Indonesian leaders have committed to refrain from politicising religion in the upcoming February 2024 elections, but political incentives and social forces continue to propagate identity politics, especially among the youth. More must be done to curb the politicisation of religion and educate the youth about its harmful consequences.
The politicisation of religious identity will remain a key challenge for Indonesia in the upcoming February 2024 presidential election. Some national political figures have expressed their commitment to refrain from politicising religion. However, since religion remains embedded in voters’ attitudes and behaviour, including young voters (below age 40) who comprise around 60 per cent of the electorate, politicians are unlikely to completely discount its utility.
Recently, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) stated that the Indonesians have already suffered from the protracted politicisation of religion. He urged all parties to refrain from identity politics in the upcoming election. Responding to President Jokowi’s message, some political party elites from Golkar, The National Mandate Party (PAN), and the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) also agreed to abstain from it in the 2024 election.
Furthermore, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and prominent religious leaders from various religious organisations in Indonesia proclaimed their commitment to the same cause. They believe that the politicisation of religion will only lead to national disintegration.
However, Indonesia will need more than verbal assurances from key national figures to contain the politicisation of religion. First, in a highly competitive election, politicians may feel compelled to deploy any strategy to increase their winning chances. This includes using exclusivist religious narratives which is a shortcut to garnering votes at the district levels. This method is effective, as it simplifies or dichotomises political messages into yes and no, halal or haram, or Islamic vs non-Islamic. For example, the Ummat Party has outrightly stated that they will continue utilising identity politics in the 2024 election, arguing that politics cannot be separated from religion, especially Islam.
Second, social actors can politicise religion to great effect. In a society acutely polarised along religious lines, politicians can mobilise their bases in response to viralised religious messages. The case of a former journalist Buni Yani serves as a case in point. In 2016, he uploaded the video footage of Jakarta’s incumbent governor and gubernatorial candidate Ahok’s statement on his social media account with the caption, “religious blasphemy”. This caused a huge public uproar that eventually led to Ahok’s imprisonment. The use of labels to describe politicians has not ceased. For example, on social media, it is common for politicians promoting secular and nationalist ideology to be denigrated as “tadpoles” (cebong), and Islamists as “bats” (kampret) or “desert lizards” (kadrun). Netizens become more emotional and reactionary in their political choices when religious sentiments are inserted.
The level of religious intolerance among young people remains high despite national leaders’ and civil society’s efforts to foster interfaith dialogues, reaffirm moderate Islam and religious diversity, and uphold the Pancasila.
Anyone with an interest in Indonesia’s democratic maturity must pay serious attention to political campaigns or materials politicians use to influence young people. Politicians are aware that young voters have immense potential due to their large numbers. Unsurprisingly, many politicians have begun to develop strategies for approaching young people.
Research on the interplay of religion, ideology and political participation among Indonesian youth has revealed some worrying patterns. In 2021, the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) UIN Jakarta surveyed young people nationally, many of whom are likely to be voters in the 2024 elections. The survey found almost one-third of respondents (30.2 per cent) espousing religious intolerance—defined as a person’s unwillingness to accept the civil rights of individuals or other religious groups they dislike or disagree with. This demonstrates that the level of religious intolerance among young people remains high despite national leaders’ and civil society’s efforts to foster interfaith dialogues, reaffirm moderate Islam and religious diversity, and uphold the Pancasila.
Further analysis of the same survey data shows that Muslim youth tend to be more conservative regarding religious integration than youth with other religious affiliations. The positive scores in Figure 1 indicate that Indonesian youth tend to support the implementation of religion-based by-laws and the involvement of religious leaders — ulamas, in the case of Muslims — in politics.
Figure 1. Among Indonesian youths, Muslims are more conservative and more favourable toward integration of religion in the state and politics
Youths who endorse religious integration, termed integralism in the survey report, tend to participate more actively in politics, in formal practices such as voting in elections and non-formally through signing petitions, supporting political parties in terms of time, energy, and money, or participating in demonstrations. These findings indicate that religion has become an ideological base that helps youth to be politically active in diverse ways.
Figure 2. Among Indonesian youths, Integralists are more politically active
It is important for the Elections Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) and other election monitoring organisations to pay more attention to the risks and ramifications of politicised religion. These public institutions should intervene to curb the rampant politicisation of religion, minimise its negative impact on the quality of democracy and avert incitement of conflict. Bawaslu plays an important role in signalling to the youths that they should vote for candidates on the basis of leadership qualities and policies rather than identity.
As a preventive measure, Bawaslu needs to engage leaders from various religious organisations to engage with and educate society about the harmful consequences of the politicisation of religion. Bawaslu can collaborate with young religious leaders who can effectively reach out to young people, and organise campaigns in schools, universities, youth organisations, religious institutions, and social media to raise awareness of the dangers of letting election campaigns politicise religion. These are small but necessary steps to change a deeply embedded and identity-driven political culture.
Iim Halimatusa’diyah is a Visiting Fellow in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, a Senior Lecturer at Islamic State University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah, and a Deputy Director for Research at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) UIN Jakarta.