Nationalism versus Islamisation: A Power Struggle in Indonesia

19 April 2017 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu announced on 17 April that the Bela Negara (Defend the Country) programme will be the priority of the Ministry of Defence in 2017. As noted in a previous Strategic Analysis Paper, the programme aims to recruit a civilian force of one hundred million people under a nationalist banner. The programme further aims to establish a united Indonesian identity defined by values such as nationalism, patriotism and a willingness to sacrifice for the country. The announcement was made in the lead-up to the second round of elections in Jakarta that will take place today, 19 April. The election campaign has so far been marred by issues of religion and an attempt by the hardline group Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam: FPI), whose wider goal is to impose Sharia law, to increase their public influence.


Bela Negara has been plagued with issues since its inception and criticised by some as a front for expanding the domestic role of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia: TNI) and to militarise Indonesian society. In the past, the TNI enjoyed strong levels of influence which fell as Indonesia progressed into the democratic era. In an effort to remain relevant amid a lack of major external threats, the TNI has looked to expand its role into internal security matters, which are typically handled by the police. This was seen in earlier in May 2016, where the TNI began detaining people suspected of spreading communist ideology and confiscating books that were deemed to represent communist values – a move criticised by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Bela Negara, which aims to foster a form of mental revolution in the Indonesian public against foreign ideologies including radicalism, can be seen as a front to garner public support for greater TNI influence in domestic politics. Increasing the influence of the TNI could be problematic for stability, however, given its tendency to attribute everything from gay rights to Islamic radicalism as evidence of foreign powers waging a proxy war within Indonesia.

Up against the TNI in the battle for domestic influence is the FPI, although, interestingly, there was a brief moment when both groups worked together, as photos of the TNI providing military-style training to FPI members were posted online. TNI training for FPI members was subsequently banned, however, when the officer who held training session, Lieutenant-Colonel Czi Ubaidillah, was stripped of his post. Efforts to increase FPI influence have been clearly visible in the lead up to the first and second rounds of the Jakarta elections. Together with political opponents to Jokowi, the FPI managed to draw over 150,000 protesters calling for Chinese-Christian candidate Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama to be charged and sentenced for blasphemy. The FPI has also been successful in making religion the biggest issue in the election, encouraging Indonesians to base their vote on the candidate’s religion, adding that Muslims should not be subjected to Christian leadership. This has had a profound impact on voting patterns. Edward Aspinall, a Professor of Politics at the Department of Social Change from Australian National University, found that a significant proportion of the city’s Muslim voters, despite being satisfied with the work done by Ahok, will not vote for him for religious reasons. The outcome of today’s election could hold future ramifications for the influence of hardline Islamic groups such as the FPI. Increased FPI influence could jeopardise the tradition of Indonesian Islam, which is known to be pluralistic and tolerant.

The struggle for power may also manifest itself at the polling booths today, with a coalition of hard line Islamic groups announcing plans to deploy 100 monitors at each polling station in the capital and who would join TNI and National Police personnel who are also standing guard. While police have rejected the presence of such groups at the polls on the grounds that it could intimidate voters, the groups will undoubtedly seek to be visible and active during the election process.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
80 Birdwood Parade, Dalkeith WA 6009, Australia.