Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Conflicts in Indonesian Islam

Despite these positive political and economic trends, Islamist movements have flourished in Indonesia

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Soeharto announces his resignation, May 20, 1998 (Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Soeharto announces his resignation, May 20, 1998 (Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In the three years following the 1998 economic crisis and the fall of President Soeharto, Indonesia endured economic dislocation, political turmoil, and religious violence that claimed thousands of lives. However, since this period of upheaval the country has been on a broadly upward path both politically and economically. Religious violence has tended to be sporadic and local, aside from the Bali bombings of 2002. Indonesia now has the largest economy in Southeast Asia and among the countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. At 260 million people, the country, which has now had nearly two decades of largely free elections, is the third-largest democracy in the world. Some 88 percent of its population are Muslims, making it the largest Muslim-majority country in the world.

Despite these positive political and economic trends, in recent years, Islamist movements have flourished in Indonesia. Indeed, their pressure was a major factor leading to the imprisonment of the Christian governor of Jakarta on charges of blasphemy in 2017. The moderate forms of Islam that have historically been hegemonic in Indonesia may now be under threat.1

Trends Since Soeharto’s Fall

After Soeharto’s rule (1968–1998), successive presidents encouraged tolerant and moderate forms of Islam. This was especially true of former president and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) leader Abdurrahman Wahid (r. 1999–2001). However, during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) (r. 2004–2014), more radical currents of Islam grew in influence, often with the president’s explicit or tacit encouragement.2

Under SBY, the authority of the Indonesian Ulama Council, Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), was enhanced. The MUI was created by Soeharto in 1975 to provide halal certification and issue fatwas on current matters of concern. Its membership is drawn from large Sunni organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah as well as numerous smaller groups. Shiites and Ahmadis, however, are excluded. Although the government appoints its members and funds it, the Council makes its decisions independently, its fatwas are not legally binding, and they do not necessarily reflect government policy. This semi-official status creates widespread confusion about its authority, especially since the MUI has become more extreme and has sought to expand its powers, as evidenced by the wider range of subjects upon which it issues fatwas. In 2016, after police started to enforce some MUI fatwas, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) had to warn them that MUI edicts were not government laws or regulations and that therefore the police had no authority to enforce them.3

In 2005, while SBY was president, he spoke to the MUI’s National Congress and promised to increase its authority to define what constituted proper Islam. Shortly thereafter, the MUI issued fatwas prohibiting interfaith prayer, mixed marriages, interfaith inheritance, religious pluralism, liberalism, and secularism.4 SBY’s government also issued a “Joint Regulation on Houses of Worship” in 2006, which has been used widely to restrict minorities. Two years later, the government issued a specifically anti-Ahmadiyya decree.

President Jokowi, in office since 2014, has been critical of more restrictive forms of Islam, stressed religious toleration, and emphasized that the MUI does not make government policy. Despite these changes, the radicalization that took hold during SBY’s presidency has continued, resulting in increased incidents of religious violence and other forms of intolerance, such as blasphemy charges.5 Islamist groups are outmaneuvering and outperforming the massive but unwieldly NU and Muhamadiyyah organizations.

Traditional Indonesian Islam

Islam initially spread throughout Indonesia via merchants and missionaries, several of whom had Chinese or Central Asian ancestry. 6 The largely peaceful spread of Islam has led to a variety of co-existing, independent Islamic organizations, which have formed the basis for a robust civil society. The country is home to the world’s largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which have perhaps fifty million and forty million followers, respectively. NU’s base is in villages and towns, where it operates a massive network of thousands of Islamic schools (pesantren) serving millions of students. NU also runs twenty-two universities, owns many magazines, and engages in expansive charitable and social work. Similarly, Muhammadiyah runs twenty-nine universities. Its focus, however, is somewhat different from NU’s: It stresses the importance of a modern and pure Islam, freed from cultural accretions, and gives particular attention to influencing and educating people in the professions and in higher education.

Both NU and Muhammadiyah, along with other organizations and Muslim scholars, refer to a particular kind of Indonesian Islam: Islam of the archipelago (Islam Nusantara), or the Islam of the islands.7 Some scholars have described Islam Nusantara as syncretism rather than Islam. For example, eminent cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz called his landmark study The Religion of Java rather than a study of Islam in Java.8 Other scholars, however, simply describe Islam Nusantara as Sunni Islam. Historian Azyumardi Azra describes the Islam of Indonesia not as an amalgam with Hindu-Buddhism, but as Sunni Islam based on three pillars: Ash’arite theology, Ghazalian Sufism, and the Shafi’i Madhab. According to Azra, it is an Islam of moderation (moderasi), a middle path (wasatiyyah Islam), which seeks to balance sacred revelation and human reason.9 In Indonesian, the word ‘moderasi’ has quasi-Aristotelian undertones of balance and harmony.

In Islam Nusantara there is an emphasis on Indonesia and Indonesians as a country and people shaped by islands, coasts, ports, trade, and travel, as distinct from more restrictive desert cultures. Within this culture of the islands, Islam developed into the dominant religion, but coexisted alongside other belief systems. The concept of Islam Nusantara reinforces understandings of Islam that reject an Islamic state in favor of a state founded on the recognition of Indonesia’s religious pluralism. While recognizing that geography has influenced Indonesian Islam, Muslim scholars of the country tend to strenuously resist the allegation that their beliefs are simply accidents of that geography and that their practices are fit only for anthropological inquiry but not for theological and legal insight.10

Surveys by the Pew Research Center indicate that Indonesian Muslims tend to be more pious than those in the Middle East.11 This is one reason that NU and Muhammadiyah scholars have in recent years grown more confident in challenging radical views imported from the Arabian Peninsula.12 They emphasize that, as NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj has said, Islam should be propagated by “respecting local cultures, not eradicating them.”13

Wahhabism and the Growth of Radicalism

Notwithstanding the widespread concept of Islam Nusantara, Indonesia has long had indigenous Islamist currents. At independence, such currents sprang from within the Hadhrami (Arab) community. Darul Islam, an Islamist group seeking the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia, was particularly influential in the early years after independence.14 The Masyumi Party was a major early Islamic political party. In 1945, in preparation for independence, there was a strong push these organizations and some other Islamic groups to incorporate a particular clause regarding sharia into the Jakarta Charter. The clause, which read, “the obligation to abide by Islamic law for adherents of Islam” (dengan kewajiban menjalankan syariat Islam bagi pemeluknya), would have opened the way to state-enforced sharia.15 It was ultimately rejected in the name of national unity, but there have been periodic calls since then to incorporate it into the constitution.


There have also been ongoing Wahhabi influences, which have often been strenuously resisted. Indeed, Islam in Indonesia has been shaped in no small measure by opposition to Wahhabism.16 There were tensions between Indonesian Muslims and Wahhabis in the eighteenth century, but the first major conflicts arose in the early nineteenth century in the Minangkabau Highlands of West Sumatra.17 In 1803, after Wahhabis had again taken control of Mecca and Medina, their ideology began to influence many Indonesian students and scholars studying or on hajj in the Hejaz. When these Indonesians returned home, they denounced the prevailing Islam in their homelands as syncretic and even apostate. Many locals who had not been abroad sharply rejected what they considered foreign, upstart notions of Islam. Conflict between Muslims inspired by Wahhabism and those in favor of preserving the status quo eventually led to all-out war. In 1815, the returnees from Arabia and their followers, known as Padris, killed most of the Minangkabau royal family. Facing defeat, the Minangkabau nobility sought assistance from the Dutch in Padang, who after years of fighting, defeated the Padris in 1838 and took control of West Sumatra.


The war was, to be sure, about more than rival interpretations of Islam.18 Local merchants, for example, hoped that they might enjoy greater opportunities under Padri-inspired sharia than under the rule of powerful families. Opposition to Dutch colonialism also played a role. Nevertheless, attempts to impose what were considered foreign and more austere forms of Islam on those Muslims comfortable with their local inheritance certainly triggered the war.

Like the Wahhabis, Muhammadiyah, which was founded in 1912, sought a purer Islam, one freed from cultural accretion. Its leaders, however, advocated for an Islam that was reformed but also modern. Rather than look to the Saudis for inspiration, therefore, they turned to Mohammad Abduh and similar modern reformers. In 1926, the NU was founded, partly in response to the Saudi destruction of tombs and other holy places in Mecca and Medina, and to rumors that they intended to destroy the Prophet’s tomb. NU’s founders saw this as a threat to true Islam as embodied in Indonesian beliefs and practices.19 When I attended NU’s five-year Congress in 2015, I was particularly struck by the sale of reprints of the 1922 work Menolak Wahhabi (Wahhabism Rejected) by Muhammad Faqih Maskumambang, one of the organization’s founders. The 2016 NU-hosted International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders (ISOMIL) warned that “various governments in the Middle East have exploited religious differences, and a history of enmity between sects, without regard to the consequences thereof for humanity at large…. These sectarian propaganda campaigns have deliberately nurtured religious extremism, and stimulated the spread of terrorism throughout the world.”20

Nevertheless, the Saudi influence in Indonesia is evident. Saudi Arabia has now established more than 150 mosques in the country, providing schoolbooks, preachers, and teachers, and disbursing thousands of scholarships for graduate study in Saudi Arabia.21 A key center of this program is the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA), a completely Saudi-funded university in South Jakarta. LIPIA opened in 1980, ostensibly with the purpose of teaching Arabic, and no Indonesian is spoken on the campus. Tuition is free and music, television, and loud laughter are forbidden. Men and women are segregated. The Ministry of Religious Affairs accredited LIPIA in 2015 but has voiced concerns over whether it will uphold moderate Islam and Indonesia’s state philosophy of Pancasila, which stresses belief in one God rather than any specific Islamic reference. After King Salman’s visit to Indonesia in March 2017, the Saudis expressed an interest in opening two or three more similar institutes.


Growing radicalism in Indonesia certainly poses a threat to the status quo. Terrorism, however, has not reached the same scale as in the Philippines. The single deadliest act of terror was the 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, which resulted in 202 deaths. Attacks since then have included the 2003 J. W. Marriott Hotel bombings in Jakarta, which killed twelve people; a 2004 car bombing outside the Australian Embassy, which killed ten people; bombings in Bali in 2005, which killed twenty-six people; and the bombings of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Jakarta in 2009, which killed at least nine people. The most recent larger attack occurred in January 2016, when multiple explosions went off near the Sarinah shopping mall in Jakarta. Many were injured in this attack, but of the eight people killed, half were the terrorists themselves. This failure to cause greater mayhem is a welcome sign of the terrorists’ incompetence.22

In recent years, some Islamist movement followers may have begun affiliating with ISIS.23 This most recent attack was also the first one claimed by ISIS. Several smaller-scale bombings have also been linked to the organization, such as the November 2016 attack on a church in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, where three home-made bombs were detonated, killing one child and injuring three others. Initially, this was considered a “lone-wolf” attack, but the perpetrators were subsequently linked to an ISIS-related group called Jamaah Anshorud Daulah (JAD), which appears to be the largest ISIS-related network in Indonesia and has had cells in several parts of the country.24 JAD has been linked to ISIS through Indonesian national Salim Mubarok Attamimi (Abu Jandal), who has close ties with the ISIS central leadership and who leads an Indonesian splinter unit called Forces of the East (Katibah Masyaari).25

A combination of factors has effectively limited the success of these terrorists. The major anti-terrorism unit, Special Detachment 88 (Detasemen Khusus 88, Densus 88), which was formed in 2002 in the wake of the Bali bombings and received American and Australian training, has had a significant impact. The unit is aggressive on both the intelligence-gathering and operational fronts.26 Another factor has been the response of Muslims adhering to dominant local forms of Islam, who have rejected radicalism and terrorism. Their response has limited the size of the ISIS recruiting pool and has isolated those already recruited. According to certain statistics, a Muslim from Indonesia is about seventy times less likely to join ISIS than a Muslim from the UK or several other European countries.27

Saudi influence, however, has been unyielding. In 1972, Saudi money helped found the “Ivy League” of jihadist pesantren, the Al-Mukmin school in Ngruki, Central Java. The four Bali bombers graduated from that school, as have other militants. The school was co-founded by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the “spiritual leader” of the Bali bombers. Although he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 2011, he continues to heavily influence the school. Additionally, Umar Faruq, a senior member of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, who was arrested in 2002, told the Central Intelligence Agency that Saudi charity al-Haramain provided money to his group.28 Jafar Umar Thalib, the leader of Laskar Jihad, a militia that slaughtered Christians in Maluku, graduated from LIPIA. Meanwhile, supporters of Wahhabi and other radical ideologies have been prominent on social media, including a radical “Muslim Cyber Army,” inundating their moderate counterparts.29

The Imprisonment of Ahok

The trial and conviction for blasphemy of the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), was a watershed in this trend toward radicalization. Ahok is both ethnic Chinese in a society with strong anti-Chinese sentiments, and Christian in a country that is 88 percent Muslim. Ahok, however, was an energetic and efficient governor with a 70 percent approval rating.

While campaigning for election in September 2016, Ahok remarked that the Koranic verse al-Maidah 51, warning Muslims against taking Jews or Christians as allies, was being misused by some clerics to argue that Muslims must not vote for a Christian. Several days later, a video of his remarks that had been deceptively edited by Buni Yani, a communications lecturer, went viral. The MUI responded with a fatwa accusing him of blasphemy. The radical Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), which has violently attacked Muslim minorities, churches, and nightclubs, joined with the newly formed National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI). Together, they called for demonstrations demanding that Ahok be tried and imprisoned. Other Islamist groups, such as the Forum Umat Islam (FUI), the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), Forum Ulama Umat Indonesia (FUUI), Aliansi Nasional Anti Syiah (ANNAS), and the Jamaat Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), also joined the movement. On November 4 and December 2 there were massive, largely peaceful demonstrations against blasphemy, one of which drew half a million people. This was an unusual display of strength for the hitherto marginal FPI.

NU and Muhammadiyah leaders, for their part, counseled calm and advised their members to avoid demonstrations and simply vote for those candidates they believed would contribute most to the public good. Despite these pleas, some senior members of these two organizations joined in the accusations against Ahok. In the end, the moderate NU and Muhammadiyah were outflanked by the radicals.

Ahok was ultimately arrested and tried for blasphemy, and on May 9, 2017, he was sentenced to two years in prison. Further, three of the five trial judges were promoted by the Indonesian Supreme Court the following day.30 Senior politicians, the military, and other elites had managed to manipulate sincere religious grievances for political purposes. These actors also likely helped fund the massive demonstrations—the thousands of buses, lunch boxes, and neatly printed signs and T-shirts.

The 2016 election had echoes of the 2014 presidential election, when Jokowi defeated Prabowo Subianto, son-in-law of the last dictator, Soeharto, and a former special forces general suspected of human rights abuses. Jokowi is the first Indonesian president from outside the military and political establishment. He and Ahok campaigned together in 2014, and both won their respective offices. Prabowo is widely suspected of seeking revenge in 2016 for his loss in 2014. His machinations may have also been aimed at influencing the 2019 presidential election. There had been rumors that Jokowi might be considering Ahok as his vice-presidential running mate. Prabowo and some of Suharto’s children are thought to be planning another presidential run, and they may be hoping that current unrest will increase demand for expanded security services and a firm political hand.

The Ahok verdict split the country. It also created tensions between the president and the military and the police and the military, who have tended to take different sides in the Ahok affair. Gatot Nurmantyo, then chief of the Indonesian Military (TNI), publicly contradicted the national police chief, General Tito Karnavian, a Jokowi ally, about whether there was anything treasonous in the anti-Ahok demonstrations.

A Political Counterattack on Radicalism

The Ahok incident points to growing radicalization, especially among university students (with the exception of the state Islamic universities, which are usually sites of moderation). Ahok’s conviction, however, may have salutary effects. Many Indonesians, including those in the government, have now acknowledged the increase in radicalism. This realization has led to a counterattack.

On November 17, 2017, Buni Yani, who had created and promulgated the tampered video of Ahok’s talk, was himself sentenced to one and a half years in prison for spreading hate speech.31 Then, Rizieq Shihab, leader of the FPI and a leading instigator of the demonstrations, was investigated for blasphemy after reports that he made denigrating remarks about the Holy Trinity. He was then questioned concerning an alleged insult to the official state ideology of Pancasila. Finally, the police interrogated him about insulting Soekarno, Indonesia’s revered first president. He was again summoned to answer accusations that he had insulted the new banknotes, saying they featured Communist symbols. On May 30, 2017, he was charged under the pornography law for allegedly sending sexually explicit messages to Firza Husein, who herself has been arrested for treason for her role in organizing the mass demonstrations. Rizieq, a graduate of King Saud University, fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remains today.32 His lawyer claims he is a guest of the government of Saudi Arabia, which is covering all his expenses, because he is a descendent of the Prophet. The Saudi government has not commented on the matter.33 The ongoing legal folderol suggests the police are using multiple vague accusations to keep troublesome people in line. After all, few Indonesians actually face charges for insulting the Trinity, Pancasila, a former president, or banknotes, not to mention engaging in pornography and consorting with a treason suspect.34

The counterattack has also involved new policy initiatives aimed at further cracking down on radical organizations. In July 2017, an administrative decree, Perppu n. 2/2017, banned Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) because its call for the restoration of the caliphate violates Pancasila, Indonesia’s official state ideology. The Constitutional Court has upheld the decree.35 Additionally, on October 24, 2017, the parliament passed a law allowing the government to ban organizations opposed to Pancasila.36 Furthermore, President Jokowi has made multiple speeches emphasizing the importance of diversity and national unity and has appointed a special committee to advise him on how best to promote the official ideology of Indonesia.

On November 7, 2017, the Constitutional Court unanimously held unconstitutional the existing legal requirement that Indonesians identify only as Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian on their national identification cards. The case concerned the religious status of “tribal religions” (loran kepercayaan), which had not previously been regarded as real religions but as “cultural belief systems.” There are about 1,200 such groups with a total of at least twelve million followers.37 The court held that loran kepercayaan must be treated equally and recommended that identity cards include a seventh category, “Believers of the Faith.”

A Doctrinal Counterattack on Radicalism

While Ahok’s imprisonment has given more urgency to governmental efforts to counter radical Islam, members of moderate Muslim organizations, especially NU, have been advocating for their own reformist agenda for several years. In May 2017, NU’s five-million-member-strong youth movement, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, convened more than 300 international religious scholars to consider the “obsolete tenets of classical Islamic law” that call for “perpetual conflict with those who do not embrace or submit to Islam.” At this gathering, the Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam was drafted, which builds on the May 16, 2016, NU-hosted International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders.

This declaration is far more self-critical than the much more famous 2016 Marrakesh Declaration “The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Lands,” propagated under the auspices of the Moroccan and Emirati governments, and argues that there are elements within classical Islam that are problematic and need to be changed. It states:

If Muslims do not address the key tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that authorize and explicitly enjoin … violence, anyone—at any time—may harness the orthodox teachings of Islam to defy what they claim to be the illegitimate laws and authority of an infidel state and butcher their fellow citizens, regardless of whether they live in the Islamic world or the West. This is the bloody thread that links so many current events, from Egypt, Syria and Yemen to the streets of Mumbai, Jakarta, Berlin, Nice, Stockholm and Westminster.

At the press conference announcing the declaration, Ansor chairman Yaqut Qoumas stated, “It is false and counterproductive to claim that the actions of al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and other such groups have nothing to do with Islam, or merely represent a perversion of Islamic teachings. They are, in fact, outgrowths of Wahhabism and other fundamentalist streams of Sunni Islam.”38

Yahya Cholil Staquf, head of Ansor and general secretary of the NU Supreme Council, reemphasized these themes in a July 18, 2017, address to the Council of the European Union Terrorism Working Party, many of whose members may well have accused the speaker of Islamophobia had he been anyone else.39

While the NU organization as a whole has not endorsed the declaration, Yahya says it is being discussed and that he has had surprisingly little pushback either in Indonesia or internationally for his remarks. He believes his critics are boxed in: they must say either that classical Islam does not teach what he says it does, which would be exegetically difficult, or that it does teach such things and Muslims should follow them.40

It remains to be seen what influence this initiative might have, especially in the Middle East, which is often aloof from ideas and arguments offered in more distant areas. Regardless, this is a striking initiative.

Toward the 2019 Election

The tactics used against Ahok in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election are already being employed in anticipation of the 2018 presidential election. In anonymous leaflets, Jokowi is accused of being a secret Christian and is simultaneously being linked with the disbanded Indonesian Communist Party. Islamists using the name Alumni 212, referring to the December 2 date of the biggest anti-Ahok demonstration, staged a reunion in Jakarta in which speakers declared that Jokowi had criminalized the MUI and was selling Indonesia to Chinese tycoons and foreigners. To counter these allegations, Jokowi has distanced himself from Ahok, stressed the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims, come to the defense of persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and is developing stronger ties with the NU and Muhammadiyah as well as the military. 41

In the short term, two tests will indicate what Islam’s future is in Indonesia. First, will the government circumscribe the authority of the MUI, and second, will it implement the recent Constitutional Court ruling concerning the loran kepercayaan. These will be bellwethers for whether Indonesia strengthens its tolerant traditions or slides into radicalism.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the Religious Freedom Institute.