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The rising menace of sectarian politics in Indonesia

The stoking of religious and racial sentiments by underdogs will likely reappear during upcoming elections, scholars warn

The rising menace of sectarian politics in Indonesia

Indonesian protesters chant slogans against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also know as Ahok, following his trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. Sectarian mudslinging became a major concern during the Jakarta governor's election this year, leading observers to predict similar tactics being employed in upcoming elections.(Photo by Adek Berry/ AFP)

Siktus Harson, Jakarta
Indonesia

November 28, 2017

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The once warm relationship between Sumiyati and her neighbors has deteriorated significantly in the past few months all because they do not share the same political views.

During this year's Jakarta governor election, she not only voted for former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, but actively campaigned for him.

She did not see his being a Christian and ethnic Chinese as a problem. She voted for him because she believed he was honest, corruption free, and concerned about poor people.

After her champion was defeated in the race by Anies Baswedan, a former education minister who was backed by a large number of Muslims, including religiously radical ones, her neighbors began to see her in a different light.

"I'm no longer invited to community activities, unlike before when all activities in the neighborhood, even at mosques, were done together," said Sumiyati, 65, who like many Indonesians only has one name. 

What Sumiyati is experiencing is just one of many examples of the fallout caused by the sectarian mudslinging that dogged the Jakarta election earlier this year.

The sectarianism that took place was on an unprecedented scale and created deep divisions within Indonesia's normally pluralistic society.

An example of this was seen recently when more than 100 alumni of a Jesuit-run college in Jakarta walked out during a speech given by Baswedan at the school's 90th anniversary celebration. 

Irresistible

Observers say this sectarian divide is a huge threat to national stability because it comes from within society itself and is an unfortunate consequence of Indonesia's religious, race and ethnic plurality. 

"Indonesia's growing democracy provides room for everything to grow side by side. If these different elements are not well managed, they can easily collide," said Agus Sartono, deputy coordinator of religious affairs at the Coordinating Ministry for Human Development and Culture.

Sectarianism has gradually sharpened its claws since the dawn of the reform era marked by the fall of Soharto in 1998.

It was clearly seen during the 2014 presidential election, when the rivals of eventual winner, Joko Widodo, questioned his Muslim identity, and even branded him a Christian and Communist

Worse was to come during this year's Jakarta governor election when hundreds of thousands of Muslims took part in a series of "defending Islam" protests to oust the favorite, Christian governor Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok."

"Social divisions will continue as long as religious or ethnic sentiments are used," Sartono said. 

More than 170 provinces, districts and municipalities will elect new leaders in June 2018. A year later in May 2019 Indonesia is due to have its presidential election with Widodo expected to seek a second five-year term. 

"I'm sure a candidate's ethnicity, religion or race will be used against them in the upcoming elections," said Sri Yanuarti, a senior political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. 

However, it may not be as conspicuous in local elections, because voters have many candidate options.

"It will be strong during the presidential election because people will have only a few candidates and the campaigning will be more uncompromising," she said.

Most political parties have declared support for Widodo, making him the strongest candidate. It also means that standard political strategies to oust him will not be good enough to crack his armor. Sectarian issues are likely to be used by the underdogs against him, just like they did in the 2014 presidential election, Sri said.

"The government and related parties should start now to ward off potential sectarian conflict, to mitigate its severity," she added. 

Unceasing dialogue

Komarudin Hidayat, a former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta told a recent seminar on the threat sectarian conflicts pose to Indonesian elections, that the root cause of conflicts is not religion, but social disparity, exacerbated by globalization, particularly the influence of China and the United States. 

The Jakarta election, he said, was a battle between religion and wealth.

"Ahok [Purnama ] was seen as a symbol of wealth or capital owners, mostly Chinese. While Anies Baswedan represented marginalized religion, Islam and its clerics," he said. 

It's worsened by the failure of political parties to educate their cadres in true statesmanship. Instead, they only focus on how to win elections, no matter how, even if it means by exploiting sectarian issues, he said.

"Political parties must improve their integrity," Hidayat said.  

According to political observer, Ichsan Malik, one problem that easily causes sectarian conflicts is a loss of community spirit.

People put their own interests first, and forget about others, which stokes mistrust, he said. 

"So the biggest challenge for society is to rekindle a spirit of togetherness, to eliminate distrust, through constant dialogue," he said.

Father Rofinus Neto Wuli, a military chaplain and lecturer at the University of National Defense, said dialogue should not just be in words but through direct contact with people from other religions, races and ethnic backgrounds.

"Sectarian issues will continue to be used. All we can do is to minimize its divisiveness, by promoting reconciliation and a message of peace," he told ucanews.com.

 

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