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Race, Islam and Power

Race, Islam and Power

Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Book Review
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This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 7: China Dependence. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.

Race, Islam and Power: Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia
Andreas Harsono
Monash University Publishing

Lead singer of rock band Slank, shirt unbuttoned, wearing a red bandana, gripped his microphone and belted out ballads onstage. Ulama, religious scholars, in Middle Eastern attire paced in the wings like harried producers. On the roof a pawang hujan, rain shaman, warded off thunderstorms. And the crowd overfilling the 80,000-seat Gelora Bung Karno, Jakarta’s biggest stadium, began a series of Mexican waves. Hands flew into the air: of santri Muslims in white caps and Chinese Indonesians, people from the Javanese hinterland and islands far to the east, all singing along while waving red-and-white Indonesian flags. It seemed, in the moment, like an inspired demonstration of inclusive nationalism.

We were waiting for President Joko Widodo – Jokowi, as he is popularly known.

I asked the guy next to me why he liked Jokowi enough to come to this, his final, largest election rally, and he said because Jokowi stood for everyone: Indonesians of all races and religions.

This idea, that support for the president equates to support for diversity and tolerance, continues to be widely voiced in Indonesia – even as during his presidency Jokowi has struggled to apply such values, and sometimes has appeared to waver in his commitment to them.

I thought of Jokowi’s April 2019 rally while reading Andreas Harsono’s Race, Islam and Power. Harsono, who works for international NGO Human Rights Watch, recounts his travels across Indonesia examining past and present racial and religious violence. The narrative is structured by island, as Harsono moves from west to east, from Sumatra to Kalimantan, Java, Maluku, Timor and then Papua, although the material comes not from a single trip but from many, taken over two decades. Riding in speedboats and SUVs to remote villages, sitting in restaurants or coffee shops in provincial cities, he speaks to victims and perpetrators, activists and politicians.

Multiracial, multireligious, multilingual Indonesia is one of many nations where intolerant forms of nationalism are currently strengthening. In such a sprawling archipelago it is crucial to manage difference adeptly. This is a nation where some citizens take boats to the Philippines to shop for groceries while fishing vessels accidentally drift into Australian waters, where some see themselves as living on Mecca’s “verandah” and others identify as Melanesians. Policy must be flexible and fair; clumsy efforts at homogenisation must be avoided.

Yet the patterns of violence Harsono describes are sadly familiar, and not limited to Indonesia. In mixed, culturally diverse communities, discontent begins to fester: over distribution of wealth and political power, or demographic or cultural changes, real or perceived. Schisms run along ethnic or religious lines, grievances channelled into a scapegoated “other”. Then comes political or economic turbulence. Rumours spread, fear takes over, and militias, insurrections or mobs form. Afterwards, survivors of the violence attempt to rebuild their lives, often while living in the same neighbourhoods as their persecutors. In Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, Harsono speaks to a widow raising a daughter who does not know of her mixed ancestry or her father’s murder – both are kept secret for her own good, he is told.

Cynical political manipulation or direct state involvement often fuels such tragedies. In Indonesia, the largest-scale perpetrator of such tactics was former president Suharto’s New Order regime. Despite the book’s subtitle of “Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia”, much of the text discusses Suharto’s and his predecessor Sukarno’s roles in kindling ethnic and religious tensions. Harsono remarks that in 1945 Indonesia’s first social democratic prime minister, Sutan Syahrir, warned about militarist elements – “our own fascists” – waiting to take control of the new nation, a prescience realised with the rise of the New Order.

A rigid conception of Indonesian nationalism, Harsono argues, has been a stimulus for tensions. The political class has long failed to counter perceptions that the country is run by and for Java. Instead of addressing regional grievances, Jakarta has often tried to enforce homogenising “pro-Indonesia” fidelities. In Aceh, Harsono finds civil servants forced to take oaths of loyalty and participate in mandated ceremonies to raise Indonesia’s flag. In Timor, his observations lead to stark conclusions – the “Jakarta elite”, he notes acerbically, lack not just the “intellectual prowess” but the “imagination” to manage Indonesia.

Sukarno’s formation of a unitary Indonesian state in 1950, superseding a looser federation, helped fuel conflict between a dominant centre and indignant regions. Yet exclusivist, majoritarian politics have also been practised at local and provincial levels, including by Christians in Christian-majority areas. The decentralisation of political power following the New Order created more opportunities for such behaviour: mayors and governors could build political support by practising ethnic or religious favouritism over jobs and funding. Aceh, granted special autonomy, began using an interpretation of sharia law to punish religious minorities, women, gay and transgender people; its example has inspired other provincial and local governments.

Charting the recent increase in religious intolerance, Harsono shares the common view that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency was disastrous. Under Yudhoyono, local “consultation” was allowed over religious matters, leading to widespread closures of houses of worship for minority religions. Islamic groups were permitted to pursue the Ahmadiyya community, whom they consider a “deviant sect”, and were thereby emboldened. A blasphemy law, previously rarely applied, began to be wielded aggressively.

Race, Islam and Power has had a long gestation: most of Harsono’s travel occurred between 2003 and 2006. Today, conservative religious identities are influencing politics more prominently, and discrimination and harassment are rising. Yet large-scale violence of the kind that much of the book describes – roughly 10,000 people died in Maluku in Christian–Muslim violence in 1999 and 2000, for example – has declined. By that low bar, there has been progress.

Harsono sees uneven rates of development, and particularly neglect of eastern Indonesia, as a cause of tensions throughout the country’s history. Jokowi has promised to address this, and has indeed launched major infrastructure projects in the outer islands. Papua, though, remains deeply troubled. A culture of military impunity continues. Jokowi has also been passive on majoritarian religious laws. While this passivity is an improvement over Yudhoyono, overall he has shown little willingness to spend political capital fighting intolerance.

Harsono argues that the answers to Indonesia’s recurrent racial and religious violence lie in robust human rights protection and civil liberties, multicultural policies and the allowance of “multiple identities”, environmental protection and better stewardship and sharing of resources, and secular nationalism grounded in equality and mutual respect. While Jokowi at times pledges support for some of these goals, his strategy appears to be more about muddling through. In and beyond his second term, if the country can avoid flare-ups on the scale of the 2016–2017 anti-Ahok protests, and political stability and economic growth are maintained, the comforts of exclusive identities, and resentments and fears of various “others”, might fade.

At Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Jokowi said Indonesia consisted of many races and religions; he listed provinces and islands, asked if people from those areas were in the house, greeted them in their regional languages. He said Islam could not be the basis of the Indonesian state, that the foundation philosophy Pancasila, which specifies belief in God, was “final”. Then he talked of his program – infrastructure, human capital – while evoking grand national aspirations: that Indonesia maju (advance) and become a negara besar (major power). Vice-presidential candidate Maruf Amin – one of the country’s most powerful clerics, and a staunch conservative – then led an Arabic-studded prayer. I found myself watching Grace Natalie, Chinese Christian leader of a new progressive party, as she stood behind Maruf and participated in it.

There was no reckoning with Indonesia’s history, and no blueprint for resolving current tensions within the archipelago. Without recognition of the often divergent perspectives and interests across regions, Jokowi’s listing of places and inclusive greetings looked like tokenism. And what attitude to diversity was signalled by making the multi-faith crowd stand compliant as Maruf, who has hounded minorities with fatwas, prayed?

Jokowi and Maruf were the rally’s intended climax. Yet the crowd followed its own rhythm. During Jokowi’s speech many were less engaged than they’d been before it. Streams of people left their seats; others chatted. Perhaps the pre-Jokowi entertainment – a visibly diverse band of pop stars, brought together to sing of the right all rakyat jelata, ordinary folk, have to dignity – more crisply articulated their reason for supporting Jokowi’s presidency than anything he actually had to say. Many kept standing and cheering after Jokowi had left the stage. Perhaps they were waiting for something else, or were imagining it themselves – some more fundamental recasting of one-size-fits-all nationalism, some firm plan to undertake recognitions and reconciliations, some step beyond “tolerance” as mere maintenance of civil peace. A genuine commitment to the pluralism they could see, at Gelora Bung Karno, all around them.

David Fettling

Yellow journal cover of AFA7 CHINA DEPENDENCE with dark purple writing and red shipping containers

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 7: China Dependence. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.