Faith, lies and politics: Religion in the 2014 campaign

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By Ahmad Imam Mujadid Rais


A day after the presidential election campaign period officially ended, and just days before Indonesian voters went to the polls on 9 July, candidate Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo flew out of Indonesia for a brief pilgrimage  to Mecca.


Given the intense entanglement of religion and politics throughout the campaign, it was unsurprising that rival Prabowo Subianto criticised Jokowi’s umroh (minor pilgrimage) as a political stunt pitched at gaining Muslim sympathies before the vote. Moreover, the indictment that Jokowi was not well-versed in religious matters was encouraged by the circulation of an image supposedly showing him wearing his ihram outfit on the wrong side. According to Jokowi supporters, the image was manipulated by photoshop to vilify their candidate.


During Ramadan, tarawih prayer also became political. In Kediri, East Java, a Khatib (Islamic preacher) suddenly began preaching against Jokowi and endorsing Prabowo. The jamaah (the audience of tarawih prayer) objected, criticizing the khatib and asking him to wind up his political sermon. It emerged later that the khatib was a member of a party supporting Prabowo.


These two anecdotes illustrate the most surprising, significant and alarming development in the recent Indonesian presidential campaign - the blatant use of religion as a political weapon. This phenomenon made the  2014 campaign the most "religious" contest in Indonesian history, though not in any uplifting sense. In this campaign religion has been used as a blunt instrument to vilify and defame rivals.


In the Indonesian context, religious values should provide a moral framework for the political realm.  Vilifying and defaming rival candidates in the name of religion, enlisting faith to achieve political goals, undermines the sacred role of religion in society

People turned out to be more critical and smarter than the smear campaigners had bargained on.

Throughout Indonesian history, the relationship between religion, Islam in particular, and the state has always been complicated. The founding fathers came from two main groups; one group advocated Pancasila (the "five principles") - explained at that time by Sukarno as nationalism, internationalism or humanism, democracy, social justice, and Belief in the One Almighty God - as the sole basis of the state.1 Sukarno, Hatta, and K.H. Agus Salim were the main leaders of this group. The other group put Islam as the sole basis for Indonesia, an idea championed by Ki Bagus Hadikusumo, Kasman Singodimejo, and Wahab Chasbullah.


Eventually, after long debate, in June 1945 it was accepted that Pancasila - with the inclusion of menjalankan kewajiban Syariat Islam bagi pemeluk-pemeluknya in the first principle  (‘Belief in God with the obligation to carry out Islamic Sharia for its adherents) and known as the Jakarta Charter - would form the basis of the state. However, because there was an objection from minority groups in the Eastern part of Indonesia, the founding fathers excluded the seven words in the first principle of Pancasila, with the disclaimer that the decision was temporary, since Indonesia faced the threat of the up-coming allies’ troops.


In the post-1955 election, the Constituante discussed the basis of the state. However, when the session reached deadlock, Sukarno dispersed the Constituante and hailed the return to the authentic 1945 constitution. This period marked the beginning of a guided democracy (Demokrasi Terpimpin) in  modern Indonesia.


But the struggle by proponents to make Islam the basis of the  state did not stop at that time. It continued in the post-reformation when two Islamic parties, PPP and PBB, urged the inclusion of the seven words into the Constitution during the amendment session between 2001-2002. The attempt failed to gain approval from the forum. At the same time, the implementation of local autonomy in 2001 gave momentum to proponents of Sharia-based law, which has flourished across the country in the aftermath.


Meanwhile, there has been the emergence of more pious Muslims declaring and displaying Islamic identity in all aspects of their life and promoting it in public life. Such images have entered popular culture, through television soap operas and in movies displaying religious symbols. These developments coincide with the rise of many Islamic organisations often regarded as a hard line groups, such as the Islamic Defender Groups (FPI), Laskar Jihad, and Majlis Mujahidin. These groups, particularly FPI, have been linked with many terror attacks at pubs, bars, and against minorities.


The shift to direct election of the president in 2004 gave voters the opportunity to vote for the candidates who best fit their ideals and values. As Indonesia has moved toward the embrace of a more devout Islam, the characteristics of the ideal leader have become more strongly influenced by Muslim definitions of good leadership. Namely that the ideal candidate should be a pious Muslim who performs prayer five times each day, is good at reciting the Quran, performing hajj and fasting and so forth. In the recent campaign those criteria were used against both Jokowi (for not being a good Muslim) and Prabowo (for not being able to read the Quran and not performing prayers).


Religious vilification of candidates has been growing more widespread since the election of the Governor of Jakarta in 2002. At that time, the undercurrent issues were similar to those playing out in the latest presidential election campaign – with one candidate perceived as non-Muslim and potentially damaging to the Islamic community.


The campaign failed, which might have served as a lesson to political candidates to think twice about enlisting religious symbolism for short-term political interest. People turned out to be more critical and smarter than the smear campaigners had bargained on. And perhaps, given the result on 9 July in the presidential poll - at least according to the most reputable quick counts - this has been shown to be the case again.


According to Greg Fealy of ANU Canberra, Prabowo seemed to strategically pander to Islamic sentiment, securing support for the Prabowo-Hatta ticket from four Islamic parties (PPP, PKS, PBB, and PAN) together with secular parties such as Golkar, Gerindra and Demokrat. In addition, most religious organizations supported Prabowo, including Islamic preaching pengajian (gatherings) among youths both in rural and urban areas. The role of pengajian  in supporting Prabowo was important as they defended his human rights record and promoted him as the real representative of Islam in the election. On 9 July he notably gained significant voters in West Sumatra, one of the most populous Muslim provinces.


The highly controversial organization is Islamic Defender Front (FPI), endorsed Prabowo, which would have tarnished him in the eyes of many moderate voters, but his proponents argued he would strive for Ummat (Muslim community) interest while Jokowi would not.


Other clues that Prabowo tended to support Islamic sentiment and conservative understanding of religion can be found in his Gerindra Party Manifesto, which was published early in this year and then erased after it generated criticism from all levels of society. The manifesto stated that “the state is also expected to guarantee the purity of religious teachings…from all forms of heresy and deviation”.


The politicians and their strategists have waded into this dangerous territory fully aware that issues of religion or Islamic identity have dual functions - reconciliation and conflict. One the one hand it is obviously strategic to gain political support from the Muslim community, Indonesia being after all the most populous Muslim country in the world. But questions around religious identity might also be used to undermine a candidate and stir conflict. Underpinning this is the rise of conservative Islam in Indonesia.


The issue of whether a candidate is a pious Muslim, or indeed a Muslim at all, has played powerfully through the entire campaign. Jokowi was accused during the course of the campaign of not being Muslim (unbeliever) and of being anti-Sharia. Another line of attack was to play up his Chinese heritage and rumoured family links to the old PKI (Indonesian Communist Party), banned during the authoritarian regime of the New Order and still a sensitive issue.


Accusations stemmed mostly from Jokowi’s decision to pick non-Muslims as his deputies when he was a mayor of Solo (F.X Rudiyanto) and as Governor of Jakarta (Basuki T. Purnama). During his term in Jakarta, he was forced to defend his decision endorsing Susan Jasmine Zulkifli, a Catholic, as a lurah (village leader) of Lenteng Agung Ciganjur in the South of Jakarta, a Muslim-majority village. The issue spread nationwide through via social media and tabloid papers  such as Obor Rakyat. To counter this in the smear campaign, Jokowi often made reference to  Rahmatan Lil ‘alamin -  a main character and purpose of Islam which means the grace for the entire universe. 


In another incident the Forum Ulama Umat Islam (FUUI), a West Java-based group of Islamic clerics, issued a fatwa entitled haram (illegal according to Islamic law) against voting for the Jokowi-Kalla ticket. The rationale behind this fatwa was that the main supporter of this ticket, PDI-P, was not supporting the implementation of Sharia-based law, and rejected some Sharia-based law in the legislature. Trimedya Panjaitan, one of chairman in PDI-P stated the party would not approve Sharia-law locally or nationally.


The decree also criticized ulama (clerics) who supported the pair as neglecting their core duty to remind people about religious matters, accusing them of only thinking about how they might benefit from this election (in wealth or political position). Even though FUUI is not a formal ulama organization recognized by community and government, it has widespread influence.     


Such religious engagement in political smear campaigns, complete with the use of religious symbols to defame political opponents, are not new in modern Indonesian political history. However, the vilification on religious grounds has never been as visible or as vicious as in the 2014 campaign, apparently spurred by efforts to diminish Jokowi’s wide popularity in the months leading up to the legislative and presidential campaigns.  The rise of social media aided and empowered this shadow campaign.


But it seems that when it came to the vote that the strategy was not ultimately effective.  It could be argued that while it may have significantly increased support for Prabowo in some constituencies, in others it may equally be argued to have backfired.


People are attuned to the tactics of smear and watchful. They use social and mass media to analyse and evaluate the claims. This is encouraging. If this behavior continues to grow and evolve among Indonesian people, Indonesia is on track to become  a more advanced and mature democracy.



1 - In the following session, the structure of Pancasila was changed into: The Belief in God, in accordance with the principle of a righteous and moral humanitarianism (kemanusiaan), the unity (persatuan) of Indonesia, and a democracy (kerakyatan) led by the wise policy (hikmat kebijaksanaan) of the mutual deliberation of a representative body (permusyawaratan perwakilan) and ensuring social justice (keadilan social) for the whole Indonesian people.


Boland, BJ. 1971. "The Political Struggle (1945–1955)." In The Struggle of Islam in Modern Indonesia: Springer.

Bollier, Sam. 2014. "Religion the dark horse in Indonesian election." Al Jazeera.

Carnegie, Paul J. 2006. "The Politics of Indonesia’s Islamic Identification." Dialogue 4(1):1-24.


The author is a postgraduate student pursuing a Masters of International Relations at the University of Melbourne.