Study links rising Islamic conservatism to urban youth’s socio-economic frustrations

A survey of 600 ‘anti-Ahok’ marchers has captured rare insights into Indonesia’s growing Islamic conservatism and how social inequality is viewed through a moral lens.

A new study funded by the Australia-Indonesia Centre and conducted by top Australian and Indonesian university researchers has revealed that stalling levels of job security and social mobility might explain why young, urban people are being drawn to more conservative brands of Islam.

“The more-educated young members of Indonesia’s urban lower- and middle-classes, whose aspirations of upward social mobility have been frustrated, tend to be attracted to explanations for these social barriers that focus on the immorality of the existing social order,” explains Professor Vedi Hadiz, deputy director of the Asia Institute at The University of Melbourne. “And it is not the large, moderate Islamic organisations that are offering them those explanations.”

Six-hundred urban, lower- and middle-class young Muslims were surveyed, all of them participants in the largest religiously motivated rallies in Indonesian history. The ‘Defense of Islam’ rallies, also referred to as ‘anti-Ahok’ rallies, were in response to allegedly blasphemous comments from former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama, or Ahok, a Chinese-Indonesian Christian.

Researchers from Universitas Indonesia, The University of Melbourne and Universitas Airlangga examined survey data on social and educational backgrounds, political leanings, and attitudes to a range of recently debated moral issues, political and social, such as democratic governance, economic imbalance and rights for LGBT people and communities. Their broad aim was to examine any links between adherence to conservative Islamic attitudes to morality, and young people’s increasing insecurity of employment and income.

Three young men march behind a sign proclaiming ‘We want justice’. (Credit: Abraham Arthemius. CC – some rights reserved.)

Many of those surveyed perceived that the largest two Islamic organisations – Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama – are incapable of addressing concerns that wealthy groups have attained their economic and social status through immoral means. Islamic groups that are more conservative and support that narrative are thus gaining popularity. Dr Inaya Rakhmani from Universitas Indonesia says, due to “growing competition from such fringe groups, established organisations may be steered in the direction of adopting more rigid interpretations of Islamic morality”.

It is interesting to note that some of the young male subjects refused to be interviewed by a female researcher. This suggested to researchers that gender segregation had joined dress codes and mosque attendance as a major signifier of adherence to Islamic morality, and therefore to associated social or political causes.

Researchers say links between growing religious conservatism and socio-economic grievances must be taken seriously by policy makers, and others researching Indonesian Islamic politics, “especially given that religiously-derived political language can now seemingly be deployed by political elites and resonate with large cross-sections of the population,” according to Dr Rakhmani.

The Australia-Indonesia Perceptions Report, released by the Australia-Indonesia Centre in 2016, showed that 75 per cent of Australians associated Indonesians with their religion. Therefore, Australians would have much to gain from developing a deeper understanding of Islam in Indonesia. This study puts rising conservatism in a socio-demographic context which could help many Australians better understand the motivations of ‘anti-Ahok’ marchers in Jakarta, and the wider movement.