As Indonesia heads into presidential elections due in April, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been keen to boost his religious credentials which have previously been questioned by his opponents. But a recent case reveals the danger of playing the religion card ahead of upcoming polls.
That case came earlier this month when Jokowi, as Widodo is often known, initially was set to allow Abu Bakar Bashir – the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a deadly, Al-Qaeda affiliated Southeast Asian terror network – to walk free from prison, after serving barely half his 15-year term, on humanitarian grounds.
The decision was seemingly walked back following massive outrage, with the government announcing subsequently that he in fact had not met certain conditions for parole which were non-negotiable. Nonetheless, the incident itself and its fallout were a clear indicator of the danger Jokowi will face if he continues to use certain issues politically to boost his religious credentials.
On the domestic side, the outrage that followed focused not just on the limited success Jokowi may achieve in using this issue to boost his religious credentials, but also how this would alienate the country’s moderates and those institutions that had succeeded in countering terrorism in Indonesia. That network includes families of the victims, the police, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy who had battled JI.
There was an international aspect to all this too, with world leaders and experts alike chiming in both publicly and privately. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – mindful of the 88 Australians killed by JI’s Bali bombings in 2002 – weighed-in, conducting immediate “high level” talks with Jakarta urging Jokowi not to show leniency.
That outrage is understandable. On the issue itself, though Bashir’s influence may have somewhat waned since he was jailed back in 2011, he is still a draw among the media because of his reputation, and still commands a degree of reverence among militants and followers that could be tapped into for their activities. There would be no shortage television networks, radio broadcasters and online platforms with a hankering for controversy and a plentiful supply of sympathizers at the ready who would indulge the cleric’s notoriety.
Beyond the issue itself, this does not make for a good narrative ahead of Indonesia’s elections. Some of Jokowi’s recent decisions, including the appointment of his running mate and this attempted Bashir gamble, have contributed to a sense that he is pandering to more religious-minded segments of the population at the expense of his own identity as a politician. That could then not only backfire and alienate supporters, but inadvertently strengthen the position of hardliners and fundamentalists as well as his opponents at the upcoming 2019 elections.
Of course, it is no surprise that Jokowi, like other politicians, would need to strengthen his credentials on a number of fronts in order to win. But the failed Bashir gamble indicates the danger of playing the religion card as it could easily backfire and come back to hurt him rather than help him.
Luke Hunt can be followed on twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.