INSIDE a grimy, smoke-filled hall in Tasikmalaya, a town in West Java, Ridwan Kamil tries to whip up the crowd. Mr Ridwan is the candidate for governor from the United Development Party (PPP), a mildly Islamic outfit. He is also an American-educated architect and the mayor of Bandung, the largest city in the region. To scattered applause, he boasts about boosting recycling rates and empowering women through interest-free loans. But he also claims that he has encouraged the people of Bandung to visit mosques more often. After his speech his convoy races off to an Islamic school for lunch.
Before campaigning started for regional elections in June, many observers worried that religion would drown out all other issues. The concern stemmed from local elections in Jakarta last year, in which the front-runner, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese origin known as Ahok, was falsely accused of insulting Islam. Huge rallies were organised against him by the “212 Movement”, a coalition of various extremist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which supports subjecting Indonesia to Islamic law. In the end Ahok lost to the candidate supported by conservative Muslim groups.
Remembering culture’s role in the Prague Spring
One person dies after an engine explodes on a Southwest flight
After a good run of growth, China’s economy braces for bumps
Germany is becoming more open and more fragmented
What is sustainable finance?
Why “The Walking Dead” is stumbling
“Today is different,” says Marsudi Syuhud, the head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia. Although incredibly popular, with 60% approval ratings, Ahok was considered by many to be a divisive figure, by virtue both of his minority status and of his bluntness, which ran counter to Javanese traditions of deference and circumlocution. None of the candidates in West Java is so inflammatory. But scenes such as those in Tasikmalaya show that, even though hardliners are far less noisy than they were in Jakarta, religion is still playing a pervasive role.
Teeming and pious
West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province, with 47m people, is considered one of the most conservative parts of the country. In the presidential election of 2014 it plumped for Prabowo Subianto, a former general particularly liked by religious types, rather than the winner, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), the more secular governor of Jakarta. Tasikmalaya is known for its many Islamic schools. Candidates have been keen to burnish their religious credentials. Mr Ridwan, for example, has chosen as his running-mate Uu Ruzhanul Ulum, the devout head of the local government in Tasikmalaya.
FPI has tried to stir up religious tensions in the province. According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a think-tank in Jakarta, it has portrayed several candidates, including Mr Ridwan, as fronts for Christian “domination”, in a country that is nearly 90% Muslim (a common ploy in Asia—see Banyan). The group accused the running-mate of Mr Ridwan’s main rival of being a “polytheist” because, as head of the local government in another town in the province, he allowed the erection of statues of traditional Javanese puppets.
There has also been an uptick in “black campaigns”, in which anonymous posts on social media are used to paint candidates as not Muslim enough. “They want to drag me down,” says Mr Ridwan, who says that even his 78-year-old mother has received a video via WhatsApp that claimed, falsely, that he had presided over a massive church-building campaign in Bandung. West Javanese spend four or five hours a day looking at social media on their mobile phones, he says. Smears spread like wildfire.
Last week, for instance, pictures began circulating of most of the main candidates for governor in the company of Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno, the first president, and sister of Megawati, the fifth. She was recently accused of blasphemy for reciting a poem that implies that traditional Indonesian hairstyles and songs are preferable to headscarves and the call to prayer. Only the candidate backed by Mr Prabowo’s party and various Islamic groups escaped attack.
Jokowi, who is standing for re-election next year, will be watching West Java closely. He has managed to co-opt some doctrinaire Muslim groups, such as the Indonesian Ulema Council, by appointing senior members to government committees. FPI has lost momentum since its leader, Rizieq Shihab, went on pilgrimage to Mecca and declined to return to Indonesia to face pornography charges. But grassroots activists will not be so easy to quell. A study last year found that more than 40% of those attending after-school Islamic classes supported the idea of Indonesia becoming an Islamic state, and 60% said they would be willing to travel abroad for jihad.