Commentary: Marketing morality a winning strategy for Indonesian hardline groups

Commentary: Marketing morality a winning strategy for Indonesian hardline groups

Finding a scapegoat is an enticing strategy to win over youths who feel let down by the promises of modernity and market liberalisation, say two experts on Indonesian politics.

JAKARTA: The first anniversary of the largest religiously-driven mass demonstration in Indonesia has just been celebrated by some of the organisations that were its driving force.

Millions of Muslims descended upon Jakarta in December 2016 and joined with large numbers of the city’s residents in a rally called the Action to Defend Islam. The demonstrators demanded that then governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as Ahok) be stripped of his governorship and put on trial for blaspheming against Islam.

Ahok, who is now in prison, controversially commented on a Quranic verse that suggests Muslims should not appoint a non-Muslim leader. Ahok himself is a Christian and ethnically Chinese. 

This makes him part of a social group seen by many in Indonesia to have unfairly benefited from colonial-era policies that concentrated wealth in their hands.


The Ahok case shows a link between expressions of Muslim solidarity and resentment of existing socio-economic conditions. 

Such resentment is not exclusively held by poor Muslims — many Indonesians, especially the young and educated middle class who have aspirations of upward social mobility, feel let down by the promises of modernity and development instilled through educational and other institutions.

For them, Ahok’s controversial programme of urban redevelopment involving mass evictions arguably accentuated the already strong sense of precarious existence that permeates through Indonesian society.

Indonesians’ responses to their socio-economic circumstances are increasingly articulated through language of religious morality, which reflects growing levels of piety within Indonesian society and enables the sort of religious solidarity seen in the 2016 protests. 

Muslim hardline protesters cover their faces as police fire tear gas during a protest against Jakar
Muslim hardline protesters cover their faces as police fire tear gas during a protest against Ahok in Jakarta. (Photo: REUTERS)

This connection between socio-economic grievances and strength of religious sentiment has facilitated the emergence of a “market of morality” - A space through which religious symbols are consumed and reproduced as an expression of grievance against an unjust status quo.

In Indonesia, religious morality potentially provides a rich cultural resource pool for competing elites to exploit, including in many of the 171 local elections due to take place across the archipelago in 2018. The narrative of oppression, used so well against Ahok, is often employed to rally mass mobilisations of support.

This narrative is one that emphasises the struggles of a virtuous but marginalised majority that forms an ummah (community of believers). The ummah is contrasted against greedy business elites (typically the ethnic Chinese minority) who are in turn backed by corrupt and powerful political figures.


A survey of 600 people who participated in the Action to Defend Islam rally sheds some light on the link between perceptions of social injustice, adherence to Islamic morality and political action among Indonesians.

Reflecting the youthful nature of the protests, 60 per cent of respondents were in their 20s, 18 per cent were in their 30s and only 14 per cent were over 40 years old. 

A slight majority (51 per cent) had completed tertiary education while secondary education was the highest attained by 47 per cent of respondents. 

44 per cent reported monthly household expenditures of IDR4.5 million to IDR7 million (approximately US$350 to US$500), which places them in the lower middle-class bracket.

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an
Hardline Muslim groups gathered to protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in October. (Photo: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

While the anti-Ahok mobilisations of 2016 were spearheaded by hardline groups like the notorious Islamic Defenders Front, nearly 60 per cent of respondents claimed affinity with mainstream Islamic organisations like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. 

These organisations are usually held up as guardians of moderate forms of religious politics in Indonesia.

This simultaneous support for moderate groups and for actions spearheaded by hardline groups is not so surprising. 

When comparing those who veer toward moderate groups and those who veer toward hardline organisations, the survey results show little difference in adherence to opinions on many questions pertaining to Islamic morality.

These include attitudes toward non-Muslims, the role of women in society and what construes religiously acceptable economic activity. 

Moderate Muslim organisations are perceived to be incapable of addressing Indonesians’ socio-economic anxieties, driving respondents to support the more assertive narratives of marginalisation deployed by hardline Muslim groups.

Interestingly, one-fifth of the survey’s respondents felt that not one Islamic organisation represents their interests. This gap explains why hardline narratives are increasingly easier to push into mainstream Muslim politics (previously led by moderate Islamic organisations).

A man stands in front of an information board featuring people seeking jobs and rental houses at Ke
A man stands in front of an information board featuring people seeking jobs and rental houses at Kemang district in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta)


These survey results do not reflect a set of social circumstances that have suddenly come into being. Since the late 1980s, the liberalisation of the Indonesian economy has eroded public institutions and increased competition between individuals in a context largely devoid of social safety nets beyond the family.

But because the market is too abstract to be blamed, the most convenient scapegoats are “others” who are defined as being firmly outside of the toiling majority.

The Ahok case - which displayed strong anti-Chinese sentiment - shows that feelings of resentment toward market injustices can be smoothed over by the idea that the Muslim majority has been systematically marginalised in the competition over economic resources. 

It also shows that political elites are ready to take advantage of the economic anxieties of young and educated Muslims.

Issues of inequality and injustice in Indonesia are likely to be increasingly framed on the basis of racial as well as religious identities. 

This will only perpetuate the current neglect of how these issues are more fundamentally related to neoliberal transformations and the nature of economic and political power.

Vedi Hadiz is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne and an adjunct professor in Indonesia. Inaya Rakhmani is a lecturer in communications in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Indonesia and an associate at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University. This commentary originally appeared in Asian Currents. Read the original here.