Advent of Islamic Hard-Liners: Implications on Indonesia’s Communion Culture

Indonesian Muslims perform Eid Al-Adha prayer at Al-Akbar Mosque in October 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia I Images: Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images


Indonesia perpetually prides itself with its multi-faceted diversity, rightfully so. While the majority of Indonesians are largely united with their own national identity, language and creed, it is a nation that is essentially an amalgamation of over six thousand inhabited islands, approximately three hundred native languages and hundreds of distinct ethnicities. Inevitably, a country so assorted like Indonesia will need to craft policies and governance systems which highlight commonalities between the different sub-groups in the community, instead of underlining the idiosyncrasies, which are potent in causing conflicts and misunderstandings between the sub-groups. In this article, I pore over the theme of religious diversity and communion culture in Indonesia. More definitively, this essay examines if the rise of Islamic hard-liners impose any effects in Indonesia’s communion culture – specifically religious harmony. If so, what forms of detriments does it inflict? It is crucial to note that it is not in the interest of this essay to judge and analyse the accuracy  of any faith and its practices. While my field trip notations come only from Central Java, this essay discusses the above-mentioned thesis through the setting of Indonesia in its entirety.

Indonesia perpetually prides itself on its multifaceted diversity. While most Indonesians are united in their national identity, language and creed, Indonesia is essentially an amalgamation of over six thousand inhabited islands, approximately three hundred native languages and hundreds of distinct ethnicities (Schefold, 1998). Inevitably, a country as assorted as Indonesia would need to craft policies and governance systems that highlight commonalities between the different sub-groups in the community, rather than underlining the idiosyncrasies that can instigate conflicts and misunderstandings between the sub-groups.

In this essay, I examine the theme of religious diversity and communion culture in Indonesia. More definitively, this essay examines whether the rise of Islamic hard-liners imposes any effects in Indonesia’s communion culture – specifically religious harmony – and if so, what forms of detriments does it inflict. It is crucial to note that it is not in the interest of this essay to judge and analyse the accuracy of any faith and its practices. While my field trip notations come from Central Java, this essay discusses the above-mentioned thesis through an Indonesian lens.

Religions in Indonesia

Religious differences are contentious forms of diversity In many countries, discussions of religious differences are regarded as beyond-the-pale topics as they involve personal beliefs and testaments of faith. Furthermore, religious differences can be doubly sensitive as they involve two types of individualities – inter-religious differences and intra-religious differences. This diversity could be capitalized upon to enrich a nation’s culture and heritage by strengthening it economically, socially and culturally (Baker, 1976). However, more often than not, inter-religious and intra-religious differences have proven to be harmful to the community, should it not be well managed.

Indonesia is not an exception. While more than eighty percent of its populace is Muslim, Indonesian government has not declared itself as an Islamic country (Indonesia Investments, 2016). Instead, it is a secular democratic country that forces its citizens to take up one of the six recognised religions – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Confucianism (Pausacker, 2007). Believing in the one and only Supreme Being – also known as “Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa” – is the first principle of the Pancasila. The Pancasila is the official philosophical document forged by Sukarno, Indonesia’s first President after it gained independence (Morfit, 1981). Indonesia’s government has not declared any state-mandated religion, unlike its neighbour, Malaysia, which has declared Islam as its government’s religion.

Islamisation of Indonesia

Islam reached Indonesia around 1100 through Indian traders from Gujarat, India. The spread of Islam in Indonesia followed a geographical progression over a period of four centuries (1100 to 1500) starting with Sumatra, followed by Java, before moving to other parts of the Malay Archipelago including Malaya and Mindanao (Ahmed, 2001). Islamic traditions and beliefs have spread nationwide through trade and migration.

Most Muslims in Indonesia are Sunni Muslims, with the majority of them following the Syafi’i school of thought (Fealy et al, 2008). This parallels the  majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, this does not mask the presence of smaller sects and schools of thought within the Muslim community in Indonesia. Only 0.5% of Muslims in Indonesia are Shi’ite Muslims while 0.2% of Muslims in Indonesia are followers of the Ahmadiyyah Islamic sect (Burhani, 2014). Originally from Northern India, the Ahmadiyyah was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889. Ahmad claimed that he was the awaited Messiah, as prophesied by Prophet Muhammad and mentioned in the Quran.

Communion Culture in Java (Based on field trip observations)

During my field trip to Central Java (i.e. Jogjakarta and Solo), I noticed several phenomena that proved that Indonesia was not superficial in its religious tolerance and harmony. Instead, more often than not, I was convinced that the communion culture was intensely embraced by the general population. Respect and admiration for each other’s faiths and cultures were also massively entrenched in the locals, from the royalties to the commoners.

Firstly, I observed that all of the palaces that I visited – Mangkunegaran Palace, Kasunanan Palace and Kraton Ngayogyakarta – preserved emblems from the Hindu tradition such as the paintings and sculptures of Lord Shiva and half-elephant statues resembling Ganesha. In my opinion, this was pivotal evidence that the royalties embraced Hinduism as a vital part of Indonesia’s rich history, despite being followers and practitioners of the Islamic faith. This is notwithstanding the fact that Muslims are generally not encouraged to erect any kind of statues, especially within residential compounds(Al-Qaradawi, 1999). Upon further interaction with the guide at Kasunanan Palace, he mentioned that the intention of preserving such emblems was purely to document the history of the nation, not for idolatry purposes.

Additionally, the locals were generally open to partaking in religious practices of other faiths. For instance, at the top of Sukuh Temple, I came across Muslim women donning the hijab who meditated with the Hindus. During the month of Ramadhan, I was informed by a local in Solo’s Fatimah Mosque that non-Muslims would help in events held by the mosques in their vicinities. In line with what Pak Made, our resident guide in Indonesia mentioned, Indonesians from all faiths would regularly visit each other’s religious monuments, especially during local festivities. For example, the Hindus in Jogjakarta would join the Buddhists to visit the Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon temples in celebration of Vesak Day – a day to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha.

On a macro level, I viewed the substantial and scrupulous preservation of non-Islamic places of worship – from the small Candi Pawon to the huge Prambanan Temple – as a form of communion and respect that the government and the people had for minorities in Indonesia, or specifically on Java Island. It validates the idea that the nation values the contribution of non-Islamic traditions to the formation of Indonesia and their roles in preserving its cultural diversity. What was more remarkable was that some of the temples’ keepers  were Muslim, such as the keeper of Ketek Temple who was present whilst we visited on the third day of our field trip.

My interactions with the owners of Labasan Village, where we resided on the fourth night of our field trip, revealed an intriguing trend about their primary identities. I could sense that they identified themselves as Javanese first before anything else, including being a Muslim. This was unlike many of the interactions that I have had with Muslims in other parts of the world such as in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, India and Australia. A large proportion of our interactions revolved around Javanese culture and heritage, rather than Islamic nuances in the country. I believe that the primary identity that an individual associates himself with will manifest in the way he lives his life. Thus, if most Javanese regard being Javanese as their primary identity, the chances of religious conflicts and misunderstandings would be greatly reduced.

Based on my field trip observations coupled with my secondary research take-aways, the bottomline is that the highly diversified Indonesian citizens have lived generation after generation in peace and harmony, alongside one another. Their respect and admiration towards each other surpass religious beliefs, cultural lines and ethnic practices. This is what I refer to as Indonesia’s communion culture

Rise of Islamic Hard-Liners

Hard-liners refer to groups of individuals, usually political groups, who adhere to a set of ideas and policies. Islamic hard-liners, in parallel, often refer to individuals or groups of individuals who are uncompromising in their Islamic beliefs, traditions and practices as well as Shariah law guidelines (Ghosh, 2013). To clarify, the discussion here revolves around individuals who impose their beliefs onto society through personal attacks, political pressures and reform movements. Personal uncompromising sets of beliefs that are not imposed on anyone else have minimal, if any, effects on society at large. Some examples of Islamic hard-liners in Indonesia include Nadhlatul Ulama (Association of Islamic Scholars), Muhammadiyah and the most notorious Islamic Defenders Front, also known as Front Pembela Islam (FPI).

Over approximately the past five years, several issues surrounding pluralism and the re-definition of Islam in Indonesia have emerged due to the activities conducted by several Islamic hard-liners in the country. Multiple inter-religious tensions have emerged amongst the community, including forced closure of Protestant churches, burning of places of worship and prevention of the use of “Allah” as a reference to God by Christians (CSW, 2015). Besides inter-religious tensions stirred by Islamic hard-liners, intra-Muslim conflicts have also taken place in various parts of Indonesia. In 2011, during the holy month of Ramadhan, Ahmadiyyah followers in Western Java were attacked by 1500 Sunni Muslims in An-Nur Mosque, resulting in three deaths and hundreds of injured individuals. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after being pressured by Islamic hard-liners, also forbade Ahmadis from proselytising, just like Shi’ite Muslims in Indonesia (Economist, 2015).

Implications to Indonesia

Indonesia is colourful in its diversity and has embraced differences for centuries. Undeniably, any form of infringement on harmony would shake the country on many tiers, both tangibly and intangibly. I argue that these hard-liners, and the movements driven by them, present long-term effects to Indonesia. To a small extent, some of the effects discussed in the following segment can be irreversible. In the following segment, this paper delves into the effects that these hard-liners have on Indonesia on three different categories – social and cultural, political, and economic.


In my opinion, the biggest effect of this phenomenon is on the social fabric of the country; the communion culture and the ability to live life together are affected. When beliefs are imposed on a national level, the biggest subsections  of the community that will be affected are minorities – such as the Christian community and non-Sunni Muslims in Indonesia. Over the past ten years, Christians in Indonesia have had a trying time maintaining their rights in certain aspects of their practice of faith. Not only have the FPI attacked many churches in Indonesia, Islamic hard-liners have also disturbed inter-religious dialogues and rallies that aim to promote mutual understanding and respect between various religious groups (Al-Jazeera, 2008).

What is more precarious about Islamic hard-liners such as the FPI, is that they use violence as a means to get their messages across and retaliate against other peaceful groups rallying against them, as well as to pressure the local and central governments to take their side. Deservingly so, hard-line groups like the FPI have been classified as militants by international press agencies. In early June 2008, the FPI attacked a peaceful rally that sought for equality for the Ahmadiyyah sect of Muslims, who are a minority in Indonesia (NTDTV, 2008). In 2006, several group of Islamic hard-liners stoned and threw heavy items at Playboy Magazine’s office to protest against the magazine’s production in Indonesia (Associated Press, 2015).

It is palpable that Indonesia’s freedom of religion is no longer absolute. The very first principle of the Pancasila has been violated by presence of Islamic hard-liners in the Indonesian community. I argue that this harm towards Indonesia’s social fabric inevitably leads to distrust and suspicion between different religions and different religious sects. Such trust and confidence within and between different religions takes years to be shaped, let alone be re-weaved after it has been ripped apart (Pye et al, 2004).


The Indonesian government has been accused of not vindicating the principle of religious freedom well, especially by global Christian organisations. The rise of Islamic hard-liners adds political pressure to the government. In a democratic nation like Indonesia, vote-seeking policies and legislations are passed to please the Islamic hard-liners. Thus, vocal minority hard-liners are accumulating power through violent street movements and frequent destructive demonstrations in the country (Abuza, 2006). An example of such vote-seeking incidences was when Vice-President Jusuf Kalla made a public statement in 2008 saying that the Ahmadi sect in Indonesia was no longer permitted to gather publicly or proselytise in Indonesia, just as was demanded by Islamic hard-liners.

Besides creating friction between religious groups and sects in Indonesia, Islamic hard-liners also influenced the appointment of key civil service holders in the country. Essentially, they demand that all governors, civil service key officers and judges practise the Islamic faith. Should they fail to do so, Islamic hard-liners would protest, sometimes violently. In late 2014, hundreds of FPI members organised riots and injured nearly twenty police officers to prevent Deputy Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – also known as Ahok – a Chinese Christian from taking over as the governor of Jakarta. Islamic hard-liners felt that non-Muslims were not allowed to lead a city where the majority of its citizens are Muslims (Jakarta Globe, 2014).

Besides, Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Islamic organisation, is said to have links with Islamic hard-liners despite its initial advocacy of democracy and pluralism (Berkeley Center, 2016). NU also runs a political party, Parti Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) – National Awakening Party. The PKB is one of Indonesia’s leading parties, which has successfully placed Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, more affectionately known as Gus Dur, as Indonesia’s fourth President, following the resignation of President Suharto.

Indonesia must separate faith from politics in order to live up to its vision of a multi-religion secular state. Should Islamic hard-liners be able to influence – directly or indirectly – top decision-making processes addressing issues pertaining to pluralism and the appointment of key office bearers of the nation, this would create a pro-Islamic nation that could potentially mask the needs and demands of non-Islamic, or specifically non-Sunni, sub-groups in the country. Such minority marginalisation, within and between religions, would further dredge identity crises amongst the country’s citizens and give rise to even more social disorders (JanMohamed, 1987).


Besides posing negative effects in the social and political realms of the nation, Islamic hard-liners also sprinkle some direct and knock-on effects to the economy of Indonesia. Due to the strict and uncompromising approach adopted by the Islamic hard-liners, some revenue-generating industries cannot develop and face restrictions in Indonesia. Mass entertainment such as the music industry and the mainstream media – print and electronic – face pressures from Islamic hard-liners in Indonesia. In 2006, the FPI started a series of violent and nonviolent protests against the production of Playboy Magazine in Indonesia and demanded judicial and legislative actions to be taken against owners of Playboy Indonesia for disturbing public morality (Kitley, 2008). In 2008, the Indonesian government passed one of the world’s strictest anti-pornography bills, after demands were made by activists and women’s groups believed to be affiliated to the Islamic hard-liners. The legislation was deemed to be opposing Indonesia’s tradition of diversity and pluralism and to be a step towards strict Islamic law (Vaswani, 2010). In 2012, a Lady Gaga concert was cancelled following threats made by Islamic hard-liners to burn the venue, simultaneously claiming Lady Gaga’s bra-and-panty costume to be inappropriate for Indonesia’s public. The following year, Islamic hard-line groups, including Islam Reform Movement (Garis) and Hizb Ut-Tahrir, protested aggressively against the organisers of the Miss World pageant and demanded that it be restricted from being held in Bali and Jakarta as it was originally planned (Dawn, 2013). Besides media restrictions, alcohol production and commercialisation were also fiercely fought against by Islamic hard-liners in their attempt to make Indonesia largely alcohol-free.

This streak of restrictions and impositions on a wide plethora of revenue-generating industries have direct and knock-on economic effects on Indonesia. Needless to say, it is not maximising its economic possibilities and is not reaping its maximal societal benefits. Albeit indirectly, it is also worrying that such restrictions and impositions deter potential investments from foreign corporations and entities due to social and political instabilities as well as economic growth uncertainties caused by the massive restrictions and impositions advocated by Islamic hard-liners. Investments are paramount to the development and growth of a nation, especially for a developing nation like Indonesia in which poverty is still rampant (Wang et al, 1992).


Indonesia is undergoing tremors of change in its administration, social culture and economic makeup. While the end effects of these changes caused by Islamic hard-liners to Indonesia are uncertain, what is definite is that the reduction in inter-religious tolerance and room for pluralism is to be frowned upon. Besides the aforementioned effects in the social, political and economic prisms of the nation, Islamic hard-liners and their uncompromising sets of beliefs are also affecting Indonesia’s communion culture by increasing homogeneity in the religious sphere. When Islamic hard-liners push to dominate the entire nation with their ideals, centuries of heritage and other cultures that played an important role in Indonesia’s pre-colonial history might eventually vanish.

It is onerous to eradicate these effects, once perpetrated. While economic effects can be relatively easy to solve through strategic economic planning and economic diversification, I argue that the damages inflicted against Indonesia’s  social fabric are awfully laborious to repair, if not impossible. Minority groups’ trust in  the government is also hard to rebuild once dented. Thus, this essay concludes that the rise of Islamic hard-liners in Indonesia directly harms the communion culture in Indonesia to a large extent, primarily through social, political and economic prisms.

The field trip to Indonesia has made me fathom the intricacies of managing such a diverse nation. Southeast Asia is composed of many nations that are as heterogeneous as Indonesia. The peaceful environment that I observed first-hand in Indonesia cannot be taken for granted; violators of peace such as Islamic hard-liners still linger in the country. If mishandled, Indonesia could turn into an entirely disparate country from what I experienced during my field trip to Solo and Jogjakarta.


Book Reference:

Ahmed, Nazeer (2001). Islam in Global History: Volume One: From the Death of Prophet Muhammed to the First World War. California, United States of America: American Institute of Islamic History and Culture.

Fealy, G., & White, S. (Eds.). (2008). Expressing Islam: Religious life and politics in Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Al-Qaradawi, Y. (1999). The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam (al-halal wal haram fil Islam). American Trust Publications.

Pye, M., Franke, E., Wasim, A. T., & Mas’ ud, A. (Eds.). (2006). Religious Harmony: Problems, Practice, and Education. Proceedings of the Regional Conference of the International Association for the History of Religions. Yogyakarta and Semarang, Indonesia. Walter de Gruyter.

Abuza, Z. (2006). Political Islam and violence in Indonesia. Routledge.

Journal Reference:

Schefold, R. (1998). The Domestication of Culture: Nation-building and Ethnic Diversity in Indonesia. Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde, 154(2), 259-280.

Baker, G. C. (1976). Cultural Diversity: Strength of the Nation. Educational Leadership, 33(4), 257-260.

Morfit, M. (1981). Pancasila: The Indonesian state ideology according to the New Order government. Asian Survey, 21(8), 838-851.

Burhani, A. N. (2014). Treating minorities with fatwas: a study of the Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia. Contemporary Islam, 8(3), 285-301.

JanMohamed, A. R., & Lloyd, D. (1987). Introduction: Minority discourse: What is to be done?. Cultural Critique, (7), 5-17.

Kitley, P. (2008). Playboy Indonesia and the media: commerce and the Islamic public sphere on trial in Indonesia. South East Asia Research, 16(1), Pages 85-116.

Wang, J. Y., & Blomström, M. (1992). Foreign investment and technology transfer: A simple model. European economic review, 36(1), 137-155.

Website Reference:

“Religions in Indonesia”. (n.d.). In Indonesia-Investments.
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“Malaysia – Religion”. (n.d.). Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University. Retrieved from

“Indonesia”. (n.d.).  Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Voice for The Voiceless. Retrieved

“Crackdown on Indonesia Muslim Group”. (n.d.). Al Jazeera Asia-Pacific. Retrieved

“Muslim Sect Fears Religious Violence in Indonesia”. (2008, June 16). New Tang Dynasty Televesion. Retrieved from

“Muslim protesters stone Playboy magazine office in Indonesia”. (2015, July 30).  Associated Press Archive. Retrieved from

“FPI Members Riot at Jakarta City Council Over Non-Muslim Governor”. (2014, October 3). Jakarta Globe. Retrieved from

“Nahdlatul Ulama”. (n.d.).  Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs – Resources on Faith, Ethics and Public Life. Retrieved from

Vaswani,  Karishma. (2010, March 25). “Indonesia Upholds Anti-Pornography
Bill”. Retrieved from

“Indonesian Muslim hardliners Vow to stop Miss World”. (2013, June 7). Dawn News. Retrieved from

Magazine Reference:

Pausacker, Helen (March, 2007). The Sixth Religion, Inside Indonesia.

Ghosh, Palash (November, 2013). The Rise Of Islamic Hard-Liners: Is Indonesia Turning Into Pakistan?, International Business Times.

The Economist (August, 2015). With God on Whose Side?, The Economist Asia.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

Muhammad Idaffi Othman is a third year undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. While he is specializing in Applied Economics in Policymaking, he is interested in the studies of socio-political movements, especially in the region where he was born and raised.

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