Please cite as:
Ashirbekova, Zhanyl & Sithole, Neo. (2024). Religious Populism and Radicalization in Indonesia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 6, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0049
This report is derived from the third event of The European Center for Populism Studies’ (ECPS) monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series which was conducted online in Brussels on May 25, 2023. The panel, themed “Religious Populism and Radicalization in Indonesia,” convened five distinguished scholars specializing in populism to delve into various facets of the subject. Serving as an outcome of this insightful panel, the report encapsulates overviews of the presentations delivered by the panelists.
By Zhanyl Ashirbekova & Neo Sithole
This report is derived from the third installment of the "Mapping Global Populism" monthly panel series, conducted online in Brussels on May 25, 2023, under the theme "Religious Populism and Radicalization in Indonesia." Co-organized by the ECPS and The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), the panel featured five distinguished scholars from Australia and Indonesia. As an outcome of this insightful panel, the report encapsulates concise summaries of the presentations delivered by the speakers.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Ihsan Yilmaz, Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, and included the following speakers: Dr. Inaya Rakhmani, Director of Asia Research Centre, Universitas Indonesia; Dr.Pradana Boy Zulian, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang, Indonesia; Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi, Senior Researcher at the Research Center for Politics, National Research and Innovation Agency – BRIN, Indonesia; Dr. I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana, Senior International Relations Lecturer in the Department of International Relations Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Airlangga, Indonesia.
Dr. Inaya Rakhmani: “Main Drivers of Populism in Indonesia”
Dr. Rakhmani emphasized the growing concern among scholars in Indonesia and Asia about the factionalization of progressive voices that traditionally critique the decline or setbacks in democracy within Southeast Asia. This factionalization also extends to identity politics, where some progressive academics, public intellectuals, and civil society advocates who support democracy find themselves divided along religious and racial lines, often fueled by social media and messaging platforms. In her perspective, these divisions are closely tied to inequalities and the concentration of wealth. The expression of these divisions on social media is viewed as a symptom of deeper economic and social disparities.
As the first panelist, Dr. Inaya Rakhmani began her introduction by discussing the rise of Islamic populism in Indonesia. She highlighted the occurrence of the largest religious mass demonstration during electoral politics in the capital city of Jakarta. She pointed out that the surge in Islamic expression has been evident since the 1990s, leading to the fragmentation of the authoritarian government under Suharto, followed by the democratization and decentralization period. Dr. Rakhmani noted that economic growth has been accompanied by increasing social inequalities, and the equality promised by democracy has not translated into economic equality. These disparities are expressed along religious and racial lines, with comparisons drawn to Turkey, Egypt, and India.
According to her speech, Dr. Rakhmani incorporates Bob Jessop’s cultural political economy framework into her work to understand the moments and reasons behind mobilizing certain discursive narratives into material conditions. Since 2014, she has focused on studying the evolution of the middle class, often portrayed as a bastion for moderation in literature, especially from the US and Western Europe. Dr. Rakhmani highlights that the commercialization processes in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s introduced global products from northern countries into Southeast Asia and various large cities across Indonesia. These consumer products played a significant role in expanding the middle class of the 2000s, enabling it to adapt and thrive in a new volatile and precarious world. The “halal” label, legitimizing their purchases and consumerist behavior to navigate everyday life in neoliberal conditions, served as an index guiding them on where to go, which products to consume, and whose perspectives to trust, providing a sense of safety.
During the presidential campaign in 2019, the current president Jokowi received more direct support from Islamist political parties. Vice President Ma’ruf Amin is associated with the two largest Muslim organizations known for their pluralistic inclinations. Dr. Rakhmani noted that at these moments, there can be political legitimacy following demonstrations, even though these mobilizations were based on lexicons without a strong social and political basis either in support of or against the Christian Chinese Governor. Nevertheless, these demonstrations crystallized into political positions, solidifying the stances of Islamist leaders in the 2019 presidential elections.
Concluding her speech, Dr. Rakhmani emphasized the growing concern among scholars in Indonesia and Asia about the factionalization of progressive voices that traditionally critique the decline or setbacks in democracy within Southeast Asia. This factionalization also extends to identity politics, where some progressive academics, public intellectuals, and civil society advocates who support democracy find themselves divided along religious and racial lines, often fueled by social media and messaging platforms. In her perspective, these divisions are closely tied to inequalities and the concentration of wealth. The expression of these divisions on social media is viewed as a symptom of deeper economic and social disparities. Unfortunately, in her opinion, this condition is likely to persist not only in Indonesia but also in many parts of the world.
Dr. Pradana Boy Zulian: “Radicalism, Extremism and Civilizationalist Populism in Indonesia”
Dr. Zulian posed a question: “How does religious literacy populism on the internet contribute to the spread of extremism and radicalism?” He observed that studying religion on the internet provides instant thinking and answers, making it preferable for many people. Moreover, the internet is influenced by conservative orientation activists. Research indicates that approximately 60% of internet Islamic content in the Indonesian context is dominated by conservative groups, with less representation from progressive voices in the online Islamic discourse.
Dr. Pradana Boy Zulian’s presentation delved into the connection between populism, religious literacy, and their impact on religious life in Indonesia. His talk highlighted three key points: i) Exploring how populism in religious literacy is linked to extremism and radicalism. ii) Examining the role of the internet as a new public sphere for religious discussions, leading to fundamental changes in how Islam is studied. This shift not only alters the approach to studying Islam but, according to Dr. Zulian’s observations, also dismantles the traditional hierarchy of religious authority figures. iii) Addressing the preference for Islamic symbolism over Islamic values and the influence of conservatism in the digital realm, suggesting that populism in religious literacy could potentially contribute to the proliferation of extremism and radicalism.
Dr. Zulian commenced his speech by introducing the concept of "Internet Islam." He referred to it as a religious dynamic shaped by the digitization of human life, where the internet serves as the primary source of Islamic learning for the public. Various studies by scholars across generations have sought to examine the impact of the information technology revolution on the formation of religious orientation in contemporary Muslim societies. Dr. Zulian cited Zizi Papacharissi’s 2018 speech, portraying the internet as a virtual space transformed into a public sphere.
In the political context, traditional citizens are now joined by "netizens," citizens of the digital world. However, Dr. Zulian drew a distinction between citizens and netizens based on substantive characteristics. While citizens are accountable for their words and actions, following a rational logic of thinking, netizens are characterized by a predominantly authoritarian nature. This implies that in constructing discourse, they display a level of irresponsibility and immaturity.
Dr. Zulian highlighted the substantial number of internet users in Indonesia, particularly in provinces like West Java, Central Java, and East Java, where around 88 million users constitute approximately one-third of the country’s population. He pointed out that the challenge posed by the internet lies in the fact that the truth of discourse is not defined by the logic of rational thinking.
Addressing the question of how the internet challenges religious institutions and authority, Dr. Zulian emphasized that the most serious impact of populism in religious literacy is the challenge it presents to traditional institutions and authority. Drawing on his personal experience as a supervisor for a student organization from 2015-2018, he recounted an incident involving students planning an "Islamic Law Clinic." The students intended to act as muftis, providing consultative dialogue on Islamic law issues, claiming expertise acquired through internet study. This revelation startled Dr. Zulian, leading him to reflect on how Islamic religious literacy populism significantly contributes to a sense of religious maturity and existence within Muslim societies.
In the concluding part of his speech, Dr. Zulian posed the question: "How does religious literacy populism on the internet contribute to the spread of extremism and radicalism?" He observed that studying religion on the internet provides instant thinking and answers, making it preferable for many people. Moreover, the internet is influenced by conservative orientation activists. Research indicates that approximately 60% of internet Islamic content in the Indonesian context is dominated by conservative groups, with less representation from progressive voices in the online Islamic discourse.
Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi: “Gender Roles in Indonesia’s Religious Populism”
Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi provides insights into how the interplay of gender, populism, and politics is actively influencing Indonesia’s political terrain. With the approaching 2024 general election, candidates face the challenge of negotiating these intricate dynamics while addressing the varied concerns of the electorate. The significance of women in politics is expected to gain prominence, mirroring a larger societal shift towards gender equality and social justice in Indonesia.
The third speaker on the panel, Dr. Kurniawati Hastuti Dewi, shared insights derived from her research and recent observations of Indonesia’s political landscape. Commencing her discussion, Dr. Dewi delved into the 2019 general elections, which marked a pivotal event due to the simultaneous occurrence of legislative and presidential polls. This election showcased two prominent candidates, each addressing issues pertinent to Indonesian mothers, or "mamas." Notably, approximately 50.6 percent of voters were female, underscoring their substantial role in determining the electoral outcome.
The discourse during this prominent election brought attention to the intersection of gender, populism, and politics. For instance, debates arose among Indonesian women activists regarding the representation of women in politics. Divergent views emerged regarding the term "mama" as a political symbol; while some perceived it as empowering ordinary women, others criticized it for perpetuating traditional gender roles.
Dr. Dewi delved into the evolving role of women in politics, noting its increased visibility through various media outlets and the growing awareness of women’s issues within electoral processes. However, this discourse has encountered complexities, as different factions within women’s movements hold divergent views on how to address gender issues in politics. Having established this, Dr. Dewi shifted focus to the 2024 general elections, where the political landscape continues to undergo transformation, with gender issues intersecting broader societal concerns.
Amidst the political atmosphere in Indonesia, the ascent of conservative groups, particularly concerning LGBTQ rights, has become a contentious issue in Indonesian politics. Consequently, presidential candidates are expected to navigate these issues with care, aiming to appeal to Muslim voters while simultaneously addressing concerns about family values and religious conservatism.
Another key point in the presentation emerged when exploring the substantial influence of religious and political groups in shaping the narrative surrounding family values and social conservatism. This influence becomes particularly evident in the opposition to events or movements perceived as conflicting with conservative values, as exemplified by the cancellation of an LGBTQ conference in Indonesia.
Highlighting the aforementioned religious conservatism, Dr. Dewi redirected attention to how, in the approaching 2024 elections, candidates are likely to capitalize on issues that resonate with conservative voters. According to her, this approach may potentially polarize the electorate along religious and social lines, posing challenges for candidates aiming to balance the demands of diverse interest groups while upholding a cohesive political platform.
To offer a comprehensive understanding of the Indonesian political landscape, emphasis was placed on the role of social media in shaping public discourse. Underscoring the significance of social media as digital platforms that amplify voices across the political spectrum, Dr. Dewi highlighted how women’s groups, in particular, have utilized social media to advocate for greater representation in politics and to counter regressive policies. Despite the challenges outlined, Dr. Dewi expressed optimism among women activists regarding the potential for enhanced women’s representation in politics. This optimism has spurred numerous efforts to mobilize support and raise awareness about gender issues, signifying a growing awareness of women’s rights among the electorate.
In conclusion, Dr. Dewi revisited the ongoing impact of the intersection of gender, populism, and politics on Indonesia’s political landscape. As the nation gears up for the 2024 general election, candidates face the challenge of navigating these intricate issues while addressing the diverse concerns of the electorate. The role of women in politics is anticipated to gain prominence, mirroring a broader societal shift towards gender equality and social justice in Indonesian society.
Dr. I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana: “Populism and Foreign policy: The Indonesian Case”
Dr. I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana highlighted the significant role of ideologies in Indonesian foreign policy, emphasizing nationalism as the dominant feature and populism as a lighter version of nationalistic ideologies. He acknowledged that while populism may have influenced the state’s foreign policy in specific historical moments and political events, its impact is constrained by pragmatic economic interests and the realities of the global and regional context.
The last speaker of the panel, Dr. I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana, commenced his speech by highlighting two key points related to the study of populism‘s impact on foreign policy in Indonesia. Firstly, he emphasized the scarcity of published works on the foreign policy dimensions of populism in Indonesia, despite its significant influence on politics. He suggested that this lack of in-depth examination might be attributed to the absence of adequate theoretical and methodological tools for studying this area. Secondly, he expressed his interest in contributing to this field of study, particularly due to the intriguing connection between Indonesian foreign policy and ideology. Dr. Wicaksana noted that ideologies play a pivotal role in Indonesian foreign policy, with nationalism being the dominant feature and populism representing a lighter version of nationalistic ideologies.
Dr. Wicaksana highlighted that the practices and expressions of populist leaders in Indonesian international affairs differ from those of leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, or Duterte in shaping populist foreign policy identities. Nevertheless, he asserted that populism does play a role in how some leaders in Indonesia conduct international relations. Dr. Wicaksana aims to explore three significant constraints on populist rhetoric and actions in Indonesian foreign policy.
According to him, three major constraints on populist rhetoric and actions in Indonesian foreign policy are rooted in historical legacies, economic cooperation, and the current international order. Indonesia, as a post-colonial state, emerged amidst domestic ideological and political conflicts among three main political forces: Islamic political forces, secular nationalists, and socialists. The newly formed Republic of Indonesia grappled with the challenges of navigating the Cold War power dynamics between the Soviet Union and the United States. Various literature has explored how these dynamics shaped Indonesian foreign policy. Consequently, nationalist leaders, notably Mohammad Hatta, positioned Indonesia as an independent state with an active foreign policy, rejecting external dictates and solely pursuing its national interests.
In the formative years of Indonesian nation-building (1945 to 1965), pragmatism characterized Indonesian foreign policy. However, in Sukarno’s final years, there was a revival of political ideology, and to some extent, he adopted populist rhetoric and actions. Sukarno exhibited traits typical of a populist leader: he portrayed the West as imperial elites and rallied third-world countries as those striving for autonomy in international politics. During Sukarno’s leadership, which involved revising the domestic political system and redirecting Indonesian foreign policy, the pragmatic course was redefined. Sukarno, indifferent to ideology, sought economic aid and financial assistance from the West and aimed to maintain stability in Southeast Asia.
In a recent study on populism published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Dr. Wicaksana argued that pragmatism is an advanced expression of populism in Indonesia’s foreign policy. Transitioning to the second factor, "economic cooperation," he emphasized the historical significance of economic interests in Indonesia’s foreign affairs. According to him, maintaining economic stability and fostering peace in Southeast Asia have always been crucial aspects of the country’s international relations, regardless of the president or ministers in power. Dr. Wicaksana noted that Jokowi, the current Indonesian president, exhibits pragmatism in foreign policy by cultivating close relations with China, the US, and improving ties with the Middle East and Europe.
Concluding his speech, Dr. Wicaksana asserted that Indonesia’s position as a populist foreign policy state is further constrained by the regional and international order. With the escalating competition between China and the US, Indonesia cannot adopt a populist stance that confronts China while aligning with the US. Dr. Wicaksana emphasized that China is acutely aware of potential conflict zones that could threaten Indonesian national sovereignty. In summary, he stated that while populism may have had an impact on the state’s foreign policy in certain historical moments and political events, it remains restricted by pragmatic economic interests and the realities of the global and regional context.