Tue, Apr 16, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Jokowi’s campaign battle shows Indonesia’s religious identity crisis

The leader of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation touts the economy amid reports questioning his religious credentials

by Arys Aditya and Thomas Kutty Abraham  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is one of Indonesia’s most devoted crusaders against fake news, and for good reason: It is personal.

The leader, known as Jokowi, who is campaigning for a second five-year term, has sought to keep voters focused on his track record of infrastructure building, tax reform and lower food prices.

However, social media-driven rumors — that he is not a pious Muslim, that he sympathizes with the banned Communist Party Indonesia, that he is of Chinese descent — have proved difficult to shake in the days leading up to tomorrow’s vote.

Under Jokowi, Indonesia has grown into a trillion-dollar economy, inflation has more than halved and he has beaten the target to create 10 million jobs in his first term. However, his double-digit lead has narrowed in recent weeks, and religion remains a wildcard in his bid to defeat retired army general Prabowo Subianto to head the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority nation.

Questions of religious identity have become an increasing political issue in Indonesia, which was founded on secular ideals to unite a diverse archipelago stretching across three time zones.

While no major policy shifts are expected if Jokowi wins a second term, analysts see the possibility that Indonesia could take steps such as outlawing same-sex relations. Nearby Brunei recently introduced Islamic laws that punish gay sex and adultery by stoning offenders to death.

Ahead of this election, Jokowi sought to bolster his religious credentials by picking Ma’ruf Amin, the country’s most senior Islamic cleric, as his running mate. The move was seen as a reaction to the 2017 Jakarta governor election, when a Chinese-Christian political ally of Jokowi lost amid claims that he insulted Islam.

While the poisonous atmosphere of 2017 has yet to materialize in the presidential election, Jokowi’s opponents are raising questions about his faith in social media and door-to-door campaigns, said Douglas Ramage, managing director of Bower Group Asia in Indonesia.

“The social conservatism propelled by the majority community is here to stay irrespective of who wins the election,” Ramage said. “If Jokowi wins, he will have a senior cleric as his vice president and one could expect him to exert some influence on policies that reflect the growing preference for conservatism among Indonesian middle class.”

Conservative Islamic groups, who dislike Jokowi’s secular policies and his crackdown against terrorist groups, have rallied behind his Prabowo, as Subianto is popularly known. The groups, who demand the adoption of Shariah rules in the secular country, accuse Jokowi’s administration of unfairly detaining some Islamic clerics for criticizing the government. Jokowi has dismissed the allegations as baseless.

“I wanted to let the rumors die naturally, but since some people believe them, I have to make a clarification,” Jokowi told residents of an Islamic boarding school in Rembang in central Java on Feb. 1.

The president said his record should not be in question: He holds regular meetings with clerics in his office and has declared a national day in honor of Islamic students.

He revisited the issue again on March 23, urging people to combat fake news: “I need to clear the allegations because according to a survey as many as 9 million people believe them.”

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