Employees at the Hajj dormitory clean and spray disinfectants to the facilities normally used for practicing pilgrimage, in Jakarta on 23 June 2020. (Photo: BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

A Storm in a Teacup: The Politicisation of Hajj Cancellation in Indonesia

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The run-up to hajj 2021 saw the opponents of the Jokowi government opportunistically exploiting the issue to undermine the government. This reflects poorly on the quality of political debate in Indonesia today.

On 12 June 2021, Saudi Arabia announced that it would bar all foreign pilgrims from entering the country to perform the hajj due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Only 60,000 persons from within the kingdom would be allowed to perform the hajj. With the benefit of hindsight, this announcement laid bare the opportunism of the Jokowi government’s opponents in politicising the Indonesian government’s decision to cancel the hajj for Indonesians this year. 

Criticism of the government had centred on two issues. Firstly, government opponents tried to criticise the government for its poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis, such that Indonesia was not among the countries that the Saudi government deemed as successful in managing the pandemic. For instance, Golkar parliamentarian Ace Hassan Sadzily publicly highlighted that Indonesia had failed to be included in the list of about 11 countries that were allowed to enter Saudi Arabia and that the Saudi travel ban for Indonesia remained in force. Others noted that Saudi Arabia had put Indonesia on the same list as Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, where the Covid-19 risk was considered high.  

…. Indonesian Muslims typically wait around 15 to 30 years before they get a chance to perform this obligatory ritual. With the hajj for Indonesians cancelled now two years in a row, it is likely that Indonesian Muslims will have to wait even longer for their turn to go on the hajj.

Secondly, opposition parties also used the hajj cancellation to accuse the Jokowi government of mishandling the hajj. A parliamentarian from PKS (Justice-Prosperity Party) Bukhori Yusuf, accused Minister of Religious Affairs, Yaqut Qoumas, of prematurely announcing the hajj cancellation and not making a serious effort in securing hajj quota from the Saudi government. Deputy Chairperson of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Hidayat Nur Wahid, another prominent PKS leader, said that if the Jokowi government had been serious about protecting the rights of Indonesian Muslims to perform the hajj, President Jokowi could have tried to directly lobby King Salman, considering both leaders had a close relationship. In a similar vein, Partai Demokrat politician Syahrial Nasution suggested that the hajj cancellation reflected Jokowi’s inability to persuade the Saudi government to provide the hajj quota for Indonesia and called on the Jokowi government to be honest about the true reasons behind the hajj cancellation, hinting Indonesia could be having problems with the Saudi government. Other religious leaders such as Haikal Hasan (a spokesperson of Indonesian Islamist groups) speculated that Saudi Arabia’s travel ban on Indonesians was connected with sensitive issues such as Indonesia’s alleged close relationship with China and the imprisonment of Rizieq Shihab. Prominent social media preacher Abdul Somad also suggested that the hajj was cancelled this year because the hajj fund was misappropriated by the Jokowi government for funding infrastructure spending.  

We can expect a similar controversy to happen again when next year’s hajj comes around, as the issue will always be an emotive issue that can be easily exploited. Under normal circumstances, Indonesia is usually allocated an annual quota of around 160,000 to 220,000 hajj pilgrims, and Indonesian Muslims typically wait around 15 to 30 years before they get a chance to perform this obligatory ritual. With the hajj for Indonesians cancelled now two years in a row, it is likely that Indonesian Muslims will have to wait even longer for their turn to go on the hajj. There will probably be even stronger pressure on the government to negotiate with the Saudi government to increase the hajj quota in order to clear the backlog. 

As the opportunistic reactions of Islamist groups and political parties have shown, it will be all too easy for the opponents of Jokowi to politicise the issue again and seek to paint the Jokowi administration as failing to secure enough hajj quota from the Saudi government. But such opportunistic behaviour also reflects the current state of public debate and democratic politics in Indonesia. Ideally, the government should regard its critics as serving to implement a system of checks and balances to avoid a descent into authoritarianism. But for the opposition groups, it is also their responsibility to ensure that their criticism is based on valid data and aimed at correcting government policy for the better. In short, fairness and just judgment should be the spirit behind both government and the opposing groups. In this way, it is hoped that when the discussion on the hajj comes around again next year, the debate will be a constructive one, which contributes positively to the future democracy of Indonesia.

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