Popular anti-Ahok poster. Caption reads: “I am a moslem. I support moslem governor.”
Popular anti-Ahok poster. Caption reads: “I am a moslem. I support moslem governor.”
Imagining Islam in Digital Jakarta
Anti-Ahok rallies surrounding Jakarta gubernatorial election reveals how new media shaped Indonesian contemporary Islamic identity.
Imagining Islam in Digital Jakarta
Anti-Ahok rallies surrounding Jakarta gubernatorial election reveals how new media shaped Indonesian contemporary Islamic identity.

The build up towards Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial election has been rife with political circuses. The election that was held in 15th February was preceded by three major protest driven by Islam Defenders Front (FPI). The first two rallies held in 4th November and 2nd December, popularly dubbed as the 411 and 212 protests, demands the trial of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), incumbent Jakarta governor, for blasphemy. The latest protest, held in 11th February just 4 days before the election, calls for Jakarta moslem citizen to cease support for Ahok in the ballots. Unsurprisingly, another two candidates competing in the election, Anies Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno and Agus Harimurti, are also present in the protest.

The rallies was triggered by a cut of Ahok’s campaign speech video that goes viral, allegedly a proof of Ahok’s contempt on the holy book Quran. Ahok’s identity as an ethnic Chinese and Christian, a “double” minority  in a Muslim majority province, deemed to be the reason behind the protests and, at the same time, a smear campaign material. Yet the events surrounding the election reveals wider social issues, beyond “tyranny of the majority” case.

in the eyes of many Jakarta citizen, these protests brought up nasty memories of the 1998 riots, where economic problems led to racial hatred and violence towards ethnic Chinese minority, who frequently accused of being the ruler of Indonesian economy. Ahok is well known for his cold and indiscriminating approach. Many of his policies, such as forcibly evicting river bank settlements for flood management projects, ended up hurting the poor, which are also mostly Muslims. Furthermore, many online contents reported the upcoming arrival of 10 million Chinese worker to Indonesia. While the rumor is hard to believe, it successfully incites public unrest that forced President Joko Widodo to state official clarification.

The timing of the protests and the presence of Ahok’s opponents in the election heavily implies the interference of political powers and interests. But the support for this cause has also been spread through by organic and within the grassroots. First it was Friday sermons in small mosques and small circles of pengajian (Islamic learning circles); then, a huge chunk of the discourse started to take place in the internet and social media. The interesting point about these new protests is that Ahok’s blasphemy case has rallied together an interesting juxtaposition of Muslim fundamentalists: not only FPI vigilantes or the poor Muslims, but also university students, intellectuals, and members of middle and upper class conservative Muslims. A lot of non-Jakartan conservative Muslims also took up the cause, visiting Jakarta from many corners of the wide archipelago.

An Islamic Imagined Community?

In the eyes of the middle-class Jakartans, it’s easy to imagine the FPI as “the turban wearing, angry unwashed masses” notorious for violence and coercion. Their leader and poster boy Rizieq Shihab is an angry and hateful orator, hardly a suave person. Yet conservative Muslims, even from the educated middle-upper class, are starting to throw their support—or at least their sympathy—towards him.

Crucial in the process of this convergence is a loosely strung network of conservative preachers and intellectuals with middle-class following, who gradually took up the cause against Ahok. They consist of popular media preachers like Yusuf Mansur, AA Gym, and Arifin Ilham; and also the more politically inclined academics like Bachtiar Natsir (head of MIUMI, MUI’s youth and intellectuals’ wing) and Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin (leader of Wahdah Islamiyah), figures with a core support based on the more educated Muslims.

While campaigns to deligitimate Ahok’s administration has been launched since he first sit in the office, It was Ahok’s “blasphemous” speech that finally gave all anti-Ahok elements an opportunity. The FPI, angry poor Muslims from the slums, middle-class conservatives, academics, popular preachers, and politicians targeting the Muslim segment, all gained a convenient issue to frame their opposition. It is fitting how this campaign gained a lot of currency from a viral video posted on YouTube; the social media kept on playing a big part on the construction of the anti-Ahok discourse. It helped in building a greater sense of camaraderie and communality present on the various elements of the protesters, deeply resembling Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined community.”

Anderson coined the term to describe how the invention of the printing press, a media technology, had a huge hand in the birth of nationalism. The emergence of Gutenberg’s press popularized the use of vernaculars to maximize profit and circulation, giving a rise to local languages and declining the importance of privileged, exclusive languages like Latin. The use of common vernaculars gave birth to a sense of communality (e.g. Germans reading Germanic), constructing a sense of imagined communities vital in nationalism.

The new media works similarly to printed media, albeit to an amplified effect, allowing like-minded people and those with common interests to commune. By presenting the audience with images they can choose to relate to, it will perpetuate certain kinds of ideas which in the end will further their relationship to their imagined community.

A big chunk of the spread of anti-Ahok ideas happened in the new media. WhatsApp and LINE pengajian groups started to become a gathering place and an echo chamber for like-minded individuals. Activists started utilizing Facebook and Twitter as means to garner support and to mobilize the masses. A change.org petition demanding Ahok’s apology and stern action garnered 73,430 internet supporters (as of February 3rd, 2017). It is through the perpetuation of similar relatable messages, addressing some kind of a common “Islamic public,” that the Islamic imagined community was built and reinforced.

Figure 1: Picture taken from a viral WhatsApp chain message: “If as much as a strand of Habib Rizieq’s hair falls, it’s not only the FPI you would have problems with, but the whole Islamic ummah.” Note that this poster comes from Purwakarta, not Jakarta.

Anomie and Isolation

The new media offers interconnectivity, allowing open dialogue and interrelatedness. Supposedly, this could also bring about a wider diversity of ideas, people, and experiences. Yet at the same time new media also specializes in niche marketing and market segmentation. Ben Barber (1998) criticized this logic of the new media—he noted that it will give disadvantage to thicker and more deliberative forms of discourse and civic association, potentially exacerbating wider social trends towards anomie and isolation.

Anti-Ahok social media contents reflected Barber’s fear really well. WhatsApp pengajian groups, for example, perpetually circulate "news” and political memes usually in the form of copy-pasted broadcasts. “News” websites with questionable reports such as arrahmah.com or voa-islam com typically supply them with a steady source of information.

Figure 2: Image from circulated WhatsApp messages: It criticizes how the majority of Anti-Corruption Comission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, KPK) head members are Christians; the accompanying message accuses them of being harsh to Muslim corruptors. Agus Raharjo is mentioned as a Christian, even though he is actually a Muslim.

Figure 3: Also from a WhatsApp circulated message, this picture insists that by picking a Muslim governor (any of Ahok’s rivals), a voter could help save Indonesia from Communist, foreign, and Chinese (aseng is a slur for ethnic Chinese) conspiracy.

These echo chambers not only develop tunnel vision and distort truth on their audiences, they could also reinforce and polarize their political beliefs and worldview to the extreme. Hateful speeches circulate widely in social media, often with angry racial slurs and violent threats. In circulated messages, the name Ahok is often followed by racial slurs for pig, common slur for ethnic Chinese.

The social media is also a ripe breeding ground for conspiracy theories, one of the signifiers for anomie. Ahok has been accused as PKI, the long dead Cold War-era Communist Party of Indonesia. There are also conspiracy theories accusing Ahok with an attept to christianize Jakarta, or that he encourages Chinese immigrants to Indonesia, robbing jobs from the local work force.

It is perhaps inevitable, that every attempt to define any kind of social identity, such as “imagined communities,” will always end up defining an “Other.” These negative impacts are not new, neither are they exclusive in Indonesia. Fake news circulating through the new media has been attributed to some major political events, from Brexit to the rise of Donald Trump. Like these incidents, the new media has been identified as a strong factor in polarizing political opinions. It is a new phenomenon; the Indonesian government and journalist associations are currently still unclear on how they will deal with this new kind of fundamentalist movement, one revolving around the new media.

Some of these new policies heavily concern the circulation of hoaxes and fake news. But maybe, as Clay Shirkey popularly tweeted: that would be akin to bringing fact checkers to a culture war. This movement lies deeper than educated-uneducated, literate-illiterate dichotomies.

One of the main criticisms on Anderson’s theory is that the concept imagines “imagined communities” as a singular concept. A lot of Indonesian Muslims imagined their Islamic identity in various ways, not necessarily buying into anti-Ahok movement’s notion of it, in spite of their ardent attempt of monolithization. Sadly their position in the Islamic discourse is still weak, drowning in the tide of the conservative discourse united in its opposition towards Ahok. In the end, Ahok’s case is merely a phenomenon, showing how the kinder face of Indonesian Islam has been compromised by its harsher, fundamentalist face. A chance of reviving a kinder face of Islam perhaps lies on the hands of the more moderate Muslims, and how motivated they are to make their voice heard in the modern maelstrom of discourse and information. []

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Firman Imadudin

Studied the media at Universitas Indonesia. A writer and editor for Remotivi. Interested in anthropology, humanities, film studies, and media studies.

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