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A Liberal Dash Of Religion As The Nation With The Highest Muslim Population Votes

For a man who projected the image of a moderate Muslim until not so long ago, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has come a long way. As he presses ahead with his re-election bid in a country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Widodo or Jokowi as he’s more popularly known, the man known for his pluralism has been striving to prove that he’s a pious Muslim.

As the archipelago heads for the polls on Wednesday, religion or political Islam as various commentators are describing it will be looming large in the electoral battle. Pitted against each other yet again after the 2014 presidential polls are Widodo, a furniture businessman-turned-politician and former army general Prabowo Subianto who was once the son-in-law of Indonesian dictator Suharto.

In a country where Islam is not the official state religion, the growing shrillness of conservative groups has forced both presidential candidates to pander to the voices of hardliners. But in the case of Jokowi, seen as a moderate, this has come as a surprise.

Jokowi has chosen as his running mate for the post of vice-president Ma’aruf Amin, a senior Muslim cleric who heads the influential Indonesian Ulema Council. This is indicative of Jokowi’s efforts to woo the conservatives in his country, faced as he is with the charge of not being “Islamic enough” by the hardliners. It’s a charge that his opponent, Subianto will be hoping to use to his advantage, having already sought to project himself as one who will be the defender of Islam.

The retired armyman who himself faces allegations of human rights abuse while he was in service ironically is being tom-tommed as the one who will promote the cause of Islam in Indonesia. There are even worries that the retired general will create an Islamic state in Indonesia though a member of his campaign team sought to allay these fears earlier this year.

But it’s evident that religion has cast its shadow over the Indonesian polls as Jokowi and Subianto jostle for power. Subianto already has the support of hardline Islamist groups in his country. Jokowi, on the other hand, has in the past come down hard on such groups during his presidency.

So it’s quite a turnaround now for Jokowi. Amin, the 76-year-old cleric, has in the past issued controversial fatwas including one seeking the criminalisation of LGBT relationships. The Ulema Council also issued a fatwa against Ahmadiya Muslims for ostensibly not adhering to teachings from the Quran.

Further, Amin also played a key role in the charges of blasphemy that were brought against the governor of Jakarta, the Chinese origin Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, more popularly known by his Chinese nickname of ‘Ahok’, which led to a two-year prison sentence. A Christian, Ahok was once a Jokowi ally who became governor of Jakarta after the former became the country’s president.

Eager to project the image of a devout Muslim, Jokowi even made a quick dash to Mecca on Sunday to perform the Umrah just three days ahead of his country’s elections.

But this change in course by Jokowi as he seeks to pander to the hardliners has not down well with the moderates and even among many within his party. It has raised concerns among the moderates as well as those who believed that Jokowi would provide a new direction to a country that is a relatively new democracy, having been ruled by the dictator Suharto for over three decades.

Politics, it’s said, makes for strange bedfellows. And Jokowi seems to be living up to this adage as he seeks a second term.

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