Sandiago Uno, Prabowo’s 2019 vice-presidential candidate, has lost the support of Islamist parties after being seen distributing food supplies to the poor with Immanuel Ebenezer. (Photo: Jakarta Ministry of Information, Wikimedia Commons)

Indonesia’s Islamist Groups: The Logic of Strategic Silence

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Indonesia’s Islamist groups have not hit back at President Jokowi for his handling of the current Covid-19 pandemic. There are several reasons for their strategic silence.

President Joko Widodo has been criticised for his slow response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He has been accused of having no plans and offering no guidelines on how to contain the virus. The administration dragged its feet in acknowledging the severity of the pandemic. Even when it started to work on it, the administration could not get it right. 

The lack of coordination between the central and local governments was on full display. It was also clear that members of the Cabinet were not on the same page on the pandemic. Even worse, the ministers were not always in sync with their President.

In April, President Jokowi announced a prohibition on people “going home” (mudik) during the Eidul Fitri festivities. He restricted the operations of all public transportation. Less than three weeks later, Jokowi’s Minister of Transportation reversed it by cancelling all restrictions of public transportation, including airlines. The policy caused a surge in the number of passengers and thousands crowded at the airport terminals in Jakarta. 

In mid-May, the Jokowi government relaxed even more restrictions. The Covid-19 Task Force, which was established in mid-March and commanded by a military general, are now allowing people under the age of 45 to go back to work. The Minister of Religion announced that he will open the mosques and allow Muslims to pray in congregations. Without any formal announcement, the Jokowi administration is opening up the Indonesian economy although Indonesia has not flattened its Covid-19 pandemic curve. Two months of large-scale social restrictions seem to have been in vain. On Tuesday (26 May), however, the president made a U-turn again, announcing that it would deploy thousands of military and police personnel to enforce social distancing rules, after a surge of infections were recorded in the past week.

The administration’s incompetence has been widely criticised. However, there has been no criticism from the Islamist groups such as Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), 212 Alumni Brotherhood (PA 212) and Indonesia’s Hizbut Tahrir. These groups were the arch enemies of Jokowi, particularly during his first term. Jokowi has expended much effort in curtailing these groups’ influence. He had undertaken various actions, from persuasion to repression, to weaken these Islamists. Why then did these Islamist groups remain silent during the pandemic? 

The silence of the Islamists during the pandemic offers a glimpse into the current state of Indonesian politics.

There are several factors here. The first is related to the rapprochement between Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto after the bitter 2019 presidential campaign. The Islamists were aligned to Prabowo. Prabowo’s decision to join the government as defence minister led to the sidelining of these groups. In effect, they are now left without a powerful patron.

Some of Islamists tried to bolster the role of Prabowo’s vice presidential candidate, Sandiaga Uno, as the leader of opposition to the Jokowi government. However, Sandiaga Uno eventually chose to take a different path. In early May, he was seen distributing food supplies to the poor with Immanuel Ebenezer, a Jokowi volunteer who was considered a big enemy by Islamist groups. The Islamist twitter accounts have been buzzing with the hashtag #GoodbyeSandiagaUno.

The second factor is related to Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan. It is no secret that Anies Baswedan captured the governor’s seat with help from the Islamists. Moreover, Anies never concealed his ambition to run for president in 2024; in fact, current surveys show that he is the front-runner. With his eyes on the presidency, Anies’ focus for now is to prove that he can govern effectively. Observers said that his performance in handling the pandemic is better than Jokowi’s. Anies is also trying to expand his base. He is “pivoting to the middle” by presenting himself as a pluralistic and accomplished governor. While mobilising the Islamists is not in his interest, he has still not fully abandoned them. He had asked the groups not to hold mass demonstrations and not to gather in mosques. The submission of these groups to Anies shows how much residual influence he has on them.

The third relates to the internal conditions of these organisations. The FPI has been rudderless for quite some time. Its charismatic leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia due to a sexual scandal. Jokowi’s government has prevented him from returning. The 212 Alumni Brotherhood is also divided. Constant infighting within the 212 movement has crippled it. Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) has also been weakened after the Jokowi administration designated it as a “banned organization”. 

Even political parties that are notoriously close to these Islamist organizations are divided. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) experienced serious internal divisions because of opposition to its current leadership. The division has been brewing even before the 2019 election season. Likewise, the National Mandate Party (PAN) had shattered into two factions after the party’s Congress in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, few months ago.

The silence of the Islamists during the pandemic offers a glimpse into the current state of Indonesian politics. President Jokowi had conquered most of the opposition forces by integrating them into his government. The Indonesian political class consists of few strong elites (call them oligarchs if you prefer) and the President has to accommodate their interests. 

For now, Jokowi has been successful in serving the interests of these conflicting elites. This also explains why Jokowi’s handling of the pandemic was not effective even though he has no strong opposition. 

Indonesian politics is undergoing a process of realignment. For now, Islamist groups are waiting on the sidelines. Their silence is a strategic one. They are waiting for elites who are willing to embrace them and leverage their influence in their quest for power.

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