Since the fall of Suharto, Indonesia has made significant steps toward becoming a more open and free country. It is now seen as something of a beacon of peaceful and pluralistic democracy in a region that still remains a stranger to liberal government. Its multiple free and fair elections since the return of democracy in 1998 have been lauded by many, the establishment of a true separation of powers between three independent branches of government is rightfully praised, and its ripe environment for foreign direct investment is seen as a clear symbol of a politically stable country. At the same time, Indonesia still struggles to ensure some basic tenets of a strong and prosperous democracy. Nowhere is this point illustrated more forcefully than on the issue of free speech.
Indonesia is a country where, since independence in 1945, the right to free speech has been subject to attack from both the political system itself and conservative Islamic groups. Contrastingly, moderate Islam in Indonesia must be given the credit it deserves for its role in recent Indonesian history. It was the two major Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, that challenged the one-man dictatorship of Suharto, sufficiently weakening the roots of his control enough for the students and business elites of the country to topple him from power after a 32-year reign.
That was 20 years ago. Twenty years of democracy has allowed for a flourishing of new ideas, movements and change. Groups that had previously been sidelined by the bureaucratic state for over a generation have now contributed to Indonesia’s civil society organizations’ high ranking in both values and participation. While this has certainly been good for Indonesian democracy and has contributed to the country’s open international image, it has also allowed extreme views to crowd into the mainstream. For example, Indonesia’s intelligence agency states that at least 1,300 members of the Islamist hardline group Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia are in “senior posts in the civil service, universities, the military and police.” To add to this, there are already signs of the political class seeking to return to the Suharto days of impunity from public criticism and judicial prosecution.
Today, moderate and democracy-supporting Islamic groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah are having their moral authority challenged by more conservative Islamic platforms such as the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). Politicians are also increasingly trying to silence those who seek to criticize them; one example is the MD3 law passed in February, which weakened anti-corruption authorities.
The most notorious legal instrument of repression in the country has long been the draconian blasphemy law. This law, dating back to 1965, has been used to silence criticism of Islam, and the MUI now more than ever has attempted to employ it as a political weapon. The most recent and high profile case was the 2016 conviction of then-Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment for blaspheming Islam. Even more recently, in 2018, a Buddhist woman was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stating that the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque was too loud. In both cases, the MUI was a strong and powerful public voice demanding the full application of the law. The culmination of this new political assertiveness came when President Joko Widodo, a leader once criticized by the MUI for supporting “liberal secularism,” recently chose the head of the MUI, Ma’ruf Amin, to be his vice presidential candidate in the upcoming 2019 election. Their ticket is expected to win.
In a country where major Islamic organizations have for the most part stayed out of politics, the MUI’s decision to enter politics, and Widodo’s decision to pander to the most extreme conservative Muslims by electing a man who has called female genital mutilation an “honor for women,” is a step backward toward greater political and Islamic control over the rights of Indonesian people to say and do what they so choose.
There may not be any major organization advocating for the abolition of democracy and establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia, but that does not mean that organized conservative Islam in Indonesia does not pose a serious threat to the country. Religious, ethnic, and other minorities still face great persecution at the hands of the MUI. Vice presidential candidate Amin himself has drafted fatwas against Shia groups, the Ahmadiyah religious minority, as well as the LGBT community, whose activities he has called for the criminalization of. Along with the MUI, Amin has played a key role in the legitimization of intolerance toward norms of democratic freedoms; such dangerous rhetoric has at times resulted in violence. Perhaps even more worrying, Amin has created an atmosphere for politicians to adopt a similar rhetorical tone, often in support of their own political interests.
In February, the People’s Representative Council (DPR) passed a law that gave the House Ethics Council the capacity to take legal action against those who “degrade the honor of the DPR or DPR members.” The term “degrade” was left purposely ambiguous. Critics point out that the new law will work to take impetus away from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), an institution that enjoys record amounts of public confidence and trust and retains a near 100 percent conviction rate. Accordingly, any new investigation of a member of parliament would need prior approval by the House Ethics Council. While Widodo refused to sign the law, it nonetheless came into effect after the 30-day grace period due to a lack of veto power. The Constitutional Court in June was, however, able to declare invalid the most controversial articles of the law, which would have allowed the “House (of Representatives) to criminalize critics.”
Indonesia has made impressive progress since the return of democracy, but those gains are being threatened by new legislation coupled with emboldened conservative Islamic groups and rising levels of intolerance. Questions are now being raised about the future of plural democracy in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. As the Southeast Asia region finds itself in the midst of a democratic depreciation, its largest member struggling to provide strong democratic leadership will inevitably have implications on ASEAN and the region.
Tom Sullivan is a research associate at GUSS RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.