How much is religious soft power worth? Indonesian President Jokowi searches for answers in Abu Dhabi
By James M. Dorsey
An Indonesian promise to work with the United Arab Emirates to promote ‘moderate’ Islam raises questions of what constitutes moderation and how it can best be achieved.
The pledge, made by Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a three-day visit to the UAE to solicit Emirati investment in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state, potentially puts on the spot a government coalition partner and the government’s foremost ally in projecting Indonesia as an icon of moderate Islam.
It also raises the question of whether Mr. Widodo will compromise Indonesia’s unique advantage in its rivalry with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran over who will define moderate Islam in the 21st century in exchange for funding and investment.
Indonesia and the UAE signed US$23 billion worth of agreements during a visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to the Southeast Asian island state in 2019. The agreements included a $270-million liquefied petroleum gas project and a $3-billion long-term deal on naphtha supply.
More recently, the UAE said in March that it would invest US$10 billion in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund. Last month, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority said it would commit $400 million to GoTo Group, Indonesia’s biggest internet firm, in advance of its initial public offering.
Dubai’s port management and logistic giant DP World last week signed an agreement with the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA) to explore investment in port infrastructure in Indonesia.
Mr. Jokowi hopes that Prince Mohammed’s agreement to chair a committee that will oversee the construction of a new Indonesian capital at an estimated cost of $34 billion will translate into Emirati co-funding,
The two countries have also explored closer defence cooperation with the exchange of defence attaches, discussion of potential cooperation on the manufacturing of drones, weapons, and munitions, and collaboration in aerospace and cross-training in counterterrorism operations, and possible Indonesian support for Emirati security engagement in Africa’s Sahel region.
“Our relationship with the UAE is not just like friends; we are like brothers,” Mr. Jokowi told the state-controlled Emirates News Agency. "I see that religious moderation and diversity in the UAE are widely respected. And that is the area of cooperation we would like to explore more because we both share the closeness in the vision and characters of moderate Islam that propagates tolerance."
Mr. Jokowi’s eagerness to work with the UAE on religious issues raises questions about the relationship between Mr. Jokowi’s quest for religious soft power and his search for foreign investment.
Ameem Lutfi, a researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, cautions that Gulf state investment involves “risks that…may be tied to political leverage.”
Mr. Lutfi notes that countries like the UAE seek to expand their influence in Muslim majority countries in Asia to bolster their bids for leadership of the Muslim world. In Indonesia, the UAE encounters one of its foremost, albeit understated, religious soft power rivals that has demonstrated its wherewithal in the absence of comparable financial muscle.
Mr. Jokowi’s visit came months after ground was broken in Solo in Central Java of a US$20 million replica of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque, named after the founder of the UAE. The project was unusual given that until now it was the Saudis who built grand mosques celebrating their rulers in world capitals such as Brussels and Islamabad.
Mr. Jokowi did not spell out what religious cooperation would entail but Indonesian news reports at the time of Prince Mohammed’s visit suggested it would involve sharing expertise in Quran memorization, translation and publication; promoting discussions among scholars, politicians and academics on ways to strengthen religious moderation and cooperating on the development of digital education programs for madrassas or religious seminaries.
Mr. Jokowi’s eagerness to cooperate with the UAE on religious issues is remarkable given that his government has effectively outsourced Indonesia’s religious soft power efforts to Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement. It takes on added significance with this year’s Indonesian chairmanship of the G-20 that groups the world’s foremost economies. The G-20 includes an inter-faith tack.
Nahdlatul Ulama is represented in Mr. Jokowi’s government by its political party, National Awakening Party (PKB). In addition, Mr. Jokowi’s vice president, Ma'ruf Amin, and religious affairs minister, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, are prominent Nahdlatul Ulama figures. Recent appointments of Indonesian ambassadors in key world capitals have included several people associated with the movement.
In what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to shape the faith between Middle Eastern and Asian states, Nahdlatul Ulama emphasises notions of religious moderation that contrast starkly with those for which the UAE has earned credit. Nahdlatul Ulama advocates a multi-religious and pluralistic democracy, a full and unconditional embrace of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reform of Islamic jurisprudence.
For its part, the UAE has indeed liberalized social mores including non-marital cohabitation, alcohol consumption and religious tolerance but rejects democracy as a form of governance and recognizes only parts of the universal human rights declaration. Instead, the UAE propagates an interpretation of the faith that demands absolute obedience to the ruler.
Moreover, the country’s constitution recognizes Islam as the religion of the state and Sharia as a major legal inspiration. At the same time, the UAE, unlike Nahdlatul Ulama, has steered clear of seeking to anchor its reforms in religious law and jurisprudence.
Mr. Jokowi’s straddling of his relationships with Nahdlatul Ulama and the UAE when it comes to religion and religious soft power may be complicated by criticism of Mr. Jokowi’s adherence to democratic principles.
“The president’s assaults on democracy are manifold,” thundered The Economist. It pointed to steps to suppress dissident voices, including assertion of the power to disband civil-society organisations on national-security grounds, the levelling of criminal charges against online critics, and the blocking of websites. The magazine further charged that Mr. Jokowi “surrounded himself with generals and relies ever more on the armed forces to help execute domestic policy, such as in increasing rice production.”
Alexander R. Arifianto, an Indonesia scholar at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, sounded a similar note saying that Nahdlatul Ulama’s alignment with Mr. Jokowi had left it “vulnerable to criticisms for aligning itself with a government that is increasingly dismantling Indonesia’s democratic political institutions.”
Given the group’s public commitment to freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and pluralism, Mr. Arifianto argued that Nahdlatul Ulama “should…reflect on steps to uphold its commitment to these moderate Islamic and democratic values, regardless of whether its policy preferences align with those of Indonesia’s current ruling regime.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.