212 Reunion: listening in to the fringes of political Islam

The extraordinary 212 Peaceful Action that drew hundreds of thousands to central Jakarta in December 2016, has shown the great impact of religion upon politics and arguably marked a shift on the national landscape of power. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

IO – The 2nd of December (212), the day after the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, marked the one year anniversary of the protests that saw Jakarta’s citizens take to the streets in droves to decry former gover­nor Ahok’s clumsy and injurious interpretation of the holy Qu’ran. In commemoration, the GNFP-MUI (a radical islamic organisation tied to the Defenders of Islam Front (FPI)) called for citizens to gather around Monas Square from morning prayer (subuh) until noon for a Great Reunion (Reuni Akbar). This was the latest installment in a series of “Defending Islam Protests” with the aim of the organizers being to rally a pious crowd under an inclusive Islamic banner, described broadly as “thanking God for his benefi­cence”.

The extraordinary 212 Peaceful Action on December 2nd, 2016. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

The crowd was directed towards a centre stage where FPI leaders were joined by opposition figures (deputy speakers of parliament Fad­li Zon and Fachri Hamzah), mav­erick clerics and PAN-founder and honorary chairman Amien Rais. Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan joined for morning prayer.

Despite claims to the contra­ry, it was far from an exercise in anti-Ahok schadenfreude nor was it, as Metro TV reported, a “celebra­tion of intolerance”. The rally was peaceful in tone and in atmosphere throughout. People from all walks of life were eating and praying togeth­er in a jovial mood of camaraderie. The organisers made a point of leaving the grounds intact; pictures of an immaculate Monas square were circulating that very afternoon on Twitter.

The crowd was a sea of black and white of baju koko and peci, the black and white attire of male piety in Indonesia. The crowd as choir tells us, unsurprisingly, that many a prayer honouring the Prophet was recited. Flags bearing the Shahada were waved throughout the pro­ceedings. For lack of a represent­ative socio-economic survey, not much can be said on the nature of the participants. To be sure the FPI rallied some of its troops, but they were joined by other organizations. The organizational floor-plan of the GNPF shows us that the groups present were university union and alumni groups (ILUNI, WSG, GEMA JKT), Islamic cultural centers (AQL), Islamic schools (WSG) cooperatives and food banks (SIJUM), to progres­sive NGOs (AISYIYAH). Many people simply joined in after morning

prayer at the Istiqlal mosque among others. What we can say for sure though is that the crowd at this rally was not outwardly radical. It appears that what many people were celebrating, instead, was their newfound, Islamic group consciousness as a bulwark against a secularizing state. Tell­ingly, quite a few protesters were spotted wearing t-shirts that read “Spirit 212”.

Peaceful 212 Rally. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

At the same time, the crowd’s size could be interpreted as a barometer of public support for the FPI and, in fact, it has. Media ac­counts varied considerably in their choice of figure to include. Whereas the Jakarta Post relayed the dubi­ous 40,000 estimate of the police, Twitter and FPI-sympathising sites echoed the organisers’ wishful as­sessment of a 7 million attendance. Crowds are notoriously difficult to count. An independent expert analysis based on a crowd-density analysis of aerial footage resulted in an estimate of between 300,000 and 500,000 participants (a wide margin of error but a more realistic figure nonetheless). Regardless of whether the crowd was composed of direct FPI supporters, it was a sizeable audience for the speakers to address.

Rizieq Shihab, the leader-in-ab­sentia of the FPI, currently living in exile in Saudi Arabia after trumped-up pornography charges were leveled against him, picked up the mantle of leadership for the movement last year. He delivered a speech via voice recording where he gave his usual spiel about the Unitary State of Republic Indo­nesia under Islamic (sharia) Law (NKRI Bersyariah). This message appears to resonate, as the FPI continues to go from strength to strength. The rise of the FPI at the local level and as a node for a plethora of smaller radical groups has been underlined by many experts. Its targeting of high school teachers in Islamic schools has paid off in swelled ranks. Even if they are out of the national politi­cal discourse they are very effective at lower scales of governance. “Per­da sharia”, local Islamic bylaws, are spreading like wildfire and the FPI is behind many of them. These are but a few elements of a multi-fac­eted Islamization of politics and politicization of Islam in Indonesia.

Mistaking the FPI for an insignif­icant actor is dangerous, but over­stating its role is equally risky. The big question then is how to deal with such a nebulous actor. The Reuni Akbar was an inclusionary approach to dealing with radical is­lamic organisations. The opposition are bringing them into the fold of conventional politics, into the world of compromises and horse-trading, they are mollifying them with big doses of musyawarah (long-winded, consensus-building discussions). The speakers stressed moderation and reoriented the discussion to­wards economic concerns and their political platform. The opposition parties therefore took the opportu­nity to address the FPI-led crowd to pass a few important messages across the divide.

Many non-muslim that also join the 212 Rally. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

Many have called out Gerindra and PKS for what they see as an opportunistic rapprochement. Their approach however has the benefit of including these fringe organisa­tions into the political arena and getting them involved in transac­tional politics. The trajectory of the PKS is a good case study of the pacifying potential of inclusionary politics as it started as a more radical grassroots movement and was deradicalized (abandoning its calls for a Shariah republic) as it became an institutionalised party. This brand of politics of inclusion is risky: it bestows some degree of legitimacy and limelight to an un­savoury organisation and any open dialogue with such radical actors is bound to come at an electoral cost.

However, the Jokowi ap­proach leaves much to be desired too.
So far the Jokowi administra­tion has opted for a secular and authoritarian approach of ex­clusion with regards to the more radical Islamist organizations. The administration has been selectively muffling radical voices by blocking facebook accounts (see Tengku Zulkarnain) and websites (such as voa-islam.com and islampos. com) intimidating preachers and organisers (chinese-muslim cleric Felix Siaw was repeatedly discour­aged to deliver sermons) as well as passing an executive order (Per­ppu) that gives it the authority to ban civic organisations which, in practice, has been used to disband radical islamic organisations such asHTI (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia). Regardless of its moral defensibil­ity, the jury is hung on whether or not this approach is effective. While it certainly does debilitate the movements temporarily, it also creates martyrs and strengthens the resolve of followers in the short to medium run. Witnessing such selective pressure is a deterrent for some, but for many it is also a wa­tershed moment that makes them lose all trust in the system and its institutions. As Ian Wilson, a researcher in politics and security at Murdoch University in Austral­ia, told The New York Times, “Each time [Rizieq] has spent time in jail, the organization has grown, the martyrdom complex has grown, as has the perception that he is some­one who is willing to sacrifice for the cause.”

Without expecting anyone to tolerate intolerance, an independ­ent observer would hope that this administration pursue a more cautionary and inclusive approach vis-à-vis non-violent alternative voices. (alen)