The Islamization of Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

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The Islamization of Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

Indonesia’s summoning of the Indian ambassador over the Delhi riots points to a deeper trend.

The Islamization of Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

President Joko Widodo addressing the crowd during the 212 prayer rally in Jakarta, December 2, 2016.

Credit: Press Office of the Secretariat of the President of Indonesia

On February 28, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry summoned Indian Ambassador to Indonesia Pradeep Rawat “to discuss the riots that have claimed dozens of lives” in India’s capital city. The violence in Delhi began over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), first introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2016 and passed in the federal parliament last December. The amendment grants citizenship to six persecuted religious minorities from three countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh – not including Muslims.

The discriminatory nature of the Act has led to massive countrywide protests and violence over the last few months. The recent riots took place against this backdrop of unrest, as well as the BJP’s defeat in the recently concluded Delhi assembly elections.

While the passing of the CAA in the Indian parliament and the abrogation of Article 370, which gave special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, last August received strong responses from the international community, Indonesia has been one of the first countries to publicly and diplomatically raise concerns over the recent riots in Delhi.

One could argue that Jakarta’s response is driven by humanitarianism and the quest for stable, democratic partners in the region. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

The Indonesian summons came amid rising domestic criticism from two of the largest Muslim organizations in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. While condemning the ongoing violence in Delhi, the NU urged the Indonesian government “to take diplomatic measures and be involved in any efforts to bring peace to India.” Meanwhile, Muhammadiyah urged the Indonesian government to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where Indonesia is a nonpermanent member.

Both the NU and Muhammadiyah, along with other conservative factions, have been the primary flag-bearers of Islam at home and abroad and have time and again pressured the Indonesian government to do the same. It thus becomes imperative to view Jakarta’s recent summons in this context.

A Growing Emphasis on Islamic Identity Politics

In the last few years, Indonesian politics has witnessed a greater emphasis on the Islamic identity. This impulse re-emerged with the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections, which were preceded by mass sectarian mobilizations by hardliner Islamists against an allegedly blasphemous statement made by the then Jakarta governor and long-time ally of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok). The mobilization led to some of Indonesia’s largest demonstrations – the “411” and the “212” movements – eventually leading to Ahok’s defeat by Anies Baswedan, the candidate of Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party.

This victory enthused the opposition to perpetuate the same exposed cleavage of political division along sectarian lines in the lead up to the presidential elections, creating an anxious environment for Jokowi.

There was a greater emphasis on Islamic identity politics during the last year’s general elections. Jokowi, the incumbent, partnered with Islamist allies who had ousted Ahok in 2017. Jokowi appointed Ma’ruf Amin, the most powerful Islamic Cleric (ulama) of Indonesia and the then head of NU, as his running mate, thus ensuring NU’s support for his re-election. On the other hand, opposition candidate Subianto received support from people and organizations affiliated with Muhammadiyah.

Right after his re-election, Jokowi went onto embrace the opposition faction of Subianto and Muhammadiyah by appointing his former rival as the defense minister in his cabinet. This accommodation allied Jokowi with the conservative Islamic faction and has left him with little opposition in the present day. This tactic of accommodating opposition factions has strengthened Jokowi’s positioning within the country but has also made him further vulnerable to stronger revolt from within the populace.

The Spillover Effect

The realignment of Indonesia’s domestic politics toward Islamism has seen a spillover effect on the country’s foreign policy. The recent summons of the Indian ambassador is one result. The genesis of this growing conservatism and its spillover in the country’s foreign policy lies in the mass demonstrations of 2016 called the “Actions to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) to bring down Ahok.

The first effect of these demonstrations on foreign policy was witnessed during the Rohingya crisis. Indonesia has been constantly practicing balanced diplomacy with Myanmar over the Rohingya refugee crisis. Keeping humanitarian assistance at the core of its diplomacy, the Jokowi government has tried to embrace concerns of domestic Islamist groups while not alienating Myanmar altogether. This witnessed some shift after the violence against the Rohingyas in August 2017.

The August 2017 “clearance operations” by the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine came right after the “Aksi Bela Islam” demonstrations in Indonesia, which had already strengthened the intent of the Islamist coalition to bring down the Jokowi government in 2019. The “212 movement,” an Islamist coalition, organized a series of solidarity demonstrations across the country called “Actions to Defend Rohingyas” (Aksi Bela Rohingya), thus tying it up with the anti-Ahok campaign. A rally was organized in front of the Myanmar embassy; a solidarity demonstration was planned at Borobodur, the huge Buddhist temple complex in Central Java; and another huge rally called “Aksi 169” was staged in Jakarta, which witnessed the participation of several opposition politicians including Prabowo Subianto.

Taking a cue from the anti-Ahok demonstrations, the Jokowi administration’s response to the 2017 Rakhine violence was pre-emptive. Up to that point, Jokowi had refrained from directly criticizing Myanmar, but this time around, he jumped into action. Just days before the domestic demonstrations, Jokowi held a press conference where he called for an end to violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and sent his foreign minister to hold discussions with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Jokowi’s pre-emptive measures and his alignment with the mainstream Islamic factions limited the effect of the demonstrations domestically, but it did cast its shadow on the country’s foreign policy.

This spillover effect, however, has not been consistent across the board. Jakarta has had a very muted response to the Uyghur situation in China, where over a million members of the Muslim ethnic group have been detained for “education” and/or forced labor. In December last year, the government stated that it would not “meddle in the internal affairs of China,” as it sees Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs as a “legitimate response to separatism.” On this issue, the Jokowi administration has not faced much pressure from the opposition or Islamic organizations. The Prabowo-led opposition and anti-Jokowi Islamists with an anti-Chinese undercurrent did organize some demonstrations, but they did not last long. The government, on its part, summoned the Chinese ambassador and conveyed its concerns just like it did in India’s case, but did not go any further.

The Indonesian government’s limited response to the Uyghur situation had much to with the fact that mainstream Islamic organizations like the NU and Muhammadiyah accepted assurances that China is protecting religious freedoms after Beijing organized a visit for their respected leaders to Xinjiang. This also led to reports of these organizations having received donations, financial support, and other forms of assistance from Beijing in return for keeping quiet about China’s treatment of its Uyghurs, which the organizations categorically denied.


The accommodative nature of Jokowi’s politics since 2016 has reflected in his foreign policy as seen in the case of Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the Uyghur crisis in the Xinjiang region of China, and now the Delhi riots. In all these cases, Muslims have been the targets of the majority population and Indonesia, being the largest Islamic country in the world, has found it imperative to take a stand. But its stand has been inconsistent. Jakarta’s policy toward Naypyitaw on the Rohingya crisis has been very decisive; its policy with Beijing on the Uyghur crisis has been moderate at best. While its current approach to New Delhi mirrors its approach to Beijing, the difference is that India is not China. The latter’s bilateral influence looms large over any criticism from Indonesia. For India to shield itself from receiving any flak from Indonesia in the future, its primary aim should be to strengthen its bilateral ties to a level where their respective domestic politics does not spill over onto their bilateral relations.

Ashutosh Nagda is a researcher with the South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP) at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi.