Alexander R Arifianto – In 2022, two leading moderate Indonesian Islamic figures, Ahmad Syafii Ma'arif and Azyumardi Azra, passed away. With their departure, Indonesia's Islamic discourse lost two moderate voices.
As chairman of Muhammadiyah – Indonesia's second largest Islamic organisation – Ma'arif was instrumental in promoting theological reforms. Between 1998 and 2005, Ma'arif reoriented Muhammadiyah's theological outlook from a rigid, conservative direction towards one that is progressive and compatible with Indonesia as a multicultural, religiously diverse and democratic nation.
Ma'arif's passing marked the death of one of the last Indonesian neo-modernist Islamic thinkers. Neo-modern Islam arose alongside the movement of theological reformers who became prominent Muslim intellectuals from the 1970s to the 1990s. Neo-modernist figures such as Nurcolish Madjid, Dawam Rahardjo and Abdurrahman Wahid became founders and spokespersons of the moderate Islamic movement in Indonesia.
Azra was an Islamic thinker who promoted Islam's compatibility with modernity and democracy while condemning violent extremism. As Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University president, Azra instituted a curricular reform that trained a new generation of Islamic studies scholars who shared his passion for a moderate and inclusive Indonesian Islam.
Their passing has left a gap to fill in Indonesia's moderate Islamic movement, which is has been threatened by a conservative Islamic resurgence over the past decade. There are few moderate figures with similar levels of moral authority and influence over the Indonesian Muslim community compared to those of the neo-modernist reformers.
There are several reasons why conservative Islamists increasingly challenge moderate Islam in Indonesia. First, moderates are losing ground when competing against popular Islamist preachers to promote their ideas on social media and other outlets.
In a highly competitive market of religious ideas in post-Reformasi Indonesia, Islamist groups have been steadily growing and attracting followers and sympathisers among Indonesian Muslims – particularly among younger Indonesians. For example, the Indonesian Muslim Students Action Union (KAMMI)'s campus preaching organisation – the youth wing of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) – is a primary point of contact to recruit new members.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have also promoted the rise of popular charismatic yet theologically conservative Islamic preachers. These include Abdul Somad (a traditionalist Islamic cleric), Hanan Attaki (founder of the Salafi-influenced Hijrah Youth Movement) and Felix Siauw (loosely connected with Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) – an organisation which calls for the Indonesian state to be transformed into a global Islamic caliphate). Each command popular appeal among Muslim youth on social media outlets like Instagram.
Second, many moderate intellectuals who become staff and policy advisers to Indonesian government ministries and agencies tend to defend government policies instead of speaking out against them – unlike their neo-modernist predecessors.
These include Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an intellectual successor of Abdurrahman Wahid within Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) who became a Democratic Party legislative candidate in 2014 and 2019. And, Raja Juli Antoni, a Ma'arif protege who became an Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) politician and was recently appointed as a deputy minister for land and spatial planning.
Several young NU intellectuals were also recently appointed to various government positions. For instance, Zuhairi Misrawi – a former spokesperson to Indonesian President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo – was appointed as Indonesia's ambassador to Tunisia in 2021. Rumadi Ahmad – chairman of Lakpesdam (a semi-autonomous NU institution that promotes interfaith dialogue) – is now a staff member within the Executive Office of the Indonesian President.
Islamist-leaning groups and preachers dominate the breach in religious preaching (da'wa) that the departure of these intellectuals from religious activism to politics creates – particularly around preaching targeted towards Indonesia's youth. While the government has tried to level the playing field through its 'religious moderation' program, which promotes semi-official moderate Islamic preaching, youth da'wa continues. Yet many da'wa groups are shifting underground due to the legal prohibition against groups such as HTI.
The appointment of moderate NU intellectuals to various government positions is adding to the perception that the organisation is closely aligning itself with Jokowi's government. This raises concerns that NU intellectuals may not speak out against the practices of Jokowi's government. It combats Islamists with repressive measures used in former Indonesian president Suharto's era and by enacting legislation curtailing free expression, like the recently enacted Indonesian Criminal Code Law.
This is an unfortunate situation given that Azra, Ma'arif and other neo-modernist thinkers have a long reputation for defending freedom of expression and speaking out against unjust legislation – both during the Suharto and post-Reformasi periods.
As Indonesia's democratic backsliding continues, it is more important than ever for moderate Islamic intellectuals who are inspired by their predecessors to boldly share their pluralist and pro-democratic vision in Indonesia's public sphere.
[Alexander R Arifianto is a Research Fellow in the Indonesia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.]