Indonesia’s Game of Thrones Problem

GSTAAD — “Winter is coming.”

That’s the urgent message Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo delivered in a speech to World Bank leaders in Bali last October. It was a reference to the popular television series, Game of Thrones, in which seven kingdoms scheme and battle to claim the Iron Throne, the seat of power over all kingdoms, while ignoring a much more powerful army to the north that threatens them all. Snow and ice are said to follow in this army’s conquering wake — hence, “winter is coming.”

Jokowi used the reference as a metaphor to argue that the world’s major powers were battling to claim their own Iron Throne — competing fiercely with one another for economic and military dominance instead of cooperating to address more existential dangers, from climate change to global terrorism, that threaten us all. It’s not unlike the 57-year old Jokowi — known for his love of motorcycles, denim jackets, and heavy metal music — to use a pop culture reference familiar to millennials to make his point.

But he is also missing a point: Indonesia faces a Game of Thrones problem of its own. As Jokowi squares off with Prabowo Subianto, his opponent in Indonesia’s 2019 presidential race — they met in the second of five presidential debates this past weekend — both candidates are paying little attention to a grave threat to Indonesia’s future: the extreme politicization of Islam. Left unchecked, this growing political trend could hold the country hostage to extremist views and fundamentally change one of the most strategically important countries for the United States in the region forever.

It’s an odd thing to say about a nation that averages 80 degrees Fahrenheit at its coldest, but winter may be coming to Indonesia.

Whenever I suggest to knowledgeable friends in Jakarta that we may be seeing the rise of Islamic extremism in Indonesia, many are quick to dismiss the idea. They note — rightly — that this island nation, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy, has long been guided by a secular state ideology known as Pancasila, which demands respect for all organized religions in the country.

As articulated in the preamble to the 1945 constitution that established Indonesia as an independent nation, Pancasila is the embodiment of five sacred principles that form the foundation of the Indonesian state. Those principles include the belief in one supreme God, humanitarianism, national unity, consultative democracy, and social justice. Indonesians take Pancasila very, very seriously. While it doesn’t address Islam specifically, it has always inoculated Indonesia against extremist Sharia law becoming universal while keeping the country as a whole more moderate and tolerant. Even as my friends acknowledge that some parts of Indonesia may embrace a more extreme interpretation of Islam, they insist it will never define more than a small minority. Indeed, Jokowi even cited Pancasila last August in a quiet attempt to rebuff rising Islamism.

But what this rebuttal misses is that Islamic extremism doesn’t need to become the dominant or majority perspective of Indonesian Muslims to become a profoundly negative political force. It only need appeal to enough Indonesians to become a pivotal factor in elections and political maneuvering, encouraging Indonesian political parties and leaders to stoke extreme Islamic sentiments in hopes of gaining power.

That is exactly what has happened in recent years. “As Indonesian Muslims grow more pious, and in some ways more conservative,” argues a recent East Asia Forum analysis, “religion has gained a bigger role in electoral politics.” Jakarta’s former governor, a Chinese Christian popularly known as Ahok and closely allied with Jokowi, was jailed immediately after being defeated for re-election in 2017 after he had been accused of blasphemy against Islam based on a doctored version of one of his speeches. Ahok’s arrest followed massive protests by Islamist groups in what became known as the 212 Movement — so named for the date of the initial protest, December 12, 2016. This movement “has resulted,” as Resty Woro Yuniar has written, “in an informal alliance between political opportunists and Muslim hardliners. In fact, the 212 protestors and the attack on Ahok were primarily organized by political players — including, some commentators believe, as revenge for Ahok leaving Prabowo’s Gerindra party in 2014 over a disagreement about local elections.

This environment of increasing political activism by Islamic conservatives has made a clear mark on the upcoming Indonesian presidential election. Jokowi, who is being attacked as “insufficiently Islamic,” has moved to shore up support among Islamic groups in the 2019 election. Most notably, he appointed radical Islamic scholar Mar’uf Amin — who signed the fatwa calling for Ahok to be jailed — as his vice presidential running mate. Amin was not Jokowi’s first choice — Jokowi wanted a younger politician from another party with moderate but strong Islamic credentials — but only Amin met the demands of Jokowi’s coalition of parties for a vice presidential candidate with both Islamic credentials and no future ambitions to run for president, thus preserving an open field for other ambitious politicians in the 2024 election.

In January, Jokowi sparked outrage when he announced that Abu Bakar Bahir, the militant ideological leader of the 2002 Bali bombings that resulted in the deaths of 202 people, was being released early from a 15-year prison sentence due to frail health. Jokowi, who had initially conditioned Bashir’s release on his renouncing his radical beliefs, completely caved instead to a man who still refuses to recognize the secular government’s authority.

Meanwhile, Prabowo has sought to close the gap with Jokowi by bringing Islamic parties into his coalition and building up strong backing among conservative Islamic groups and supporters.

Neither Jokowi nor Prabowo are religious firebrands. In fact, I have known Prabowo for a long time. I consider him a friend and a pragmatic, forward-looking leader who I have written could be Indonesia’s version of the legendary former architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. But the fact that they’ve both embraced Islamic conservatives in Indonesia for political expediency is a bad sign for Indonesia’s future.

What must happen to ensure the politicization of Islam in Indonesia doesn’t become an existential threat to Indonesian democracy? Three things.

First, Indonesian leaders must reinforce Indonesia’s democracy by strengthening Indonesian democratic institutions and norms. The best antidote to the spread of extreme ideologies and approaches to governance is a strong, stable, and legitimate democratic system where Islamic conservatives are represented, but outcomes are grounded in the rule of law. There is nothing more dangerous than the vigilante justice that put Ahok in jail. The progress Indonesia’s General Elections Commission — which has sought to fight corruption in Indonesia’s elections — has made in recent years is a shining example of the sort of democratic reform we need to see more of in Indonesia.

Second, Indonesia’s next president — whether Jokowi or Prabowo — must continue to act pragmatically and aggressively to improve economic opportunities for all in Indonesia. While the Indonesian economy has grown significantly in the last twenty years, it still has a long way to go to reduce inequality and enter the ranks of developed nations. Focusing on a strong economy will give more Indonesians a stake in the status quo and help prevent the conditions that allow discontent and extremism to thrive.

Third and finally, the U.S. can and should help on both counts. We should invest in Indonesia’s growth and efforts to improve its infrastructure and expand training and exchange programs that expose Indonesian soldiers, students, and citizens to American democratic norms. By embracing Indonesia’s democracy, we also position ourselves as a better alternative to anti-democratic China. But it sends a very different message if we have to shun Indonesia for its shift away from democracy: China is winning.

The final season of Game of Thrones premieres on April 13. Four days later, Indonesians will go to the polls to vote for the country’s next president. Let’s hope that what happens on April 17 isn’t the beginning of the final season for Indonesia’s democracy, too.

Stanley A. Weiss is a business leader and founder of Business Executives for National Security. The views expressed are his own.

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