President Jokowi (left) hit back against Anwar Abbas’ (right) claims during the Second Congress of the Economy of the Muslim Faithful. (Screengrab: metrotvnews/ YouTube)

President Jokowi (left) hit back against Anwar Abbas’ (right) claims during the Second Congress of the Economy of the Muslim Faithful. (Screengrab: metrotvnews/ YouTube)

The President Versus the Cleric: Managing Conservatives From Within

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A recent public spat between President Joko Widodo and a prominent cleric underscores how the former is facing challenges in reining in conservatives in his inner circle.

Indonesia’s mainstream organisations had previously praised the president for disbanding controversial hardline groups such as the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) in 2020 and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) in 2017. The president is expected to remain decisive, and use appropriate legislation to protect the country’s moderate Islamic posture. But he faces a challenge in controlling conservatives, who can derail the government’s efforts in promoting progressive Islam.

The challenge is more daunting, given that the conservatives have penetrated state-endorsed institutions. On 10 December 2021, an open exchange between the president and a prominent religious figure made national headlines. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Second Congress of the Economy of the Muslim Faithful, he dispensed with the speech prepared by his staff, and used the platform to respond to the Ulama Council of Indonesia (MUI) deputy chairman, Anwar Abbas, who had spoken at an earlier session. Anwar did not speak about religion, but inequality. He touched on the disparity of land ownership in the country and the lack of financing access for SMEs, among his long list of criticisms towards the government. Anwar’s claim that 59 per cent of Indonesian land is owned by one per cent of the population irked the president. The president lost his cool, and became defensive.

The president’s outburst belies the fact that he has been relatively tolerant towards Anwar’s previous statements about religion. Anwar, who is a retired lecturer and Muhammadiyah leader, recently criticised an Islamic state university in Yogyakarta for passing a PhD dissertation condoning free sex. Other examples reflecting his conservative attitude include his chastisement of a minister for saying the civil service cannot fire anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation (i.e. being lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender (LGBT)). He criticised the minister for adopting a liberal mindset, and prioritising individual rights over social protection. On 26 February 2021, he opposed a presidential regulation permitting investors to open businesses selling alcohol in four provinces. Even though these areas are predominantly non-Muslim, he opined that the regulation would harm the community. In response, the president revoked the regulation.

The police have also become the target of Anwar’s criticism. On 13 December 2020, he condemned the police for practicing double standards when prosecuting those who violated Covid-19 quarantine laws. He questioned why the police targeted opposition figures like Muhammad Rizieq Shihab for infringing quarantine laws while others walked free. On 7 November 2021, he criticised the police’s anti-terror squad Densus 88 for only arresting Muslim terrorists but turning a blind eye on the terrorists in Papua, whose actions had claimed the lives of Indonesian soldiers and civilians.   

So far, the Jokowi government has allowed Anwar to go scot-free. One reason could be that he is not directly involved in any political party. Also, some of his criticisms against the Joko Widodo government — such as the disparity in land ownership, which was based on the figures provided by the Agrarian and Spatial Planning Minister, Sofyan Djalil — are based on facts. But it is more likely that his association with the MUI, a quasi-state Islamic institution shielded him from any persecution. Ma’ruf Amin, the vice-president, is heavily involved in MUI.  

Jokowi’s public criticism of Anwar could be interpreted as a reminder to the cleric to mince his words and toe the line when it comes to the government’s narrative. But his nonchalant attitude towards Anwar’s past expressions of conservatism remains as perplexing as appointing the conservative Ma’ruf Amin as vice-president.

On the contrary, heavy-handed laws have been applied to other Islamist critics of Jokowi. In June 2021, the FPI’s Rizieq was sentenced to jail for spreading false news. Another Jokowi critic, Haikal Hassan, became less vocal after a social and political activist reported him to police for spreading false news on 16 December 2020. Haikal was a prolific social media personality and a sought-after speaker on Islamic history. He is currently facing legal prosecution, for claiming to have dreamt of meeting Prophet Muhammad after the burial of five FPI members who were shot dead by police during a shooting incident in Jakarta in early December 2020. Human rights activists and politicians criticised the police for processing the case, arguing that ‘it is insane to prosecute people who are dreaming; people are free to dream about anything.’ On 23 December 2020, Haikal was called to the Jakarta police headquarters for questioning. On 26 November 2021, he was again invited by Jakarta police for another round of questioning, but failed to comply, claiming that his wife was sick.

There were also instances where critics withdrew from public life before the tentacles of the state apparatus reached them. Fahri Hamzah, a former long-time activist from the Prosperous Justice Party, an Islamist political party, was an eloquent critic of the government. But his voice died down after he ended his term as deputy chairman of the national parliament in 2019. Tengku Zulkarnain, a sought-after speaker on Islamic issues and vociferous critic of Jokowi, died of coronavirus in May 2021. Tengku Zulkarnain was Anwar Abbas’ deputy when the latter served as MUI’s secretary general between 2015 and 2020.

Jokowi’s public criticism of Anwar could be interpreted as a reminder to the cleric to mince his words and toe the line when it comes to the government’s narrative. But his nonchalant attitude towards Anwar’s past expressions of conservatism remains as perplexing as appointing the conservative Ma’ruf Amin as vice-president. It is unsurprising that many see Jokowi’s choice of Ma’ruf as being made out of political expedience rather than genuine attempts to develop progressive Islam. While the president is seen to be a progressive, he needed conservative stalwarts such as Ma’ruf to win the 2019 presidential election. He also needs his conservative allies to ward off attacks from other conservative groups such as HTI.

Unlike the government’s treatment of FPI and HTI, it has given some recognition towards MUI, the institution Anwar is riding on currently. Since MUI, a semi-official ulama body, is inching closer to becoming an ‘official’ one, only time will tell if the screws will be tightened against the institution now considered to be in Jokowi’s inner circle. A failure to check conservative voices from growing within the state bureaucracy will have a significant effect on shifting policies to the right of the political spectrum.

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