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INDONESIA POLLS: Religion pivotal to elections

Publication Date : 30-05-2014


Two months ago, Muhammadiyah leader Din Syamsuddin raised eyebrows when he asked presidential candidate Joko Widodo, who was visiting the headquarters of the 30 million-strong Muslim mass organisation in Jakarta, to lead the midday prayers.

Last Saturday, Dr Din revealed the reason for the request at a gathering of the group's leaders in East Kalimantan.

"I was busy observing Jokowi's prayer... it was all correct, there was nothing wrong," he said, using Joko's nickname, as the audience cheered.

The episode comes amid smears and SMSes attacking Joko for being non-Muslim, and is but one example of how piety has become as prominent as policy in the Indonesian presidential election campaign, as both sides seek to gain the support of a divided Muslim ground in what is tipped to be a close contest.

It also prompted Joko's running mate, Jusuf Kalla, to suggest wryly this week: "If people still don't believe Jokowi's Muslim-ness, let's just have a competition between the candidates to read the Quran. Then we'll know who's better."

Meanwhile, several social media users backing Joko questioned his rival Prabowo Subianto's devotion to his faith.

While both camps have disavowed appeals to religion and race in the campaign, the situation on the ground is different, and observers expect that it might worsen when campaigning starts next Wednesday.

"No matter what the candidates say, this is very difficult to control, as it is a cheap, easy way to get voters to your side," Dr Ali Munhanif, executive director of the centre for the study of Islam and society at Jakarta's Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, told The Straits Times.

To their credit, the Muhammadiyah and the 40 million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) have said they will not officially endorse any candidates. But NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj controversially backed Prabowo last week, against the wishes of a large number of NU members who have traditionally been behind the National Awakening Party (PKB) that backs Joko.

The Muhammadiyah vote is also split. Its former chairman Amien Rais is a key adviser to  the Prabowo campaign and the founder of the National Mandate Party (PAN) that Prabowo's running mate Hatta Rajasa belongs to.

What concerns observers is the fact that all but one of the four Islamic parties in Parliament are backing Prabowo, along with conservative and hardline groups, and several of their leaders are urging Muslims to unite behind him.

These parties have lent a religious tenor to Prabowo's campaign, with shouts of "God is Great" puncturing speeches.

The latest edition of hardline fortnightly newspaper Suara Islam called on the Muslim community to back Prabowo, with a cleric saying it was haram, or forbidden, to vote for Joko.

Joko has deftly responded to these slurs by reciting Arabic phrases in his speeches this week.

But he has also sought to distinguish his use of religious imagery by issuing a statement to say he is part of an Indonesian Islamic tradition that brings peace, not hatred, and that values diversity as a blessing. What he was not part of, he added in a dig to his opponents, is an Islam that uses divine verses to deceive people, or that oppresses people of other faiths.


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