Religion and the Depoliticised Masses: The Case of Indonesia

Indonesia’s secularism has been questioned and scrutinised for the past months due to the nascent trend of enforcing religious teachings in the state’s arrangement of domestic affairs. The public’s apathy towards politics has been gradually exacerbated, and more people are replacing politics with religion as the underlying principle of their political attitude, resulting in an emergence of a depoliticised mass.

Indonesia’s aspiration to become a paragon of democracy is jeopardised by religious dogmas’ frequent involvement with the state’s politics, instigating the world’s scepticism towards Indonesia’s secularist nature. This article postulates that one of the results of the emergence of such a trend is an increasingly depoliticised population. The rapid integration of religious teachings into the state’s political realm has steadily decreased the political aptitude and awareness, in the eyes of the public, of the state’s administration. Such misappropriations of religion do not only hamper the establishment of a good government but also harm the essence of Islam by hijacking its teachings and transforming them into political machinations.

The expanding authority of Islam over Indonesia’s domestic affairs is demonstrated by the significant role played by the religion on the results of Jakarta’s latest gubernatorial election. The blasphemy prosecution of Jakarta’s former governor, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama, significantly impacted the Muslim population’s vote. Ahok, who happens to be a Christian, became the target of public outrage after a remark on a Quranic verse was deemed pejorative by the majority of the Muslim population. Following the public’s reaction, Ahok lost the gubernatorial re-election after his electability declined considerably. The population’s predilection for Ahok’s opponent, Anies Baswedan, was swayed by Baswedan’s status as a Muslim rather than his political accomplishments. People’s voting behaviour was principally governed by their religious beliefs rather than their awareness and understanding of the candidates’ programmes and political aptitude.

A survey conducted by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting on public satisfaction with Ahok and Baswedan’s political performances indicated that the majority of respondents believed that Ahok had a superior political proficiency than Baswedan. Involving 446 respondents, the survey reported that 76% of the respondents were satisfied with Ahok’s previous performance as a governor before his derogatory remarks. Likewise, a survey carried out by Median reported that 65.9% of the survey’s respondents also believed that Ahok was more experienced to govern Jakarta than Baswedan. Nevertheless, despite the public’s clear satisfaction with Ahok’s political performance, Baswedan’s electability was still higher than Ahok’s. However, the 60.4% of the respondents who favoured Baswedan based their preference on their emotional, rather than logical, perceptions of his political persona. Baswedan’s religious belief as a Muslim was one of the most decisive factors behind the candidate’s success in amassing votes, illustrating religion’s prowess in debilitating the gravity of politics in the realm of the state’s affairs and in constructing people’s political behaviour.

Using religious dogmas as an instrument for depoliticising people is not a brand-new strategy. Marx criticised religions as the opiate of the masses, by which he meant that people could be unobtrusively subdued by the ideologies and values enforced by religions. According to this Marxist notion, religions are interconnected with the practice of depoliticisation. People’s conduct, including their political beliefs, can be shaped and constructed in certain ways by the proclamation that God ordains said ways. As exemplified by the case of Jakarta’s election, religious beliefs can push political considerations into the periphery. The Muslim electorates could condone Baswedan’s nominal political capabilities since voting for a Muslim leader is reportedly an imperative according to Islamic dogma.

How are religions capable of depoliticising the masses? It is their promise of the afterlife, either in the form of heaven, as promised by the Abrahamic religions, or rebirth, as taught by Buddhism. To elaborate on this answer, we should first understand people’s motivation to immerse themselves in politics. Arendt states that people engage in politics to compensate for their mortality; individuals’ desire to be remembered can be obtained by leaving a legacy of their existence in the form of ‘political deeds’. Religions, on the other hand, debase the desire of immortality by professing the superiority of heaven. Religious dogma of the afterlife endorses the idea that the purpose of life on earth is to prepare believers for the eternal life. Hence, people’s desire to leave behind any kind of enduring legacy, including political deeds, is perceived as trifling and inconsequential. The promise of the afterlife, thus, diminishes the value of civic engagement, engendering the growing detachment of people from politics and other temporary, mundane businesses.

It should be noted that the objective of this article is not to belittle religions or to make allegations against religious dogmas. Instead, I seek to analyse the danger of the religion/depoliticisation nexus. As such, I must first emphasize Arendt’s argument that the practice of depoliticisation aims to decrease the precariousness and unpredictability of democracy. Depoliticising the masses as a strategy is promoted by the misconception that political risk can be minimised by circumscribing power and authority into an individual or a limited number of people. The desired outcome of depoliticisation is, thus, an order in which political control is centralised in a particular individual or group while the depoliticised people become the obsequious subordinates of the ‘experts’. Second, when the public is depoliticised, preserving or impugning the established political order may be easier, specifically in a state with a large religious population. Growing apathy or even antipathy towards politics, followed by the propagation and utilisation of religious dogmas, may facilitate some opportunists’ “legitimate” toppling or preservation of the established order by using the name of God. Indeed, the public becomes religiously biased in assessing political and governmental matters. Taking Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial election as an example, replacing an established leader can be done swiftly when their conduct is portrayed as religiously illegitimate.

In conclusion, the practice of depoliticisation is an indispensable tool in the game of politics. Though usurpation and power play have always been pervasive in the political domain, using religious dogmas to underpin the practice of depoliticisation transforms religions into mere political instruments. In non-secular states that officially adopt a particular religion, employing it as a moral parameter in managing the state’s affairs may be a “legitimate” action. Nevertheless, for secular countries like Indonesia, using religious dogmas as substitutes for political capacities in assessing the state’s performance is unconstitutional conduct and provides an opportunity for actors to achieve private gains under the name of God. As stated by David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, the deadliest threat to religions is an affiliation with politics. When religion becomes a political instrument, he says, ‘it betrays its own message’. Hence, should this practice continue, the depoliticised masses of Indonesia will unconsciously erode the true essence of their religion while blindly fighting political battles on behalf of God—unaware that their battles and beliefs are merely used as instruments by opportunists in the political game.