Amy Chew – Indonesia's largest moderate Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is poised to expand its influence in President Joko Widodo's new government, following the country's divisive election campaign dominated by explosive rhetoric on religion and ethnicity.
Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, chose as his vice-president an elderly cleric aligned with the NU, Ma'ruf Amin. Support from the group's 60 million members helped secure his re-election in April, easing fears that the world's most populous Muslim nation would succumb to faith politics in choosing its next leader.
Since then, NU's political vehicle, the National Awakening Party (PKB), has nominated its president Muhaimin Iskandar, as the Indonesian parliament's upper house leader. Yenny Wahid, the great-granddaughter of NU founder Hasyim Asy'ari has been touted by local media as a possible cabinet minister, and Zuhairi Miswari, a key NU member, continues to be Widodo's spokesperson.
Yenny was tight-lipped when asked if she would be entering cabinet, telling This Week in Asia: "I don't know. I have not seen him [Widodo] in a while as he has been busy travelling."
She said she would say no to a post if it was a role she did not feel equipped for. "I will help [Jokowi], outside of cabinet, to succeed," she said.
Yenny, 44, is no stranger to politics. Her late father, the Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, was the country's first democratically elected president from 1999-2001. She is the director of the Wahid Foundation, which advocates for pluralist Islam in Southeast Asia's largest economy, where close to 9 in 10 of the 270 million population are Muslim.
Airlangga Pribadi, a lecturer at Airlangga University in East Java, agreed that NU would have more opportunity to influence policies and politics in Indonesia but it had to be mindful there were other political actors seeking to have the same clout.
These included Widodo's own party – the Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle (PDIP) led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri – and Gerindra, the party of losing presidential contender Prabowo Subianto.
But NU's increased prominence also runs the risk of aggravating Prabowo's core supporters – hardline Muslim groups that campaigned for an Islamic republic and the subversion of Indonesia's secular, democratic traditions, analysts said.
Recently, officials said they would vet civil servants for extremist tendencies, with Indonesia's Finance Minister this week stressing that those who did not agree with the country being a secular state with a democratic form of government should leave the service.
"As a civil servant, you have voluntarily availed yourself to fight for the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI)," Sri Mulyani Indrawati wrote on her Instagram account.
"At this moment, there is a group in society who considers themselves not aligned with the aim of NKRI. Ask yourself, if you believe and agree with NKRI and that you are ready to become an apparatus of NKRI, you can remain here. But if you don't feel that is right for you, you can get out now," said the former managing director of the World Bank.
The Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), in a recent paper, said while cracking down on radicalism was a necessity, this would need to be communicated broadly to Muslims to avoid disenfranchising those who were more conservative.
During the campaign, Jokowi fended off hoaxes that he was not Muslim but secretly Christian, and with Communist links. He was also accused by Prabowo's supporters of criminalising Muslim clerics.
A growing trend of extremism
Like other countries, Indonesia has experienced rising religious religiosity and continues to battle the threat of radicalisation among Muslims.
The turn to conservatism has manifested itself as "the tyranny of the majority over the minority", Yenny said. "In a predominantly Muslim area, non-Muslims become victims. In a predominantly non-Muslim area, the Muslims become the victims," she added.
This trend has also fuelled the rise in identity politics. While Widodo and Ma'ruf won the popular vote in 20 out of 34 Indonesian provinces in April, they performed poorly in areas with overwhelmingly conservative Muslim populations, such as South Kalimantan, West Java and Banten.
Ahmad Suaedy, a senior researcher at the Abdurrahman Wahid Centre at the University of Indonesia said when Widodo was first elected in 2014, he had already encountered members of the civil service, public universities and security forces advocating more extreme Islamic beliefs. It started during the administration of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said the member of Indonesia's Office of the Ombudsman.
"Radicalism seeped into various government agencies... including state-owned enterprises. But Widodo did not have sufficient influence to confront them," Suaedy said.
IPAC in its report suggested Widodo should reach out to a range of Muslim groups, and even engage with hardliners. But while the administration should not come across like it was completely relying on the NU, neither should it pander to "to ultraconservative leaders or [adopt] elements of their agenda".
Simultaneously, Widodo should focus on reducing economic inequality to undercut some of the professed grievances by Islamists, IPAC advised. During the election campaign, Prabowo's opponents accused Widodo of being too friendly to mainland Chinese investors and workers.
"What Jokowi can do is to open up a much broader political communication which not only involves NU but Muhammadiyah and other mass [Islamic] organisations so that identity politics... will not disrupt the running of the government," said Airlangga, referring to the country's second-largest Muslim organisation, which has 40 million followers.What's driving Indonesian paranoia over Chinese workers?
Yenny cited as key priorities for the government efforts to tackle inequality, counter false rumours against Jokowi and public education to show people that loving "their country [and] loving their non-Muslim neighbour" is compatible with being a good Muslim.
"This is about the contestation for space between moderate and the more radical voices of Islam," Yenny said.
"It is about survival of the ideology for the people who espouse the sharia law, Islamic republic... and I think the government is not going to tolerate it."