). And, of course, they represent the poor in this battle. Thus, using economic inequality as a rallying cry, they have established their roots in Indonesian society, and their agenda to bring economic equality by establishing a Sharia-based State resonates with the people. A survey conducted by Diego Fossati reveals that financial concerns were more salient among the people who voted for Islamist parties than those who voted for secularists in the 2019 presidential elections. In other words, those who wanted "unemployment insurance" and "economic redistribution through fiscal policy" were inclined to suggest that Islam should play a more active role in politics (2019, pp.135–37).    

In addition to their economic appeal, radical groups have also set up schools in rural areas where the government has made the slightest effort to improve the conditions of the people. These schools act as breeding grounds for spreading Salafist ideology. Simultaneously, they have provided humanitarian aid during natural disasters, which has helped them to cultivate strong ties with the masses (14). It suggests that they fill in spaces where governments fail to contribute significantly. Thus, reducing the influence of (radical) Islamist groups necessitate that secular parties in power devise egalitarian economic policies that at least reduce economic inequalities. As the current government of President Jokowi has banned groups such as FPI and HTI (Wibisono 2018; Yilmaz and Barton 2021, 7), it needs to realize that the State has to fill the void created by the absence of these groups from society. Otherwise, people's search for Islamist groups that can help them with their economic sustenance will persist.  

Transboundary Influences  

In an increasingly globalized world, it is often the case that ideas spread between people who are divided by national boundaries. Not only do ideas and ideologies metastasize through people-to-people contact, but social media also plays a vital role in this process. In the case of Indonesia, radical groups have often been influenced by ideologies from outside the nation. The past decade or so has shown the growing influence of Salafist ideology in the country, which is best exemplified by the rise of the FPI and its hardline leader, Mohammad Rizieq Shihab. Shihab received his early education at a Saudi Arabia-funded Salafi school in Indonesia before winning a scholarship to study sharia at King Saud University (Yilmaz and Barton 2021,7). At the university, he was further exposed to Salafist ideology, which he propagated in Indonesia through his fierce and often provocative speeches. He has continuously attacked religious and sexual minorities in the country and has been involved in moral policing (8). Such activities have fragmented Indonesian society and led to intolerance.    

However, FPI is not the only radical group inspired by transnational Islamic ideals, as HTI has also "derived its ideology entirely from Middle Eastern sources" (Wibisono 2018). These transboundary linkages, along with providing a conceptual framework for these groups, ensure their sustenance when the governments repress them. For example, under Suharto's rule, HTI members emigrated to Australia and cultivated deep ties with other adherents of the organization that had settled in the country (Wibisono 2018). Therefore, two things can be concluded from this. First, transboundary Islamist ideologies have propelled the rise of radical groups in Indonesia. Second, transboundary connections help these groups circumvent governmental pressure by providing them with the necessary moral and logistical support. Now, the challenge is to contain the expansion of such ideologies by encouraging moderate Islamic groups, such as Nahdutal Ulema and Muhmuddiya, to propagate what many refer to as "civil" or "tolerant" Islam (Osman et al. 2018, 92).    

The politicization of Islam under Jokowi  

 Since Jokowi came to power in 2014, the rise of Islamist groups, radical and moderate alike, has posed a threat to the secular nature of Indonesia as "there is a widening gulf between those who support the constitutional government, and those who use Islam as a basis to challenge the pluralist assumptions behind contemporary democratic politics" (Afrainty 2016). Although the use of religion to discredit the country's democratic institutions is not new, Islam's recent politicization is occurring at an alarming rate. Its best representation is the anti-Ahok movement spearheaded by the Islamist group against the Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok. In 2016, Ahok was addressing a rally in Jakarta, where he condemned those Islamists who had warned Muslims against voting for him—a non-Muslim ruler. Indeed, these Islamists invoked the holy Quran to make their demand more appealing to the Muslim masses. As Ahok's comments circulated, accusations of blasphemy were levelled against him (Osman et al. 2018, pp.98-99).  

For the Islamists, it was an opportune time to mobilize the masses against an ethnic Chinese and a Christian politician. The anti-Chinese attitude has persistently existed in Indonesia as they are considered fifth columnists who are more loyal to China than their own country (104). Aware of this preexisting suspicion of ethnic Chinese, Islamist groups were quick to channel it to lead a smear campaign against Ahok, who was constructed as a threat to both Indonesia and its Muslims. A countrywide movement, the Defending Islam Movement, was launched by Islamist groups to force the authorities to act against the governor (Arifianto 2019). Even after Ahok clarified his comments and offered an apology, the Islamist rhetoric against him did not subside. More importantly, among all these events, secular parties, such as the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) of the former military general Prabowo Subianto and the Democratic Party of the former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, allied with Islamist groups to ensure the election victory of their respective candidates (Afrianty 2016). The anti-Ahok protests were a watershed movement as it, for the first time since 1999, tested Indonesia's secular and democratic credentials, and the election results, in which Gerindra backed Anies Baswedan won with the support of Islamist groups, revealed that its political system is still inflicted with aliran politics. In the Indonesian context, aliran is defined as an inclination toward a particular party because of its ideology (Fossati 2019, 120). The real issue is that aliran politics proves detrimental to the growth of democracy in the country, as no matter what, people will still vote for candidates whom they think best represent their ideologies, even if they are radical Islamists. So, on another level, Islam's growing role in Indonesia is also a sociological issue, as a major portion of the population wants religion to play a role in the political system. A survey revealed that 58 per cent of Muslims believe it is essential to choose a Muslim leader (127).    

After Ahok's election defeat, he was convicted by a court, sentenced to two years of prison, and barred from holding public office ever again. In the light of these events, the incumbent President, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), an ally of Ahok and had backed him in the gubernatorial elections, realized the political influence of conservative Islamist groups and parties. Indeed, he became a target of hardline Islamist groups who labelled him an abangan Muslim (Osman et 2018, 107). To put it in context, there are broadly two groups of Muslims in Indonesia: abangan or traditionalist Muslims who "practice syncretic version of Islam"; and the other is santri or modernist Muslims, who adhere to a puritanical strain of the religion. Very often, abangan Muslims are attacked by santris for their "impure" beliefs and are called "kafir" or infidels (Fossati 2019, pp.120-22). The labelling of Jokowi as an abangan Muslim and his lack of power relations at the centre owing to his humble beginnings (he was a furniture exporter) forced him to seek support from conservative Muslim groups, such as the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majlis Ulama Indonesia [MUI], during his rerun for the presidential post in 2019. It is worth mentioning that MUI issued a fatwa in 2005 declaring that liberalism, multiculturalism, and secularism are haram. Similarly, Maruf Amin, a conservative cleric whom Jokowi chose as his vice-presidential candidate in the elections, issued a fatwa in 2012 that especially targeted the sexual minorities of Indonesia (Arifianto 2019). Thus, the alliance between a pluralist Jokowi and a conservative MUI can be termed unholy.  

However, if the Jokowi-MUI partnership was unholy, the nexus between Jokowi's opponent, Prabowo Subianto, and Islamist groups amounted to a "marriage of convenience" (Fakih 2019). He sought support from radical groups that had led the anti-Ahok campaign to increase his chances of winning the elections. Moreover, he also had the backing of Islamist parties, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN). Even though Subinato faced a defeat, the instrumentalization of religion made it the most "divisive" election in the country's history (Arifianto 2019). These elections foreshadowed Indonesia's move toward a democratic regression as the space for secular and liberal initiatives diminished significantly.  

In Lieu of a Conclusion   

To reclaim political space, Jokowi has adopted policies that severely undermine the role of radical groups in Indonesia. Groups that have complied with his orders can conduct their activities, while, on the other hand, those who have failed to do so are being clamped down on. To begin with, he banned HTI in 2017 (Wibisono 2018). Shortly afterwards, the passing of the anti-terrorism bill in the light of the Surabaya attacks in 2018 further emboldened him to undertake severe actions against radicals in the name of national security (Keller 2018). Thus, in 2020, he banned FPI, and its leader, Mohammad Rizieq Shihab, was jailed for his extremist ideology (Yilmaz and Barton 2021, 8). For many, the clampdown may suggest that a pluralist President is saving liberal democracy in Indonesia, but one should view this with caution. A country with a history of authoritarian rulers should be careful that the current political scenario does not lead to another phase of secular authoritarianism. Radicalism indeed poses a threat to Indonesia. Now, the challenge is to find ways to curb it through reconciliatory methods. Otherwise, there is the possibility of further radicalization as "antipathy towards Islam" grows (Fealy 2020).  

Suhail Ahmad Khan is a fourth-year student of International Relations and Governance Studies at Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh, India. He is currently conducting an academic study titled “Revocation of Article 370: A Narrative Enquiry,” which analyses the narratives surrounding the revocation of Article 370. His previous work has been published by E-International Relations and Kashmir Observer. His internship experiences include working with a human rights organization, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, the Piramal Foundation, and the All-India Congress Committee (AICC).


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