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The vanishing option of not being political about religion: Reflections on “Ahok”

Date:26 May 2017
Author:Religion Factor
The vanishing option of not being political about religion
The vanishing option of not being political about religion

The Ahok case in Indonesia has sent ripples through the international community, raising concerns about human rights and freedom of religion or belief in the Indonesian context. In today’s post,  Christoph Gruell  draws on his research experiences in Cirebon, Java, to unpack what is going on in the Ahok case and the dangers that arise when it becomes increasingly impossible not to be political about your religious identity.

On May 9, the governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of blasphemy under Article 156a of the Indonesian Criminal Code. Large-scale protests against Ahok began after a speech during his election campaign in September 2016, in which he disagreed with those who used verse 51 of Surah 5[i] of the Quran to convince voters that Muslims should not vote for non-Muslims. The video made it appear that Ahok criticized Islam,[ii] though this interpretation is highly questionable.

Growing international media attention over the past week and a number of twitter hashtags such as #FreeAhok made the case one of the trending topics in the days following the verdict.[iii] The British Guardian framed the court ruling as a ‘measure of religious pluralism in Indonesia.’[iv] The Dutch news site NRC suggested the case points towards threats of radicalization in the world’s largest Muslim majority country.[v] The trial and the surrounding protests are yet another incident that has brought attention to the question of societal and religious shifts in the Indonesian religious landscape. In general, media coverage is concerned with two things: polarization and division within Indonesian society and the usage of religion for political purposes, often depicted as a struggle between tolerant and intolerant interpretations of Islam in Indonesia.[vi]

Based on my own research experience on freedom of religion in Cirebon on Java, I find these accounts both apt and highly problematic. The tensions identified and concerns voiced are certainly a crucial part of the current challenges that Indonesian society is facing and one can find many examples of how they play out at a national and local level. And yet, the polarization between tolerance and intolerance is only one part of this picture. Giving attention only to this dimension of what is going on in Indonesia without understanding the other factors at play is not going to provide a way out of the conflicts and tensions. Indeed, it may serve to exacerbate tensions and make the situation worse. Attention also needs to be paid to the impact of the international discourse on Islam rather than solely on the problems with Islam in Indonesia. This does not mean ignoring the actual tensions that exist within local contexts in Indonesia and around the globe, but to try to shift attention to the broader milieu in which these struggles are taking place.

Nothing captures my feeling of unease with the way current dynamics of polarization are framed in international media better than a quite ordinary encounter I had in summer 2015 during the month of Ramadan. It was late at night and I was sitting with a small group in a Pesantren, an Islamic boarding school characteristic of Indonesian history and society, when our conversation turned to the issue of our personal beliefs. The particular environment and the point of time during Ramadan, having had food together after nightfall and being welcomed to a stranger’s home, left a particular impression on me. One of the men in the group was especially enthusiastic about sharing ideas and beliefs, all of which once again struck me as deeply felt and beautifully described. At one point, though, as he looked to the night sky, he suddenly turned very sad. ‘I am afraid,’ he said, ‘that our faith is torn apart by what is happening around the world.’ His fears mirror much of what the current debates are about, but it also reveals what is missing from them.

His view was confirmed in many of the interviews that I conducted over the months that followed. Working as a young white male European researcher in the environment of a local project on freedom of religion–based on a cooperation between Islamic and multi-faith Indonesian organizations and a Dutch Catholic faith-based development organization–granted me admittedly only limited access to the local discourses. Nonetheless, I had the chance to gain some insight into on-the-ground dynamics and the tensions but also societal resources that local actors were engaged with. In reflecting on the current political struggles around the Ahok case, this insight seems highly valuable. I encountered a complex interplay between, on the one hand, the local traditions and practices that structure everyday life including intra- and interreligious relations and, on the other, the national and international discourses around Islam that have an increasing influence on personal relations within and between different groups. In a nutshell, what the tension between local and global discourses amounts to is an increasing and powerful reduction of spaces available for people to live their religion without interference from global discourses. More and more, Muslims in Indonesia find themselves confronted with the challenge to choose sides between opposing groups. Media, spokespersons, politicians and other commentators often frame these groups as either ‘tolerant’ and ‘radical’ or, from the other perspective, as ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ Islam. What disappears, slowly, and not only in Indonesia,[vii] is the option of not being political about one’s beliefs.

This increasingly politicized and polarized environment presents something of a conundrum. On the one hand, the politicization of religion is in sharp contrast to the varieties of customs and traditions that are important to peoples’ lives. Islamic heritage in Indonesia is characterized by deep connections with pre-Islamic elements of Indonesian culture as well as the encounter with numerous other religious, cultural and indigenous traditions. These are elementary aspects of everyday life. On the other hand, as Jeremy Menchik shows in his detailed study of Islamic organizations in Indonesia religion and politics can neither empirically nor normatively be thought of as two separate entities (as secular liberal models of religious tolerance suggest).[viii] Through the public engagement of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, religious values and understandings have always been and will continue to be highly relevant for the formation of discourses at a state level. The broad networks that these organizations consist of connect them with local communities and have hence a strong influence on daily life and political opinions all over the country.

Having been at a nation-wide conference of one of these organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), I could observe how the promotion of its particular interpretation of Islam, so-called Islam Nusantara, is increasingly mobilized as a counter-force to radical interpretations of Islam. This takes place in explicit opposition to other groups throughout the country (groups that were also active in the protests against Ahok).[ix] Islam Nusantara is often described as tolerant and as a particular Indonesian version of Islam that is in harmony with the cultural and religious diversity of the country. In my own perception, however, this development hints at the threat of a further push towards polarization and politicization of these organizations and of communal life. Furthermore, my concern is that this development becomes more and more measured by standards external to the Indonesian context but dominant in the international perspective on Islam as either good or bad.[x]

What makes the evaluation of the Ahok case difficult if one does not want to fall back on the opposition between intolerant and tolerant Islam is the fact that international developments such as the rise of IS and subsequently of supportive groups in Indonesia do in fact dramatically change the religious landscapes. They confront traditional forms of Indonesian Islam with an alternative that is more fundamentalist and aims at deep transformations in Indonesia. Such fears are valid and many actors, young and old, individual or organizational, work to prevent such developments. The Ahok case resonates with this struggle and it is in this regard that I cannot but agree with the media coverage, highlighting what is at stake in this case: transformations of Indonesian social and political life. However, what is missing in this perspective is a reflection on the international discourse itself. Two short examples underline the effects of global discourses on local affairs.

First, Indonesia, like many other countries, has become a growing market for international initiatives that promote the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and, closely related, counter-radicalization programs. My own research in Cirebon, Java was dedicated to questions of how such an agenda plays out in a local context. One of the main findings was that the very notion of FoRB is problematic and raises many concerns about the interrelation of freedom and religion, that is, the matter of choice in questions of religion. In a different cultural environment, taken for granted ideas within international human rights language might after all be counter-productive. Promoting FoRB – an agenda that often translates as promoting tolerant Islam in disguise, transports international interests into local contexts. One of the consequences of this is that religious orientations and practices become qualified as right or wrong on the basis of a particular idea of what constitutes good religious behavior. While not all of these ideas are met with resistance, religion becomes politicized, increasing conflict between often oppositional alliances on the ground.

Second, it’s important to emphasize the risk that counter-radicalisation efforts pose of (unintentially) deepening the divide between different groups in the population. This potential consequence became clear when I participated in a workshop on counter-radicalization strategies for online content producers organized by Google Indonesia with the Wahid Institute, a famous Jakarta-based center for the study of Islam. While pursuing the valid goal of a more peaceful society, countering radicalization often further politicizes religion and Islam and leads to the creation of new fractures. Central to this challenge is the nature of online communication, often one of the main concerns in counter-radicalization initiatives. Online communication spreads quickly and contributes to the creation of silos and enclaves, which can encourage thinking about rather than with the other. Yet such counter-radicalisation initiatives can reduce the space of politically inclusive religious life.

These trends, however, are in sharp contrast with the possibilities and resources of local values and customs in the face of an increasingly global discourse on political Islam. Whether young or old, girls or boys, women or men, the numerous encounters that I had during my fieldwork have taught me an important lesson: International concerns with radicalization and religious intolerance, shining through in the big interest in the Ahok case, might best be answered by local practices that take place on a daily basis but remain hidden from international attention. One of my interview partners, struggling with social exclusion due to his conversion for some time, formulated it thus: ‘The problems are global and they can only be solved on a global level. But we have inherited means of engaging with others that will help us going on.’ He told his story of how the tensions around his person turned into new forms of acceptance after having engaged in regular exchanges and visits with others in his village over a long period of time. He referred to this as Silaturahmi, a practice of encountering and visiting your neighbors to maintain close bonds.

The tradition of Silaturahmi has deep roots in Indonesian everyday life. Often it involves sharing drinks and food, welcoming others to your home, engaging in conversation. I found myself sitting in front of houses, having tea and biscuits on multiple occasions, whether for only a short visit or a longer talk, at various places, from private homes to hospitals or officials. It is where one can have a moment of rest and take time for the other – it is the opposite of learning online or in the news about others. The rapid growth of social media and mobile technology makes it more and more important to maintain social bonds with neighbors and other communities, especially where these are framed in a negative light.

Direct encounters across religious and ethnic lines are a central component in the work of local organizations that aim to promote understanding and tolerance – inviting people to places of worship, to join multi-faith groups, to become familiar with customs from other places in Indonesia. Bringing together local traditions from all over the country, ways of dressing or specific food traditions, were important vehicles to reduce sceptic views of the other. Most youth I had the privilege of listening to have had only little contact with and knowledge about other religious beliefs and practices until meeting in person. For most, this was a remarkable experience. ‘There was no need to be afraid,’ was one of the statements I heard, or: ‘After having spent time together, I realized that it is okay to be different as long as we respect those differences.’ The fears of losing one’s own faith, customs, and certainties could be suspended through encounters with others in a safe space. For a Muslim and a Buddhist becoming friends it was a key moment that they started reminding each other of the duties they had to obey, each according to their religion: ‘First I was afraid of conversion, then I learned that we both share the same concerns and wish for the same things.’ Especially for young people, who are exploring their own place in society and their community, insecurities about religion and the perceived threat of misguidance are increasing a sense of vulnerability. Local virtues of engaging with others and learning about oneself are potentially the best resources to respond to global challenges.

Looking at such examples, I want to raise a word of caution—and want to invite readers to a more nuanced perspective. Most importantly, there is a risk of understating the variety of opinions and orientations so characteristic for Indonesian society and self-identifications. There is space between tolerance and intolerance that disappears in a discourse where only ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Islam exist, and the distinction between the two becomes the superior measure. The mobilization of good and tolerant Islam runs the risk of depriving it of one of its main features: to be a way of living and living together that comes naturally to many people across the country. Promoting it, making it an object of choice, and more than that, a good or bad choice, limits the possibility of it being something else: A tradition of ideas, customs and practices in which opposing groups can find middle grounds without having to choose sides. Such possibilities disappear in a good versus bad narrative in which international politics play a significant role.

The “Ahok” case should make us aware of the need to find such middle ground. The polarization between tolerant and intolerant religion has made this endeavor more difficult as well as more urgent. Such spaces might have to be looked for away from the gaze of international attention. It might be the best hope to remind ourselves that the options of good and bad Islam are a politically motivated construction that do not correspond to realities on the ground. Numerous people and organizations are facing these dynamics while developing creative ways of working towards societal inclusion without being on one of the two sides that politics and media are pushing us towards. To escape, and perhaps to change, this framework, the best exercise could be to start listening to stories that tell more about the complexities and problems as well as the positive and hopeful ideas all around the world, rather than defining ourselves what is at stake.

Christoph Gruell is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. 

Religion Factor would like to acknowledge the editorial assistance of Dr Jeremy Menchik, Boston University, in the preparation of this post.






[vi]         See for example the commentary in the German Süddeutsche Zeitung,, or the New York Times,

[vii]        A workshop in late 2015 with several Dutch development organizations organized by the Knowledge Center on Religion and Development in Utrecht showed how this dynamic was also at work in Mali after the violence of recent years.

[viii]        Menchik, J. (2016).  Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism , Cambrige: Cambridge University Press.


[x]         For this discussion see Shakman Hurd, E. (2015).  Beyond Religious Freedom: The new Global Politics of Religion , Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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