Originally published in The Hindu on August 28, 2017

Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia, has often felt like a moderate oasis in an angry, global desert of religious extremism. Until only a few months ago two of the Muslim-majority nation’s most important, if unlikely, leaders, President Joko Widodo and Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, embodied this optimism.

They were unlikely because neither came from the usual bastions of political power: the military, big business, political dynasties or the Islamic establishment. Mr. Widodo is the son of a carpenter who ran a successful furniture business before entering the political fray in 2005 as Mayor of a midsized city, Solo. He eventually became Governor of Jakarta in 2012 and went on to run for President in 2014.

Mr. Purnama is even more of an outlier as a Christian of Chinese descent, two minority groups with which mainstream Indonesian society has historically had a difficult relationship. About 88% of Indonesians are Muslim and the archipelago’s Chinese community has periodically been subject to pogroms. Mr. Purnama shot to national attention first as Vice-Governor of Jakarta under Mr. Widodo. He later ascended to the governorship after Mr. Widodo’s presidential win.

In the 2014 elections Indonesian voters eschewed identity politics in favour of policies. Mr. Widodo’s main opponent was Prabowo Subianto, a former military general with massive financial backing and the support of the majority of Indonesia’s Islamic parties. His campaign was linked to fake news memes portraying Mr. Widodo as a Christian (he is a Javanese Muslim) in an attempt to use the religious card against him. And yet, Indonesia chose a humble man with a commitment to pluralism and clean government, thereby providing a refutation of the pernicious argument that the only viable path for poor, populous nations is authoritarianism.

Mr. Purnama, in the meantime, maintained consistently high approval ratings as Jakarta Governor stemming from his widely acknowledged ability to get things done. Amongst his achievements were settling minimum wages, calling for free school education and health care, reducing traffic congestion and tackling corruption in government. But three years after taking over the reins in Jakarta, Mr. Purnama is currently languishing in jail. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in May this year on charges of blasphemy. It is a punch in the gut of Indonesian liberalism.

Rise of vigilante Islamists

Mr. Purnama’s slow-motion downfall began in September last year when right-wing vigilante groups began alleging that he had committed blasphemy while on the campaign trail for his 2017 re-election. The ‘blasphemy’ consisted of telling voters that they shouldn’t be duped by religious leaders who misuse the Koranic verse Al-Maidah 51 to justify claims that Muslims should not have non-Muslim leaders.

In the ensuing months, extreme Islamist groups like the FPI (Front Pembela Islam or The Islamic Defenders Front) whipped up religious sentiments using social media and organised a series of anti-Purnama demonstrations, some of the largest ever to jam Jakarta’s streets. After years of playing a relatively fringe role in Indonesian politics, Islam as a political mobiliser emerged as a force to be reckoned with.

Most worryingly, the mantle of representing Islam in Indonesia is edging away from mass-based Islamic groups like the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah that are, to varying degrees, supportive of Indonesia’s syncretic traditions. Until recently, organisations like the FPI were anathema to mainstream politicians, and known largely as fringe groups that smashed up bars and disrupted concerts by Western pop musicians.

The reasons for this shift are complex and include internal divisions within traditional Islamic organisations like the NU, a rising tide of popular conservatism resulting in part from Saudi-funded and trained preachers, and finally the cynical collaboration of otherwise “moderate” politicians who are using extremist groups for personal political gain.

The politician who eventually defeated Mr. Purnama in the Jakarta election, Anies Baswedan, was formerly thought of as the quintessential “moderate” Muslim. With a PhD from the University of Northern Illinois on ‘Democracy and Decentralisation’, Mr. Baswedan was the rector of one of Indonesia’s leading universities. During the campaign, however, he shelved all progressive credentials in favour of vote garnering, throwing in his lot with the likes of the FPI, with whose leaders he made public appearances. At one point he even compared the election to the AD 624 Battle of Badr when the Prophet Muhammad faced an army of non-Muslims.

The space for non-Muslims to make personal comments in public or on social media is shrinking. According to Human Rights Watch, 16 people have been persecuted and sentenced for blasphemy in the last three years. One example is that of Donald Ignatius Suyanto, a chef who uploaded a video on YouTube last year in which he questioned the integrity of the Islamic shahada, or statement of faith. Following complaints by some Muslim bloggers, he was arrested for blasphemy last month and is behind bars awaiting trial. Again, earlier this year, Aking Saputra, a real estate executive, opined on Facebook that the majority of cadres of the Indonesian Communist Party (banned since 1966) had been Muslim clerics. He is now facing trial on blasphemy charges.

Resonance with India

The similarities between India and Indonesia are many. The world’s largest and third-largest democracies are home to multiple languages, ethnicities, cultural customs and religions. Nonetheless they have defied, thus far, the exclusions implicit in the European concept of the ideal nation state, wherein a single religion, single language and single ethnicity are assumed to be the only “natural” basis for a sustainable political unit. They could be the best examples the world has of the possibility of successfully generating a common identity out of seemingly irreconcilable multiplicity.

Neither are theocracies, nonetheless religion has an active space in the public life of both nations, unlike in ‘secular’ Europe. Other than Islam, Indonesia recognises five official religions, each with substantial numbers of adherents: Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism. Theirs is not the classic secularism of separation of state and church, but rather one of equal respect for all religions. They could consequently be important experiments in developing a third way for countries where religion remains a valuable part of the identity of most citizens, but where the more exclusionary and intolerant aspects of religion are held in check.

Recent developments from the increasing operationalisation of blasphemy laws in Indonesia, to the lynching of Muslims and suspected beef-eaters in India, are pouring cold water over these hopes. In the past, India and Indonesia have defied various pessimistic predictions ranging from their ‘inevitable’ Balkanisation to their descent into mass sectarian strife. But what of the future? The 2019 general elections in both countries will hold some answers.