How Saudi Arabia’s religious project transformed Indonesia

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“We came to the palace to enforce the law,” said the cleric Rizieq Shihab, to rapt silence. “Desecrators of the Qur’an must be punished. We must reject the leaders of infidels,” he said, referring to Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Chinese-Christian governor of Indonesia’s capital city, who is known as Ahok. “If our demands are not heard, are you ready to turn this into a revolution?” “We’re ready!” screamed the crowd, breaking into huge applause. “God is great!”, they shouted. There were cries of “Kill Ahok!”
It was an odd scene in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but is not really a “Muslim nation”. Officially, it is a multifaith country that protects six religions equally, where race and ethnicity have been tacitly elided from political discourse. An overtly Islamist political protest like this had no precedent.

In theory, the rally was organised by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), led by Shihab, to accuse Ahok of blasphemy against Islam and call for his removal from office. But in practice, this was less about Ahok and more about displaying the piety and political power of Muslim Indonesians – and it worked. The city shut down all its major arteries that day. At the second protest, on 2 December, the president of Indonesia himself showed up, unannounced, and prayed with them.

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Beyond such flagship investments, an equally pervasive legacy of Saudi proselytisation in Indonesia has been the rise of virulent religious intolerance. In addition to the commonplace harassment of Christian groups and the show trial of Ahok, its most prominent Christian politician, Indonesia is also now a country where there is a national “anti-Shia” league and mobs have driven Ahmadiyya Muslims from their homes into refugee camps.

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