Current events prove to show how difficult it is for Jokowi to recoup this similar “political face-shield” from mainstream Muslim groups. (Photo: bastamanography, Flickr)

Islamist Groups: Jokowi and the Horns of a Dilemma


Islamist groups have been on the up on up in Indonesia. However, a failure to foster unity in the ranks will not bode well for their political fortunes.

As the Covid-19 pandemic situation improves, Islamist groups in Indonesia have begun to gear up for the next political event. They do not want to be left behind by the other groups in the forthcoming regional elections (Pilkada) which will be held by the end of this year, and are warming up for the 2024 presidential elections. Islamist groups such as the PA 212 (the Alumni Union of the 212 Movement), FPI (Islam Defender Front), and many others do not want to miss the opportunity to make a political comeback, after failing in their bid to get the Prabowo Subinato-Sandiaga Uno pair elected during  the 2019 presidential election.

In order to be politically visible, PA 212 and the other Islamist groups have to raise some controversial issues in public. In this case, they are using two important issues as their entry points: first, the communist issue; and second, the draft Pancasila Ideology Guidelines (Rancangan Undang-undang Haluan Ideologi Pancasila, RUU HIP) Bill.

On 13 June 2020, the Indonesian House Legislative Body prioritised the RUU HIP in the National Legislation Program (Proglegnas) to be debated. This Bill, if passed, will serve as the compass for Pancasila implementation for the state and society. Introduced by the Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle (PDI-P), the bill constitutes an attempt to reaffirm the founding tenets of the Indonesia state following the divisive 2019 election, which had split Indonesians along political and sectarian lines.

The Islamist groups are, however, frightened that the Bill will reignite Indonesian communism. Almost every year, Islamist groups associate the remembering of communist rebellion in 1965-1966 with the Left’s ideological revival. They know that the use of the communist issue is an effective way to delegitimise President Joko Widodo’s leadership. On 24 June 2020, PA 212, FPI and its organisational allies organised a big rally against the RUU HIP in Jakarta. Although only thousands of people came, the demonstration was an attempt to show the lingering presence of Islamic groups in pressuring the Jokowi government.

The Islamist movement comeback will arguably influence the political rhythm of President Jokowi and groups in his political coalition in their remaining time in power.

Nevertheless, criticism of and rejections of the RUU HIP are not the sole preserve of the Islamist groups. Previously, mainstream Muslim organisations in the country, including the largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), had expressed their disagreements with the legal initiative. A few days before the PA 212 demonstration, NU general chairman Said Aqil Siradj stated that the organisation would not support the legislation. Moreover, the Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) also rejected the RUU HIP. On 20 June 2020, Vice-general Chairman of MUI Muhyiddin Junaidi, (who has a Muhammadiyah background), stated that the RUU HIP is more dangerous than the “Ahok affair.” If the government and the parliament continue to legislate this bill-draft, he argued, MUI may consolidate a bigger movement than the one that toppled Jakarta governor Basuku Tjahaja Purnama “Ahok” in 2017. Junaidi states that while the Ahok case targeted an individual, the RUU HIP relates to the future of the state ideology of Indonesia. Thus, to save the state from the dangers of RUU HIP, MUI will consider mobilising a larger movement. This kind of thinking underscores the festering rivalry between Islamist and nationalist groups in Indonesia.

The Islamist movement comeback will arguably influence the political rhythm of President Jokowi and groups in his political coalition in their remaining time in power. During his first term, 2014-2019, Jokowi gained steadfast support from NU, Muhammadiyah, and MUI. Nonetheless, it would be difficult now for Jokowi to reprise this similar “political face-shield” from mainstream Muslim groups.

The pressure from Islamist groups during this uncertain time of Covid-19 would worsen the president’s already uphill battle to tackle the pandemic. NU, Muhammadiyah and MUI do not seem to have the desire to back Jokowi. Besides, these Muslim organizations will be pre-occupied with internal issues of the leadership renewal this year. While NU will appoint its leader soon, Muhammadiyah will organise a gathering to appoint a new leadership by the end of 2020. MUI will also choose its general chairman around this year.

Leadership transitions aside, however, NU, Muhammadiyah and MUI are not being as friendly towards Jokowi compared to the past. Although their low level of support will not harm Jokowi’s leadership directly, these organisations may not endorse Jokowi’s pick for his successor in the next presidential election. As such, Jokowi may not be able to determine his legacy.

Arguably, the tide has now turned in the favour of the Islamists for now. Still, the political capital of the Islamist groups depends on their ability to unite.  If these groups continue to promote political figures who are opposed to NU, Muhammadiyah, and MUI, and use the RUU HIP for political maneuvering only, they should brace for another big loss in the next presidential election. The same logic applies to Jokowi. The president has previously played “innocent politics” towards his allies, such as his unclear position on HIP and his perceived marginalisation of NU leaders despite their support for his 2019 campaign. If he proceeds along this path, Jokowi will probably lose his influence in the next general election.


Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.