Political Islamism a cause for concern in Australia-Indonesia relations

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By Annabel Bowles | @annabel_bowles

Like many Indonesians, Australians have aired their concerns over the rise of political Islamism. Experts have pointed out its impact on bilateral ties and trade, and with newly re-elected governments in both countries, religious issues may persist as a sensitive point for Indonesian-Australian diplomacy.

The influence of political Islamism in Indonesia became apparent in 2017, when former Jakarta governor and Christian Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was sentenced to two years in prison after Islamist groups called him out for blasphemy.

A more recent example is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to choose conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, who played a crucial role in Ahok’s jailing, as his running mate for the 2019 election.

Jokowi’s planned early release of Abu Bakar Baasyir, the spiritual leader of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 38 Indonesians and 88 Australians, is another example. Although Baasyir’s release was later cancelled, both Indonesian and Australian media criticised Jokowi for appeasing hard-line Islamic groups at the expense of minorities.

The President’s appointment of Ma’ruf “was widely speculated as a move designed to boost his Islamic credentials” according to Sian Troath from the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

It was for similar reasons that Sidney Jones, the director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, questioned Jokowi’s intentions with Baasyir.

“Why did he choose to act now, when it was inevitable that he would be accused of trying to score political points or to buffer the impact of the release [of Ahok] whom the Islamist right brought down?” Ms Jones said at the Lowy Institute.

In a conversation with The Jakarta Post, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch Andreas Harsono said last year’s anti-Ahok rallies constituted a peak in Indonesian Islamism.

Though it has a long history, Mr Harsono said Islamism had developed through an increased number of blasphemy convictions since the era of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“The Blasphemy Law is probably their most important weapon, cornering opponents and re-grouping themselves in creating common enemies,” Mr Harsono said.

“Discrimination and intimidation against religious minorities occurs every day.”

Should the current political climate escalate into a crisis similar to the one in 1997, the activist believes “violence might burst” and Indonesia’s non-Muslims may seek help from and even flee to Australia, especially those in eastern Indonesia.

Disagreements between Australia and Indonesia often arise on religious issues, and Mr Harsono says  Islam has become a “determining factor in the bilateral relationship”.

This was more or less the case with the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, a multibillion-dollar trade deal that was delayed following Canberra’s plan to move the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia remains a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and has argued the status of Jerusalem must be negotiated between Palestine and Israel as part of a final peace deal. Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their capital.

According to a 2015 report by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Indonesia sources 80 per cent of its imported beef from Australia, and is Australia’s largest live export market. The deal, which was signed in March, is expected to boost these ties by reducing tariffs on agricultural trade.

Azis Anwar Fachrudin, a researcher at the Centre for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) at Gadjah Mada University, argues that nationalist forces in both Jokowi’s Cabinet and in his opponent Prabowo Subianto’s camp oppose this deal due to their protectionist ideals.

He said even the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) had called for the government to end Indonesia’s imports of Australian livestock.

“MUI is a semi-governmental body that is increasingly influencing policy-making. Some Islamist politicians behind Prabowo have also conveyed similar rhetoric,” Mr Fachrudin told the Post.

While Jokowi’s re-election was officially declared last Tuesday, Prabowo supporters including Islamists protested the result.

The bilateral relationship is therefore still at risk of heating up along religious lines should these groups get a foothold in Indonesia’s political climate.

“A more militant pressure against neighbouring countries that oppose the Palestinian independence cause, for example, is something to be expected should Islamists win government strategic posts that handle international affairs,” Mr Fachrudin said.

These Islamist parties also push to criminalise freedoms many Indonesians and Australians consider private matters, including practices of minority faith, homosexuality and consensual sex outside of marriage, he added.

— Annabel Bowles was an intern at The Jakarta Post under the ACICIS program. Applications for the ACICIS 2020 Journalism Professional Practicum are currently open.

— This story is an adaptation of a previous version published at The Jakarta Posthttps://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/02/17/political-islamism-a-cause-for-concern-in-neighborly-relations.html

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