Politics Trumps Human Rights in Indonesia

Jokowi and Ma'ruf - New Naratif

On 9 August 2018, the current President of Indonesia, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced his running mate for the presidential elections, due to be held in April 2019. It was Ma’ruf Amin, the 75-year-old chairman of Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and “supreme leader” of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organisation.

Amin’s name had been widely circulated several weeks before the announcement, but still came as a surprise to many. Human rights lawyers, activists and researchers were quick to condemn the choice; online commentators said they would only vote for “an empty ballot box”, meaning boycott the elections altogether. Most of their ire focused on the fact that, while he may be one of the most influential Muslim figures in Indonesia, Amin has been linked to a string of unpopular decisions to clamp down on human rights issues and minority groups over the last 20 years.

“Amin’s statements on LGBT rights and his support for the criminalisation of the LGBT community are unacceptable. It shows his inability to protect and respect human rights,” Jakarta-based women’s rights activist, Tunggal Pawestri tells New Naratif.

But in the face of an online firestorm, Jokowi, once the darling of the foreign media and often described as a “liberal” or even “progressive” president, remained unmoved. Speaking to the press during his announcement, he tried to make a case for Amin. “Maybe there are questions from the people all over Indonesia why Professor Dr Ma’ruf Amin was chosen,” he said. “Because he is a wise religious figure […] I think we complete each other, nationalistic and religious”.

Jokowi: once a great new hope

Jokowi’s often painted as a moderate politician and a breath of fresh air on the political scene in Indonesia. He was, after all, the first Indonesian president to have come from outside the ranks of the military, or the political and religious elite. He used to be a furniture salesman and was known for his humble style and clean governance when he was the mayor of Solo, a city in Central Java, from 2005 to 2012. His signature style back then, and when he was Governor of Jakarta from 2012 to 2014, was to regularly arrive unannounced at government offices to make sure that civil servants, notorious for playing hooky, were doing their jobs. In 2014, Time Magazine put him on their cover, calling him “A New Hope” and “The New Face of Indonesian Democracy”.

But Jokowi has come under fire during his presidency, following a string of clampdowns on human rights, including overturning an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty soon after assuming office, and ordering police to shoot drug dealers as part of his “war on drugs”. As it turns out, “the new face of Indonesian democracy” is more about conservative politics than a progressive dream.

But the majority of Jokowi’s more controversial policies are thought to have been an attempt to push back against critics from other political parties and religious groups who have accused him of being ineffectual and insufficiently “Indonesian” (by which they insinuate he’s actually Chinese, and not really Muslim). He’s had to weather accusations of Communist sympathies, with doctored pictures surfacing of him purportedly attending a Communist rally. As Jokowi has pointed out, he wasn’t even born at the time the pictures were meant to have been taken, but in Indonesia, a country where Communism is banned following anti-Communist purges in the 1960s that left millions of people dead, such wild claims have done damage to his reputation. He even experienced a birther moment, similar to that of former US President Barack Obama, when it was alleged that he is part Chinese.

As it turns out, “the new face of Indonesian democracy” is more about conservative politics than a progressive dream

Now, seemingly to counter all of these allegations, Jokowi has chosen a running mate who’s arguably one of the most religious men in Indonesia. And religion is a big selling point in elections in a country where 87% of the population is Muslim.

Having been accused of not being religious enough, Jokowi’s trying to beat his naysayers at their own game. “He has simply done what his rivals have advocated in order to ‘defeat’ them electorally,” says Ian Wilson, a lecturer in Indonesian politics and security studies and a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.

Many others agree that Jokowi likely selected Amin to curry favour with religious voters. According to Pawestri, “Choosing Amin is definitely showing us that Jokowi is lacking in confidence in dealing with and facing conservative groups. And this is also a sign of where this country is going to be brought in the future.”

Jokowi’s willingness to court conservative religious organisations to protect his presidency is a chilling strategy that doesn’t bode well for a more tolerant and democratic Indonesia. As Wilson explains, “He’s shown he’s happy to sacrifice minorities and his friends to keep the MUI and Islamic hardliners on side. Amin, and some factions of the MUI, though maybe not all, will see this as their moment.”

Politics and religion: the history of Ma’ruf Amin

Amin was born in Tangerang, a regency to the west of the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta, in 1943. Having attended Islamic boarding school and then studied Islamic philosophy at university, his career has always shuffled between religion and politics—two concepts forever entwined in Indonesia. He also served as an advisor to former presidents Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). In 2015, he was elected as chairman of the MUI, having had senior positions within the organisation for years.  

“If Jokowi and Amin are elected, it’s going to bring a new and dangerous trajectory for the future of Indonesia,” Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, Andreas Harsono tells New Naratif. “Over the last 20 years Amin has used his influence and power to advocate for what he considers to be Islamic syariah law against gender and religious minorities in Indonesia.”

The MUI, of which Amin is the head, is one of the main religious bodies in Indonesia. As Wilson explains, “It began as an organisation to co-opt ulama and provide a religious rubber stamp for state policy. Over the years it has faced challenges from an array of competing voices, but has managed to maintain its semi-state backed status and used it to pursue its own brand of social conservatism and illiberal politics.”

“Over the last 20 years Amin has used his influence and power to advocate for what he considers to be Islamic syariah law against gender and religious minorities in Indonesia”

The MUI is also responsible for issuing fatwa, non-legally binding but authoritative legal opinions and pronouncements on Islamic law. From 1999 to 2004, while also a member of the Indonesian parliament, Amin chaired the committee responsible for issuing fatwa. From 2004 to 2010 he was chairman of the National Sharia Committee within the MUI, before becoming its overall chairman in 2015.

Many of the fatwa overseen by Amin have sparked concern and conflict across Indonesia. In 2008, the MUI issued a fatwa supporting female genital mutilation (FGM) following a ban on the practice in Indonesia in 2006. In 2015, another fatwa was issued calling for same-sex acts to be punished by caning and the death penalty.  In 2016, yet another fatwa was issued which branded the Gafatar religious community based in Kalimantan as “heretical”. As recently as August 2018, it’s been reported that the MUI are investigating a religious group called the Jellyfish Kingdom in Banten Province outside Jakarta following complaints that the group were claiming that the Prophet Muhammad was a woman.

Such religious pronouncements have had a serious knock-on effect across the country. According to the Setara Institute, an organisation in Jakarta that compiles data on religious freedom, acts of religious intolerance rose from 236 in 2015 to 270 in 2016. “The MUI’s fatwa [against religious minorities] has generated a hostile and dangerous atmosphere that’s been used by right wing forces to attack and further marginalise progressive voices and movements,” says Wilson.

It doesn’t stop there.

Amin is also behind the formation of Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama (FKUB) or Regional Harmony Forums, a group of regional advisory bodies across Indonesia created when he was an advisor to SBY in 2006. The Regional Harmony Forums are meant to be responsible for approving the building or renovation of houses of worship, but are widely thought to be used as a cover to quell religious freedom.

Although the stated purpose of the Religious Harmony Forums is to foster harmony between majority and minority religions in Indonesia, the way they’ve been put together bolsters the needs of the majority. Part of the Religious Harmony Forums decree says that the structure of the bodies have to be proportional to the population of a particular area and “mirror the composition of religions”. This means that, in a Muslim majority area, the majority of members must be Muslim.

If there’s a dispute between majority and minority religions about the need to build a house of worship in a particular area, for example, the minority is always set up to lose the dispute. To that end, thousands of churches have been shuttered across Indonesia, including 1,056 under SBY, in addition to 33 Ahmadiyya mosques from 2005 to 2008, according to Harsono.

While also working with SBY, critics have pointed to Ma’ruf and the MUI’s role in the erosion of the rights of minorities in other ways. “This included the introduction of the anti-pornography law and the increasing use of the blasphemy law, both of which served to further bolster the MUI’s authority and influence,” says Wilson.

Jokowi has chosen the man who’s widely seen as partly responsible for putting Ahok behind bars as his running mate

The anti-pornography law has been used to arrest and convict members of the LGBT community and the blasphemy law was used in 2015 to convict Jokowi’s former political ally, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who, as a Chinese Indonesian and a Christian, is a double minority. Ahok is currently serving a two-year sentence for blasphemy after it was deemed that comments he made on the campaign trail during the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017 insulted Islam. At the time, Amin and the MUI issued a strong statement which roundly condemned Ahok and was thought to be one of the driving forces behind his conviction.

It says a great deal about the lengths that Jokowi is now willing to go to in order to secure a second term as president. Ahok ran as Jokowi’s deputy during the 2012 gubernatorial elections in Jakarta, and took over from him as governor when he ascended to the presidency in 2014. Now, Jokowi has chosen the man who’s widely seen as partly responsible for putting Ahok behind bars as his running mate.

Still, some are not surprised by the political game which is now afoot.

“Over the years Jokowi has drawn the MUI’s leadership close as a protective strategy. This has been relatively easy for him considering his own conservatism but also comes at a cost. The greatest cost is being paid by those targeted such as Ahmadiyya, Shia Muslims and LGBT Indonesians,” says Wilson.

Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno

Jokowi’s controversial choice now presents a quandary for Indonesian voters. Jokowi and Amin will face off against former major general Prabowo Subianto and former deputy governor of Jakarta, Sandiaga Uno, whose human rights records aren’t any more encouraging.

Prabowo, in particular, has long been considered an egregious violator of human rights. He was once denied a visa to the to the United States following allegations that he instigated riots during the fall of Suharto in May 1998 that left over 1,000 people dead. When serving in the army in Timor-Leste during the period when Indonesia occupied the country from 1975 to 1999, there were allegations that he oversaw the killings of local pro-independence fighters, with rumours abounding that he sent the severed head of resistance fighter, Nicolau Lobato, to Suharto as a war trophy.

Prabowo Subianto - New Naratif
Prabowo Subianto will be running against Jokowi for the presidency in 2019.

Prabowo was discharged from the military following accusations of abductions of pro-independence activists and sending in thugs to exacerbate civil unrest during the 1998 riots. Prabowo said that he was simply following orders in the abduction cases; he has never been tried for any alleged abuses.

Speaking in his own defence, Prabowo has always claimed that he’s nothing like the man he’s often painted to be. In a televised speech on local channel TV One, Prabowo pushed back hard against his critics. “I’m being created as someone who is anti-democracy. That I want authoritarian government. [That] I want to go back to the New Order,” he said, shaking his fists for effect. “No, please be assured I’m a democrat. I believe in democracy. I was a soldier, I was a professional soldier, and I swore an oath to the Indonesian Constitution.”

Some members of the audience guffawed. Others clapped.

A bleak future?

Some hope that Amin has become more moderate in his views. “Yes, he has a history of being a hardliner but in the past two-and-a-half years, he has not issued fatwas against groups like Ahmadiyahs and others,” Ahmad Suaedy, a senior researcher at the Wahid Foundation, told Channel News Asia.

“Ma’ruf in the past two years is far more interested in redistributing wealth and eradicating poverty. I believe this is what he will sought to do as a vice president,” he added.

But Amin’s recent comments show that his position on issues like LGBT equality hasn’t shifted. “We all agree that being LGBT is a violation. We must prevent it. It’s a very bad thing,” he said in an interview (link in Bahasa Indonesia) this year. “How can men love men? It’s a deviation. So those who are like that must be educated.”

Whoever voters now choose, the presidential candidates and their vice presidential picks indicate a worrying trend towards more conservative politics in Indonesia generally. The choice of Amin in particular, as one of the main conservative Islamic figures in the country, now looks as if it may push Indonesia in a more conservative direction, where religion will dictate policy if he becomes vice president.

The future of human rights cases looks grim in Indonesia because we can’t expect Prabowo—a human rights abuser himself—to be any better than Amin”

There are concerns that conservative religious organisations like MUI are now in the position to accrue more political power. “What’s significant about Amin, beyond the focus upon him as an individual, is the further moving of the MUI to the centre of power. His mainstreaming of their brand of illiberal conservatism is nearing completion,” says Wilson.

And while many potential voters may have been joking when they said they intend to vote for an empty ballot box, neither set of candidates in the April 2019 presidential election inspires much hope for a more democratic and tolerant Indonesia.

For people like Indonesian human rights lawyer, Veronica Koman, Jokowi is now showing his true colours, having failed to live up to the hype of many of his campaign promises to investigate historical human rights abuses in the country. “Jokowi has not fulfilled any of his presidential campaign [promises] on solving human rights violation cases. And he just chose someone [Amin] who is infamous for discrimination against groups like Ahmadiyya and the LGBT community. He had better not use human rights issues as his presidential campaign any more because it would contradict his choice of vice president,” she says.

It’s anyone’s guess right now what the 2019 election results will be, but one thing is already certain: human rights will be left by the wayside come next April. As Koman says: “The future of human rights cases looks grim in Indonesia because we can’t expect Prabowo—a human rights abuser himself—to be any better than Amin.”

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