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[Read this article directly on The Common Ground News.]

[Baca artikel ini dalam versi berbahasa Indonesia di The Common Ground News.]

by Jennie S. Bev

Santa Clara, California – In September, Jakarta had its local elections for governor and vice governor, an historic moment as voters elected a non-Muslim of Chinese ethnicity as vice governor for the first time, indicating that Jakartans may be growing more accepting of pluralism.

The winning pair was Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the former mayor of the town of Solo, for governor and Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the former regency head of East Belitung, for vice governor. Both Jokowi and Ahok have developed reputations for integrity and good governance in previous elected positions in other regions. 

The Jokowi-Ahok pair, symbolising strong teamwork and inter-ethnic collaboration at the gubernatorial level, is a first in Jakarta’s politics. That the pair won with 53 per cent of the votes was a surprise to many Indonesians, and suggests that voters valued experience over racial or religious identity.

In Indonesia, some groups have been pushing for the integration of mosque and state, such as Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia, which actively calls for the implementation of sharia, or Islamic principles, and for an Islamic state. Groups like these have received a great deal of attention in international media. However Indonesian Muslims don’t have a tradition of voting for Islamic parties. 

In fact, in the past elections, Islamic parties received a combined total of only 15 to 20 per cent of the vote. 

A 2012 survey by the Saiful Mujani Research Center revealed that the four most popular national parties – the Partai Golongan Karya (The Working Group Party) , the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (The Democratic Party of Indonesia –Struggle), the Partai Demokrat (The Democratic Party), and the Partai Nasional Demokrat (The National Democratic Party) are not religiously affiliated.

These realities, along with Jokowi-Ahok’s election, suggest that Indonesians prefer a separation between mosque and state. 

Jokowi-Ahok’s election has not been without criticism, however. 

As vice governor, under the existing governor’s decree, Ahok would normally be considered the “honourary chair” of several of Jakarta’s religious organisations, despite his own religious affiliation. Being an “honorary chair” means his name would be included in the descriptions of the organisations’ work and he would attend official events pertaining to these organisations’ specific roles.

The Islamic Defender Front (FPI), a vocal Muslim extremist group, argued that as a non-believer, Ahok is not fit to enter a mosque or lead Islamic organisations and groups. 

Governor Jokowi quickly resolved the issue, calming the public with a statement that he will repeal the decree proscribing this official duty for vice governors. 

When it comes to the broader issue of separation of religion and state, it is worth noting that there is a tradition of this idea in Indonesia. Both the late Islamic scholar Nurcholis Madjid and the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid were strong advocates of such separation. They argued that religion must be separated from governance so that religion can be spared from political intrigues. They also advocated pluralism, in which differences in faiths and ethnicities would be accepted. 

In Islam and the Secular State in Indonesia a book by Islamic scholar Luthfi Assyaukanie, the author highlights Madjid’s belief that there is a misperception that only Islamic parties can make improvements to the lives of Muslims and Islam. 

Such notions must be dispelled, Madjid argued, as Muslims must be able to distinguish between public and private duties. He invites readers to detach themselves from the dichotomy of Islamic and non-Islamic, and to practice pluralism in everyday activities. This may translate to voting for a secular party or secular presidential and gubernatorial candidates, while still practicing Islamic values in private life. 

Jokowi andAhok have set a precedent. If Jakartans can elect leaders that exemplify inclusivity and pluralism in action, other regions may as well. Such collaborations in leadership exemplify humanity at its best, in which common values, rather than a specific ethnicity or religion, prevails.


Jennie Bev is an independent scholar, author and columnist for The Jakarta Post and Forbes Asia. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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