On the evening of April 8, the Patriot Chandrabaga stadium in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, was filled to its capacity of 20,000. Islamic preacher Dr. Zakir Naik, who is facing probes in India over his provocative speeches, was on the podium. He reiterated what Indonesia’s conservative Islamic groups had been rallying for in the run-up to Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections on April 19: Indonesians should elect only a Muslim leader.
While it might be tough to make a direct correlation between Dr. Naik’s speech and the election results — Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok, an ethnic Chinese and Christian, lost to former Minister of Education and Culture Anies Baswedan, a Muslim, by nearly 58% votes — it is clear that Dr. Naik had driven home a point. As the country with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia prides itself for its secularism. However, the country’s secular and plural values are at risk with the rise of Islamist radicalism.
In the run-up to the election, radical Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front and Hizbut Tahrir argued that Quran prohibited Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim. Mr. Ahok responded by saying those making such an argument were misleading Muslims — a statement that was interpreted by some as insulting the Quran. A month after Dr. Naik’s speech, Mr. Ahok, the second non-Muslim Governor of Jakarta, was sentenced to two years in prison for “blasphemy”.
Dr. Naik travelled across the country, in a private jet offered by a businessman from Kalimantan, in a highly charged political climate following Mr. Ahok’s ‘blasphemous’ statement. He was welcomed by Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, which, according to Arif Zulkifli, editor-in-chief of Tempo magazine, exhibits the Vice-President’s closeness to Mr. Baswedan. “Pollsters have shown that even though people supported Ahok for the rapid development in the city — including massive eviction of people living by the riverbanks — they voted for Aneis on religious grounds,” said Mr. Zulkifli. The strategy of bringing someone famous for his strong views on conservative Islam from outside Indonesia nudged people to think along those divisive lines, he added.
While Tempo put forth its position against the growing conservatism strongly, Republika , which has a strong readership among the Muslims in Indonesia, published some of Dr. Naik’s speeches. Irfan Junaidi, editor-in-chief of Republika , said Dr. Naik brought a fresh perspective for Indonesian Muslims. “We covered his visits to the different cities because our readership is the wide Muslim community.”
Abdul Hakim Rasinamika, the imam of Nurul Islam mosque in Pasar Minggu in southern Jakarta, delegated some men to attend Dr. Naik’s talk. He believes there was a renewed solidarity among Muslims after hearing him, which impacted the election. Muhammad Asruri, who also leads the prayers at the mosque, said before Dr. Naik’s speech, many people felt they were “incomplete Muslims”. But what about India’s claims of men joining militant groups after listening to Dr. Naik’s speeches? Mr. Rasinamika said that those join groups like the Islamic State are “kafir” (unbelievers), while Mr. Asruri asserted that Dr. Naik did not preach violence in Bekasi. Dwi Rubiyanti Kholifah, country head of the Asian Muslim Action Network, is worried that what happened in the Jakarta polls will follow in the national elections in 2019. “There will be a strategic alliance between radicals like Prabowo Subianto [who ran for presidency in 2014)]. and the pro-Islamic parties. So preachers like Naik become the crucial lever.”
Priyanka Borpujari is a freelance journalist and was recently in Indonesia