Iran’s relationship with a majority of its neighbors is strained. As a Shia-governed state, the country has struggled to attain influence on the world stage. The Iranian government’s hard-line religious rhetoric, as well as the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict, has done little to alleviate Iran’s economic and geopolitical challenges.
Yet despite tense relations with its Saudi-aligned Sunni counterparts, Iran’s relationship with Indonesia, the largest Sunni state by population, remains remarkably friendly.
Resource-rich, populous, and relatively influential in its region, Indonesia is an alluring ally for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, Indonesia has always been cautious in picking sides between these two rival powers, an outgrowth of its long-held foreign policy preference for non-alignment.
Indonesia’s adherence to its inclusive founding principles of Pancasila has also helped maintain a degree of religious openness, tempering hardline Islamic beliefs and allowing religious minorities some leeway in conducting their practices. In recent years, however, this has begun to change. A rise in Islamic conservatism in Indonesia has begun to trickle into policy, resulting in the increased persecution of religious minorities and erosion of religious freedoms.
“I always knew people thought I was different as a member of the Shia community,” said Syahar Banu, an NGO worker who grew up in a Shia community in East Java, “but it wasn’t until the previous president Susilo Yudhoyono came to power that I became scared to tell people I was Shia or say my name.”
The Indonesian government has been eager to attract investment from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy has spent billions of dollars in building mosques and religious universities across Indonesia, as well as providing scholarships for Indonesian students to study in the Middle East. The fruits of Saudi investment have been seen in the increased popularity in its puritan and conservative religious practices among Indonesian Muslims.
For Iran, maintaining a stable relationship with Indonesia remains increasingly important. Sanctioned by the United States and an underdog in the Islamic world, Iran has increasingly found itself isolated on the world stage. It has attempted to counterbalance U.S. pressure by boosting its diplomatic and economic relations with Southeast Asia.
This has meant that Iran has had to ditch its zealous religious speeches, popularized by Khomeini in the 1980s, and take a more pragmatic approach, prioritizing trade and economic alliances instead of revolutionary activism.
So far, it’s paid off. Iran’s relationship with Indonesia has remained friendly. Both countries have been eager to put their differing religious views to one side – the Sunni-Shia schism can still determine alliances in the Islamic world – and focus on maintaining economic cooperation. Leaders from both countries have engaged in diplomatic visits, Iran has stayed out of criticizing Saudi investment in the archipelago, and in return, Indonesia has supported Iran’s “right to obtain nuclear weapons.”
The role religion plays in Iran’s ties to Indonesia is important, yet seldom publicly acknowledged due to rising anti-Shia sentiment within Indonesia.
“Generally speaking, Iran is realistic and aware that many Indonesians will not convert to Shia Islam,” said Dicky Sofjan, a core doctoral faculty at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, “but they do know that many Indonesian academics have sympathies with the Iranian revolution and the intellectual thinking behind it.”
Whilst Iran officially claims to have no interest in spreading its religious ideologies in Indonesia, this isn’t necessarily true. “There is a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher for the rights group Human Rights Watch. “There is an active effort by Iran, especially after the Iranian Revolution, to promote and to back up Shi’ism in Indonesia. Most Shia groups get support from Iran.”
Iran has managed to fulfill some of these religious objectives through institutions such as the Jakarta Islamic Center (ICC), which function as a hub for translations of Iranian texts and other religious studies, and facilitate scholarships for Indonesian Shia to study in Iran.
Remarkably, the ICC, whose headquarters is indiscreetly clad in elaborate blue Persian tiling, sits just a five-minute walk away from LIPIA, one of the largest Saudi-funded universities in Indonesia and a major center for Saudi proselytization.
Iran can distance itself from institutes such as the ICC because they are managed not by the executive branch of the Iranian government, but instead operate directly under the Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran. This allows them to act as de facto centers for religious evangelization without officially being tied to the Iranian diplomatic and political establishment.
For Indonesia, a relationship with Iran could be increasingly difficult to maintain. Islamic conservatism within the country is growing. Indonesian politicians, which increasingly have to project an image of piety in order to appeal to a growing conservative Sunni base, will become stricter on religious minorities, including the Indonesian Shia.
One such example can be seen in the Indonesian vice president Mar’uf Amin, a 75-year-old conservative Sunni cleric. Amin, who was chosen to bolster President Joko Widodo’s religious credentials, is the former head of both the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), the country’s top clerical body. During his chairmanship, the MUI drafted numerous fatwa and decrees against minority groups, including the Shia.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs recently released an app, and hotline service, that allows users to report individuals suspected of “religious heresy.” The Shia are listed as a dangerous group, promoting “deviant teachings.”
Iran has kept silent on these issues. But according to Andreas Harsono, who was arrested for reporting on the exile of the Shia community in Maduro in 2012, persecution of the Shia has been a source of concern for Tehran. “After I was arrested, a former vice president of Iran, whom I had never met, sent me a personal Christmas card out of gratitude,” said Harsono. “These attacks troubled them.”
Whilst Indonesian-Iranian relations have stood the test of time, Indonesia’s political identity is at a crossroads. Its relationship with its counterparts in the Islamic world, and with its religious minorities, will be an important indicator of just which direction it chooses to go.
Maxwell Lowe is an Australian freelance journalist. He is currently studying for a Masters of National Security Policy at the Australian National University and holds a Bachelor of International Security Studies degree.