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Heading Into Indonesia's Election, Islamic Fundamentalism Gains Traction


Today, the ritual of democracy is played out in a nation spread across thousands of miles of ocean. Indonesia has so many islands it's hard to count them - maybe 16,000, maybe a lot more. More than 900 are inhabited, and across those islands, people are counting ballots. In today's presidential election, exit polls project President Joko Widodo winning another term. He defeated the same challenger back in 2014. The election revealed the influence of conservative Islam. We found NPR's Julie McCarthy in Jakarta. Hi, Julie.


INSKEEP: Indonesia has been seen as a place where moderate Islam flourished. What's changing?

MCCARTHY: Well, yeah, that's right. Five thousand miles away from the Middle East and the birthplace of Islam, you had Indonesia, that had been seen as proof that Islam and democracy could live side-by-side. But there were signs in this campaign that suggest that Indonesia is becoming more religiously conservative. Take the president himself, President Widodo - now, this is a small example, but it's telling. Here's a guy who loves heavy metal music. And there he was at his finale rock concert rally, taking pains to thank the country's clerics...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MCCARTHY: ...For their support (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK. So going for the heavy metal - got to like that - but also, picking a cleric with hard-line views for his running mate, right?

MCCARTHY: That's right. And that's a move that really jolted some of his supporters. Widodo moved to the right in a bid to neutralize the allegation that came up against him that he's not Islamic enough. And the analysts agree this was a politically expedient move. And it alienated some supporters, but others looked past it. And what does that tell us, Steve? We're in a country that operates in a world of gray. It's not black and white.

But there are also some troubling signs that a climate of intolerance is growing. People are falling afoul of the blasphemy law. There's really no move to repeal it. The governor of Jakarta - a Christian - was charged with blasphemy, voted out of office. He was jailed.

Now, Andreas Harsono with Human Rights Watch is the author of a new book titled "Race, Islam And Power." And he says faith politics is growing at a fast clip here. And he says Indonesia is becoming dangerous. Here he is.

ANDREAS HARSONO: The idea to change Indonesia into an Islamic state has been rising. And this is going to be a danger not only for the Strait of Malacca or for Southeast Asia, but it will be a problem for the whole world.

MCCARTHY: Now, I would hasten to add, Steve, here, that there are plenty of others who believe that Indonesia has been a moderate state, will remain one. And the re-election of Widodo goes a long way in demonstrating that. The turnout was around 80 percent. That's quite high even by Indonesian standards.

INSKEEP: Although, I have to note, Julie McCarthy, we've seen this in the United States. Politicians make promises in campaigns that are seen as cynical pandering. But then they get elected, and people expect them to keep those promises.

MCCARTHY: Well, that's right. And so his big balance will be, how is he going to deal with this growing Islamisation while he seeks a - pretty much of a secular agenda, which is to, you know, focus on human rights and more on - focus less on human rights and more on human resources, like the developing of the human capital of this country. It's a very young place - 42 percent are under 25.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Indonesia. Thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.