The Religion Card: Islamophobia and Political Islam in Asian Democracies

17 June 2019

This is a student post, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Democracy Initiative.


Over the past few weeks, two of the world’s largest democracies, India and Indonesia, both held general elections. As millions of voters headed to the ballot box, however, political observers began to see serious warning signs of democratic erosion in the two countries.


In India, social media platforms have been flooded with anti-Muslim “fake news”: vivid stories of Muslim rapists, photos of Indian air strikes against Pakistani militants, allegations of the opposition party colluding with Kashmir car bombers. What’s more alarming is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is behind this massive disinformation campaign. With a formidable digital team, BJP spreads Islamophobic propaganda in order to bolster support for Modi’s nationalist platform. The Muslim enemy abroad—Pakistan—and the Muslim minority at home are portrayed as the biggest threat to the majority Hindu nation.


The story is entirely different in Indonesia. The Islamic right see themselves as the guardians of religious morality, victims of the privileged Christian and ethnic Chinese minorities. In the 2019 presidential campaign, the leading Muslim right-winger Prabowo Subianto enjoyed widespread support from the country’s religious community. He would often hold massive political rallies, shouting “Allahu akbar” (Allah is Great), and vowing to protect the country’s Islamic fundamentalist groups. Prabowo eventually won 44% of the vote but lost to the incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. However, even after the official results were released, Prabowo still refuses to acknowledge defeat. Instead, he calls survey institutions “liars” and alleges that there was “massive fraud” against the interests of the “true people.”


It seems that anti-Muslim Modi and Islamic hardliner Prabowo are fundamentally at odds. But in fact, they have more in common than they’d like to admit—by playing up their countries’ religious tensions and demonizing the cultural “Other,” they both enjoyed massive popularity in this year’s elections. This zero-sum game of identity politics poses the greatest threat to both countries’ democracies.


India: The Politics of Islamophobia

The 2019 election campaigns in India and Indonesia have much in common. Most notably, both campaigns have been dominated by rightwing populist sentiment. In India, senior members of Modi’s BJP have frequently made inflammatory comments about the country’s Muslim minority. The party’s president Amit Shah posted on its official Twitter page that, if elected, the BJP planned to “remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha [sic], Hindus and Sikhs.” By “infiltrators,” what he really meant was “Muslims,” who make up 14% of the Indian population. He also made the infamous remark that Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh were “eating the country like termites.” Like Shah, many BJP leaders rely on Muslim-bashing to build up political support, Meghalaya governor Tathagata Roy, for example, called for a boycott against “everything Kashmiri” after the Kashmir car bombing earlier this year.


The bombing also triggered a wave of “fake news” on Indian social media. One widespread WhatsApp message alleged that the Indian National Congress (INC), the BJP’s main opposition, promised to give the attacker’s family money and free other “terrorists” in order to gain votes in the Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir. Such a claim was clearly aimed to discredit the INC leader Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s strongest challenger, who not only did not win the premiership, but also lost his own seat in his family’s bastion of Amethi.


Moreover, the BJP has developed formidable digital teams to spread pro-BJP propaganda, such as the WhatsApp troll group BJP Cyber Army 400+. The BJP is also promoting the Narendra Modi (NaMo) app, which is preinstalled in free smartphones handed out by the government and low-cost Reliance Jio phones. A particularly widespread claim originating from NaMo was that “[o]f the total 40,000 rape cases in India in the last ten years, 39,000 had a Muslim rapist.”


Such behavior is characteristic of populist politicians, who tend to demonize minorities as “national threats” and label opponents as “unpatriotic.” As scholar Jan-Werner Mueller explains in his book What is Populism?, populists claim that only they represent “the true people” and frequently rely on “alternative facts” to support their claims.


Many believe that fact-checking can serve as a remedy to populist disinformation. After the March Pulwama attack, the Indian Central Reserve Police Force noticed social media users not to circulate fake pictures of dead Hindu martyrs. Despite the efforts, former BBC reporter Trushar Barot observed that, “I’ve never seen anything like this before—the scale of fake content circulating on one story.” With the help of advanced photoshop technology, fake information can be highly persuasive, and fact-correction simply has a limited impact on large-scale disinformation. In addition, fact-checking might backfire, reinforcing the false message it seeks to counteract. Research shows that while fact-correction works well in communicating the truth, it hardly changes voting behavior.


Ultimately, the deeper challenge that Indian democracy faces today is not “fake news,” but the animosity between the county’s Hindus and Muslims, which can be dated back to the country’s founding. During the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, massive sectarian violence broke out between the two religious groups. British journalists in India at that time claimed that the brutalities were worse than in Nazi concentration camps: newborn babies roasted on spits; women burning themselves in order to escape rape; train station platforms covered in blood as trains arrive with death bodies.


It was a miracle that the country’s two religious groups made peace and even managed to forge a democracy in 1950. More than 20 years later, in 1976, the principle of secularism was finally written into the Indian constitution, guaranteeing the fundamental rights of religious minorities and envisioning a pluralistic and tolerant India. But many today worry that under the avowedly Hindu-nationalist BJP, secularism is increasingly under attack. By tapping into the country’s deep-rooted Islamophobia, Modi and his party might tear Indian democracy apart.


Indonesia: The Triumph of the Islamic Right

Similar to India, Indonesia also struggles to deal with its religious divide, and Islam became the top issue in this year’s election. The Islamic hardliner Prabowo Subianto ran a divisive campaign based on religious identity. His team portrayed the incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as an “enemy of Islam,” spreading rumors that Jokowi was a Chinese Catholic and a “secret Communist,” while he is in fact a devout Muslim of Javanese descent. Though Prabowo was eventually defeated by Jokowi by a solid two digits, he rejected the results and encouraged his supporters to take to the streets. On May 22, 2019, riots broke out in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, after the official results were released, and Prabowo promised to legally challenge the election’s outcome.


Most in the West are relieved that Jokowi prevailed in the presidential race. His reelection is seen as a victory for secularism and religious tolerance. A moderate Muslim, Jokowi sheltered Chinese Christians during religious clashes in 1998. After his first election in 2014, he appointed female cabinet members and banned a number of Islamic fundamentalist groups.


But in this election, Jokowi had to appease the country’s religious right in order to maintain his popularity. He chose Ma’ruf Amin, an influential conservative Muslim cleric, as his running mate and vice-president. Ma’ruf Amin is currently the chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s largest Muslim clerical body. In the past, he has supported a number of controversial rightwing policies, including the Pornography Law, the prohibition of LGBTQ activities, and the persecution of the Ahmadiyya minority.


It seems that regardless of who won the 2019 election, the ultimate winner is Islamic conservativism. The country’s religious turn is reflected by a gradual change in lifestyle. Today, more and more Indonesian millennials are adhering to “hijrah,” a “purer” Islamic way of life. The practice has been popularized through the spread of social media and gained traction among the country’s middle-class youths. Islamic reality TV and Instagram celebrities have been promoting “hijrah” and encouraging the young generation to reject “sinful” Western culture and reembrace their religious identity. Of course, most of those who follow “hijrah” also voted for the Islamic conservative Prabowo Subianto and view their incumbent president Jokowi as “insufficiently Muslim.”


The rise of faith politics has negative consequences for Indonesia’s democracy—religious intolerance has been a main source of the country’s democratic decline. In recent years, Indonesia has experienced a gradual erosion of minority rights and personal freedoms. The most prominent example is the 2017 religious mobilization against former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian. Conservative Muslims accused him of “insulting the Quran” and called for his imprisonment. The current vice-president-elect Ma’ruf Amin was a key witness in the trial and supported the ruling that Ahok was “blasphemous” for disrespecting Islam.


There is an additional layer to such religious hostility. Indonesia is the sixth most unequal country in the world in terms of wealth, and its ethnic Chinese minority controls a disproportionate amount of economic power. Inequality alone already has a detrimental effect on democracy—scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson found that economic disparity undercuts democratic consolidation. In combination with ethno-religious difference, inequality further feeds into social resentment and provides fertile ground for the rise of populism. In this year’s campaign, Prabowo was able to garner widespread support from Muslim conservatives by preaching that they were “disenfranchised” by the Christian Chinese business class. His exclusive definition of “the people” seems to be direct assault on the ideal of pluralism and perhaps a threat to democracy itself.


Religion on the Rise, Democracy Under Siege

In a 2016 article, political scientist Nancy Bermeo provides an account of contemporary democratic backsliding: although military coups and election frauds are becoming rarer, subtle forms of democratic erosion persist. India and Indonesia seem to fit this description, showing some of the warning signs of democratic decline Bermeo identifies: a sudden surge in populist rhetoric, rampant spread of media disinformation, and massive violations of democratic norms.


Some might argue that that these phenomena are nothing new to modern democracies. After all, we’ve seen them play out in the Brexit campaign, the 2016 American election, and then during the wave of populist movements in Europe. What is special about the Asian brand of democratic erosion is that long-standing religious divides, rather than recent tides of immigration or economic decline, are the main driving force. This is much more alarming because it shows that democratic backsliding can occur despite strong economic growth and the near-absence of migrant influx.


Another disturbing fact is that Modi and Jokowi were both elected for the first time on platforms of economic reform, but were reelected by playing identity politics. This is probably because their economic policies showed mixed results. Modi launched a “Make in India” campaign to transform India into a manufacturing power but was held back by a weak state and complex bureaucracy. His 2016 demonetization policy intended to undercover “black money” ended up wiping out 1.5m jobs and more than 1% of the Indian GDP. Similarly, Jokowi came up with a long list of reform plans during his 2014 bid for presidency, from infrastructure development to health care. A few infrastructure programs were finished in time for the election, but most have been stalled, and the government only provides vague information about their status. Though far below Jokowi’s promised 7%, the country’s economy grew at a steady rate of 5% per year. But regardless of his economic performance, Jokowi was forced to pander to religion in order to compete with his populist opponent.


While the economic outlook for India and Indonesia remains strong, both countries saw an upsurge of ethnonationalism and a drastic turn towards religious intolerance. Whether exploiting Islamophobia or promoting political Islam, leaders in the two countries were willing to sacrifice pluralism and secularism for their personal political gains. Today, religion has become the most polarizing and contentious issue in India and Indonesia. But things might get much worse if the region experiences an economic downturn in the near future—politicians in both countries learnt one big lesson from the 2019 election: it pays off to play the religion card.


Photo Credit: Narendra Modi, Shri Narendra Modi addresses rallies in West Bengal, via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0.


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