KUALA LUMPUR: Indonesian President Joko Widodo's choice of a conservative Muslim cleric as his running mate took many by surprise, but it underscored his determination to counter accusations of him being anti-Islam in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
By picking influential Islamic scholar Ma’ruf Amin, Widodo, also known as Jokowi, blunted the campaign against him, boosting his chances of being re-elected.
“Ma’ruf biggest contribution is to ease the attacks of identity politics against Jokowi, make things safer for him,” said Burhanuddin Muhtadi, executive director of pollster Indonesian Political Indicator.
Jokowi and the 75-year-old Ma’ruf will face former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra party and his running mate, entrepreneur Sandiaga Uno, in the April 2019 presidential election.
“It is a smart move by Jokowi. Ma’ruf is too old to be ambitious. Non-interference is valuable. No big business (background) is priceless," said former Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja.
WHO IS MA’RUF AMIN?
Ma'ruf is one of Indonesia’s most influential and highly-recognisable Muslim clerics today.
He is the spiritual leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which claims to have 80 million followers and is the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia and in the world.
NU is known as Indonesia’s face of moderate Islam.
Ma’ruf also heads the influential Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), a semi-official government body which issues fatwas for the Muslim community.
His Islamic credentials are impeccable – he is a descendant of Abu Abdul Mu'ti Muhammad Nawawi, a prominent West Java Islamic cleric who was imam at the Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Within NU, Ma’ruf is seen as a conservative figure compared to many of the organisation's senior clerics who are known for their inclusiveness, defence of minority rights and promotion of interfaith dialogue.
MA’RUF HAS A HISTORY OF DISCRIMINATING MINORITIES: HRW
He has issued fatwas against minorities, including banning the Ahmadiyahs, a Muslim minority sect.
In the past 13 years, Ahmadiyahs have been attacked, killed by mobs and had their homes razed to the ground by extremists, including the radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) .
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Ma’ruf as having played a pivotal role in “fuelling worsening discrimination against the country’s religious and gender minorities”, in a statement posted on its website on Friday night (Aug 10).
“Over the past two decades at the MUI, Amin has helped draft and been a vocal supporter of fatwas, or religious edicts, against the rights of religious minorities, including the country’s Ahmadiyah and Shia communities, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people,” said HRW.
“Amin has been central to some of the most intolerant elements of Indonesian contemporary religious and political culture, so fear of the negative impact he could have on the rights and safety of religious and gender minorities is well founded,” said Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy director of Asia division.
MA’RUF MORE MODERATE IN PAST TWO-AND-A-HALF YEARS: MUSLIM SCHOLAR
Ahmad Suaedy, a senior researcher at the Wahid Foundation, an organisation founded by the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid that advocates moderate Islam, traces Ma’ruf’s conservatism to the period prior to 2010, when MUI was filled with many hardliners.
“Ma’ruf has been with NU since he was a child. But his career was largely spent in MUI where he interacted with Muslim organisations (whose members) were radicals and hardliners,” Suaedy, who is also an NU member, told Channel NewsAsia.
MUI's members included the hardline Hizbut Tahrir which advocates abolishing Indonesia’s democratic system of government and replacing it with an Islamic State, Suaedy said.
Hizbut Tahrir was banned by the government last year.
“Since 2010, such hardline groups are not in MUI anymore ,” said Suaedy.
In 2015, Ma'ruf became the spiritual leader of NU and he has been spending more time in the organisation, which moderated his outlook, according to Suaedy.
“Yes, he has a history of being a hardliner but in the past two-and-a-half years, he has not issued fatwas against groups like Ahmadiyahs and others,” said Suaedy.
In 2016, Jokowi was shaken when hardline Muslim groups took to the streets in large numbers to protest against and ultimately defeat his ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as “Ahok”, when he stood for re-elections as Jakarta governor.
Following Ahok’s defeat, Jokowi sought to forge closer ties with Ma’ruf and steered his attention towards working to redistribute wealth to close the gap between the rich and the poor, according to Suaedy.
Suaedy said Jokowi has given out concessions on thousands of hectares of land to farmers and people from low-income families. He also extended cheap credit to the needy.
“As such, Ma’ruf in the past two years is far more interested in redistributing wealth and eradicating poverty. I believe this is what he will sought to do as a vice president,” said Suaedy.
"Having said that, it may be more difficult for Jokowi to protect minorities because of Ma'ruf's history," he added.
ATTACKS ON JOKOWI’S MUSLIM CREDENTIALS PRESSURED HIM TO PICK MA’RUF
To understand Jokowi’s choice of Ma’ruf as running mate, one only needs to tune in to cyberspace to see the relentless onslaught against the president’s religiosity.
Videos accusing Jokowi of being anti-Muslim or a closet Christian are widely circulated on Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook.
The most recent one features prominent Indonesian Chinese Muslim preacher Felix Siauw driving a car and telling a passenger that Jokowi’s government “is not a friend” of Islam.
“... all of us need to understand the current regime is not a friend to Islam, does not side with Islam. What we want in 2019 is to replace all of it - replace the regime and also replace the entire system,” says Siauw, who has 2.3 million Instagram followers, in the video.
Muslim activist Alissa Wahid, daughter of the late former president Abdurrahman, told Channel NewsAsia that such a narrative creates fear among Muslims in Indonesian society.
“Society is afraid of the narrative that 'this regime is anti-Islam',” said Alissa, who is the director of Gusdurian Network Indonesia (GNI), a group that promotes interfaith dialogue, democracy and human rights.
“The mainstreaming of religious exclusivism that has been taking place for the last 40 years has turned (Indonesia) into a fertile ground to use religious sentiment as a hate spinner.”
“People will be swayed as to 'who is more Islamic', or to avoid 'who is anti-Islam',” added Alissa.
While Jokowi may have staved off the anti-Islam narrative for now, he still faces a battle on the economic front.
“One of the biggest challenges facing Jokowi is the high oil prices, weak rupiah versus the US dollar – all these can disrupt Jokowi’s development efforts,” said pollster Saiful Mujani of Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC).
Jokowi’s rivals are now expected to attack him on economic issues.
“The issue of foreign debt, social inequality, infrastructure projects which are seen as only benefiting the middle class and above - these are the main issues which will be used (to attack Jokowi),” said Indonesian Political Indicator's Burhanuddin.
JOKOWI-MA’RUF PAIRING ALIENATES SOME OF HIS SUPPORTERS
Some Indonesians took to Twitter to express their shock at a Jokowi-Ma’ruf pairing, saying they will abstain from voting in 2019.
“Today I declare I #Golput. #2019Golput is halal,” tweeted @SpionaseNKRI.
Golput means to abstain from voting.
“Come on friends #Golput2019 as a form of protest to punish those who use identity politics in the presidential polls,” tweeted @bangsawarior55.
One analyst warned that Jokowi's pairing with a conservative figure carries the risk of having his reform agenda compromised.
“This is a bold move by Jokowi. It effectively closes off the risk of him being wedged by an Islamist populist campaign against him,” said Greg Barton, Professor and Chair of Global Islamic Politics, Deakin University.
“It is not, however, without risk. Nevertheless, if they choose to continue to take a populist Islamist line, they might succeed in driving Jokowi so far to the right that he struggles to maintain his reformist credentials.”