By Ross B. Taylor
It’s been a good two month’s for hardline Islam groups such a Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Community Islamic Forum (FUI) in their quest to see Indonesia become an Islam State with Sharia Law being introduced beyond Aceh Province, to all parts of the sprawling archipelago.
Last week we saw the highly competent Governor of Jakarta known as ‘Ahok’ thrown out of office as the (democratic) election revealed that whilst most Jakartan’s agreed that Ahok was a ‘good governor’, being a Chinese-Christian was too much to ask in terms of voting for him rather than for his Muslim rival.
A few weeks earlier a visit by Saudi Arabia’s King – the first visit by a Saudi monarch in 47 years – went almost unnoticed here in Australia, but was huge news in Indonesia.
King Salman was given a rock-star welcome when he touched-down in Jakarta along with seven ministers, 19 princes, 1300 business executives and 495 tonnes of baggage, and a very fat cheque book.
What also went completely unnoticed in Australia-except by our diplomats-was the darker side of the King’s trip, and in particular his desire to build much closer relations with our neighbour; home to the world’s largest Muslim population.
In welcoming the King to Jakarta, President Jokowi – who had just returned from a low-key visit to meet Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney - said, “..We are united by Islam and brotherhood...,” choosing to ignore the horrifying statistics of the sexual abuse and deaths of Indonesian maids in Saudi over recent years.
Yet in reality, Islam and politics in both Indonesia and Saudi Arabia could not be more different. Notwithstanding the adoption of Sharia law in Aceh province and a more religiously conservative mood pervading the nation, Indonesia continues to embrace a mostly secular state principle – a principle that is endorsed by the nation’s major religious organisations and majority of the people - whilst pluralism is one of the nation’s foundations through the acceptance of all religions. Indonesia also has a robust democracy that was born after the dictatorship of President Suharto collapsed in 1998.
Saudi Arabia on the other hand operates as a harsh and absolute monarchy that embraces the Wahhabist form of Islam; a very conservative interpretation of the Koran resulting in stoning and hand amputations for a range of offences including homosexuality, adultery or young people simply holding hands.
Over the past few years Saudi Arabia has increased its spending in Indonesia dramatically, building many Mosques and schools. Meanwhile late last year Australia completed an AusAid program of building and running junior schools in remote parts of Indonesia. It is understandable that in tough economic times, most Australians would demand that school funding should be for Australian schools; not Islamic schools in poor parts of Indonesia, but who will fill this void?
Whilst there is not necessarily any direct correlation between Australia withdrawing its funding for these schools and Saudi education funding, it is interesting to note that King Salman announced during the Jakarta visit that his nation will spend USD$1 billion in ‘social aid’ throughout Indonesia over the next few years.
It would be absurd to even suggest Australia should enter into a ‘bidding war’ with Saudi Arabia in winning-over Indonesia’s affection, but it does leave Australia in a dilemma as to how we should counter the Saudi aim of increasing their influence and power right on our door-step.
Meanwhile, this evolving interest in Indonesia by the giant of the Muslim world lead the King to assure the Indonesian president that Saudi Arabia wanted to be an unconditional benefactor to Indonesia and was not interested in expanding his hardline form of Islam throughout the archipelago - and on Australia’s doorstep.
With the outcome of the Jakarta governor election a resounded rejection of any aspirations of non-Muslims to higher office may have, and the rise of conservative Islam throughout Indonesia, let’s all hope that the King sticks to his word.
Ross Taylor AM is the president of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute Inc.
22nd April 2017.