February 17, 2017 | Florian Vernaz

Religion is one of the five pillars of Pancasila, the philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state. Indonesia is praised as the perfect example that democracy and religious faith are indeed compatible. Under the leadership of the country’s two largest religious organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), political Islam has historically rhymed with tolerance and integrity. The late president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid is until today acclaimed for his efforts to uphold the rights of minority groups.

But hardliners have been monopolizing headlines. The eruption of religious fundamentalism into politics reached a high point ahead of the capital’s gubernatorial election — with the campaign against incumbent Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama demanding his imprisonment for alleged blasphemy, resulting in a criminal investigation.

This anti-Ahok movement is often presented as a gathering of radical islamists and “for-hire” demonstrators. This would be a misconceived simplification of the movement, and a dangerous underestimation of the emergence of ultra-conservative populism in Indonesia.

By progressively integrating far-right ideas into mainstream politics, conservative parties took down the wall separating mainstream politics from the socially stigmatized far-right nationalist discourse. The more you concede to far-right movements, the stronger they become.

The Bela Islam movement — and more specifically its treatment by mainstream media and political parties — has achieved just that: bringing far-right populism into mainstream politics and “un-demonizing” the Islam Defenders Front (FPI).

While the current administration is responsible for guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and electoral processes and to protect the rights of religious minorities, national media also have an important role to play in preventing the normalization and mainstreaming of religious intolerance in the public space, thereby sending radicalism back to the social and political margins.

Florian is Advisor at Vriens & Partners’s Indonesia office.

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