"Quran" by Habib M’henni / Public Domain

How Saudi Arabia’s religious project transformed Indonesia

Apr 16, 2020

By Krithika Varagur

Half a million people, all dressed in white, radiated from the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in central Jakarta. Protesters clogged the streets for a mile in every direction; they went all the way up to the National Monument and beyond it to the presidential palace. It was 4 November 2016, and they had come on buses, planes and on foot, from all across Java and even from some other islands, to participate in the largest Islamist demonstration in Indonesian history.

“We came to the palace to enforce the law,” said the cleric Rizieq Shihab, to rapt silence. “Desecrators of the Qur’an must be punished. We must reject the leaders of infidels,” he said, referring to Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Chinese-Christian governor of Indonesia’s capital city, who is known as Ahok. “If our demands are not heard, are you ready to turn this into a revolution?” “We’re ready!” screamed the crowd, breaking into huge applause. “God is great!”, they shouted. There were cries of “Kill Ahok!”

It was an odd scene in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but is not really a “Muslim nation”. Officially, it is a multifaith country that protects six religions equally, where race and ethnicity have been tacitly elided from political discourse. An overtly Islamist political protest like this had no precedent.

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