Islamic morality and challenges to democracy: A study of urban lower and middle class responses

Studies on the relationship between Indonesia and Australia have shown that there are many areas where mutual understanding must be improved. One such area highlighted in the 2016 Australia-Indonesia Perceptions Report concerns Australians’ understandings of Islam in Indonesia. It is perceived that there is rising intolerance and Islamic conservatism in Indonesia, which is understood by some to be linked to the damaging effects of economic inequality and/or increasingly strong primordial, religious sentiment. 

In an effort to provide greater insight on these themes, this study examined the link between adherence to conservative attitudes on Islamic morality and growing precarity among a large cross-section of Indonesian society. It investigated, in particular, how and why younger and more educated members of society within the urban lower and middle classes are attracted to the ideas and rhetoric of conservative and often fringe Islamic organisations. 

The study surveyed 600 people who participated in the largest religiously motivated mass rallies in Indonesian history – those against the Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, in 2016 and 2017. The survey was followed by in-depth interviews with selected participants. This research provides an explanation of their motivations and what it means for Indonesia at home and in its relations with the rest of the world, including Australia.

The study was designed to achieve the following objectives:

  • To identify the occupations and educational background of urban, lower and middle class Muslims involved in the activities of conservative Islamic groups
  • To explore their experience in dealing with conditions of precarity
  • To analyse the relationship between precarity and political Islamic identities
  • To provide practical recommendations to improve understanding regarding urbanised Indonesian Muslims

Findings and recommendations

This study employed both quantitative (assisted survey) and qualitative (in depth interviews and focus group discussions) methods. It gathered empirical evidence regarding the social background and political identities of urban lower and middle class Muslims in urban Indonesia and their attitudes to a range of moral issues that have broader social and political resonance.

The study found that rising Islamic conservatism was significantly related to the failed promises of modernity, including the fact that education has not provided more secure social status for many. Large numbers of people have grievances towards other social groups perceived to have attained economic and social access unfairly. The research also found that moderate Muslim organisations, namely Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, are perceived as incapable of addressing these commonly held gripes. Likewise, many young Muslims feel that none of the mainstream Islamic organisations embody their aspirations, which is why more conservative narratives appeal to them and as a consequence are becoming mainstream in the political arena.

The anti-Ahok rallies in Jakarta were not solely religiously motivated, nor were they entirely motivated by socio-economic grievances. There is a link between the two, whereby one must take seriously the way that religiously derived political language resonates with large cross-sections of the populace, as well as the broader social context within which this political language has grown to become more powerful – to the extent of possibly being deployed effectively by some political elites in contests with each other. This has important implications for future research on Indonesian Islamic politics, as well as for policy-makers who have an interest in the implications of hard-line Islamic discourses on the future of Indonesian democracy.

Based on these findings, we propose that more critical attention be given to the role of education in assisting young Muslims in particular, and Indonesian citizens in general, to understand the social effects of the neoliberal economic transformations that have produced the social precarity they are anxious about. We also propose strengthening and grounding moderate Muslim organisations in reforming the social structure that maintains their congregation in a time of high political pressure.  We recommend civil society organisations with legitimacy in working with these issues to refer to fundamental research in strategising to push for the common democratic agenda desired by many Indonesians and Australians alike.




Journal articles

Hadiz, VR. ‘The Floating Ummah in the Fall of Ahok in Indonesia’ submitted to Trans: Trans-Regional and National Studies of Southeast Asia (April 2018)

Rakhmani, I. ‘The Politics of Gendered Halal Consumerism in Indonesia’, submitted in April 2018 to Trans: Trans-Regional and National Studies of Southeast Asia (April 2018)


The Conversation: Memasarkan moralitas dalam demokrasi Indonesia

Asian Studies Association of Australia: Marketing morality in Indonesia’s democracy

East Asia Forum: Marketing morality in Indonesia’s democracy

Channel News Asia: Marketing morality a winning strategy for Indonesian hardline groups