Indonesia’s Election: Islam, Democracy, and Media Click-Bait

Image Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta: Wikimedia Commons

After some encouragement on twitter, I decided to write a quick blog post about the generalizing of Indonesia and Islam in media coverage of the election, much of which has ignored the diversity of ideologies, cultures, and strains of religious thought and belief that exist in the country.

For those who aren’t aware of the background, following the fall of the authoritarian Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia became the third largest democracy in the world. Now seen as the most successful democratizing state in the Southeast Asian region, this achievement challenges the idea of Muslim exceptionalism that sees Islam as an inherent challenge to democratic consolidation.

However, when scanning media coverage I (and many others) noticed a prominent trend: a lacking in nuance, and an obsessive focus on Indonesia as being on the road to becoming (or already) a religious authoritarian state – by often insinuating that normal religious practices reflect state Islamism.

Here’s a small sample (please comment with more examples if you wish):


Bloomberg’s Arys Aditya and Thomas Kutty Abraham wrote a measured article about some of the issues surrounding use of conservative Muslim clergy by both political sides, yet Bloomberg’s headline dramatically read:

“Jokowi’s Poll Fight Shows Indonesia’s Islam Identity Crisis”

Whilst issues around identity politics were discussed, their article actually talked much more about both Jokowi’s and Prabowo’s policy promises around social welfare, economic growth, and strategies to address the growing cost of living. For context, we need to acknowledge that these trends and their links to identity politics are sweeping the globe, see:  US National Intelligence Council’s report on growing religiosity and identify politics globally if you’re interested in that trend.

New York Times

The New York Times headline dramatically read:

“Faith Politics on the Rise as Indonesian Islam Takes a Hard-Line Path”

The publication strangely noted that “on Sunday he (Jokowi) visited Mecca.”

**Newsflash! Jokowi has taken a trip to partake in Umrah before every election of his political life, including when he was mayor of Solo! Even my beer drinking punk Indonesian friends do Umrah. Stop generalizing**

Times UK

Can’t get past the paywall but the first paragraph of the Times UK is enough to gauge its content:

“Indonesians have decisively re-elected Joko Widodo as president, according to exit polls, after he embraced conservative Islam in his effort to win a second term.”


The Reuters headline declared:

“In Indonesia’s election, the winner is Widodo – and Islam” 

The article revealed Islamophobic leanings by linking normal, religious practices to growing intolerance and conservative Islam by stating:

“Some fear Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance is now at risk, however, as conservative interpretations of Islam become more popular. Among myriad measures of this, demand for sharia finance is growing and more women are covering their heads.”

Islam does not constitute an unchanging cultural element hostile to democracy. Displays of piety by public officials (and ordinary citizens!) in Indonesia do not necessarily mean the election was won on matters of religion as these symbols have consistently played a role in public life. See for more on this.

**Reminder: Indonesia’s democratisation and reform movement was led by Indonesian students and Indonesia’s civil society (many of whom are Muslim and who now are/were hijjabers), some of whom mobilized support through religion to promote democracy – which I get to below.**

Muslim Civil Society’s Role in Indonesia’s Transition to Democracy:

Indonesia’s transition to democracy through the Reformasi movement gained momentum at a time when Indonesians were becoming increasingly conscious of their Muslim identities, and Islamic civil society groups played an integral role in toppling the authoritarian regime.

While the case of Indonesia highlights for some that Muslim-majority societies are compatible with democracy as conceived by Western  democratization theory, it does remind us that there are disjunctures between the liberal democracies of the West, and the procedural democracy bound by the “Godly Nationalism” (Menchik) found in Indonesia.

In 1997 on the eve of Indonesia’s hard fought transition to democracy (fought for by Muslim and non Muslim activists) Uhlin described in the inspirations motivating democratization in Indonesia as deriving from a range of sources – from “Western liberal thought, but also from Marx and the Koran, as well as from traditional Indonesian values.” (Anders Uhlin, Indonesia and the Third Wave of Democratisation: The Indonesia Pro-Democracy Movement in a Changing World, Routledge 1997)

Robinson also argues against generalizing about Islamisation in political movements in Indonesia, stating that approaches that generalize the importance of religion and culture tend to “confuse the notion of ‘culture’ with the … ideological expression of the social, political and economic interests” of those who perpetuate ideologies of religious violence to maintain social power. (Richard Robinson, “Explaining Indonesia’s Response to the Jenkin’s Article, 1990)

Which is exactly what the dictator Suharto did in order to maintain power: repress expressions of religiosity.

As several former pro-democracy activists have also pointed out, whilst religious and  cultural factors are important, the problems of democratization exemplified by issues of religious violence and state corruption cannot only be attributed to religion or “religious radicalism.”

To do so would be to “accept [Suharto’s] New Order discourse of a single Indonesian culture that is incompatible with many democratic principles.” Uhlin, Ibid. p. 58

Instead, they argue, there are many cultures in Indonesia, some of which support democratic values, whilst others may not.


*The role of religion in Indonesia has indeed become more prominent in recent decades, particularly because Indonesia is a religious country, through the increasing prominence of religion expands the potential for people from different faith backgrounds to find themselves in conflict over economic, social and political issues understood through the lens of religion.

** For more on Indonesian Muslim Civil Society’s role in Indonesia’s democratization see Hefner’s Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia


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