Jakarta Globe | Insight
Haidar Bagir, an Indonesian entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, lecturer and president director of book publisher Mizan Group, spoke about the rhetoric of populism and radicalism during the fourth iteration of the Asean Literary Festival in Kota Tua, West Jakarta, on Saturday (05/08).

Haidar Bagir on Radicalism and Populism

Jakarta. Haidar Bagir, an Indonesian entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, lecturer and president director of book publisher Mizan Group, spoke about the rhetoric of populism and radicalism during the fourth iteration of the Asean Literary Festival in Kota Tua, West Jakarta, on Saturday (05/08).

The festival is a cultural event that aims to promote culture and literary works in Southeast Asia and which emphasizes the importance of literature for people of all ages as a way to foster faith in the written word’s ability to enact change.

During a discussion at the festival, Bagir highlighted the five factors that come into play in garnering support for violent, radical and extremist ideologies. The following is the full text of his commentary on radicalism and populism.

1. Economic Disparity and Status Quo

In Indonesia, unregulated capitalism can be seen as a driving factor in creating socioeconomic disparity. With the mass exposure to media, this disparity can easily be highlighted through incidents of obscene misuse of wealth and power of the haves and or anecdotal evidence of severe hardships of the have-nots. Quite frequently, disparity can be seen in all aspects of life, ranging from access to basic necessities, such as food and shelter, to health, education and even the justice system. The inability of successive governments to find a solution to the challenges, as well as inefficiencies, have impacted perceptions negatively so that faith in the institutions of the government has been eroding for quite some time. In Indonesia, both the perception of autocratic governments as well as institutionalized corruption, combined with disparate wealth distribution, ends up becoming triggers of disaffection among many marginalized citizens.

2. Political Identity in Utilizing Symbols or Symbolic Religiosity

The Indonesia populace consists of millions of sincere religious peoples. The absence or shortage of good scholars can lead to a position of exploitation of the sincere masses by using religious symbolism. This symbolism may range from clothing, use of Arabic phrases and terms instead of better-known local words and phrases and establishing new social structures revolving around association with these symbols.

Since promising religious reform does not need serious manifestos, or even work on the ground, such as development, infrastructure or economic reform, promising a religious utopia is perhaps the cheapest and the easiest populist manifesto. When criticizing opponents, one might benchmark them against a utopian Islamic government, which existed during the time of the early Muslims, thus not allowing any room for counter arguing or event matching up. Such populism is demagogy, merely appearing to empathize with the masses through purportedly Islamic, utopian rhetoric, but which is in reality unrealistic, with the sole purpose of gaining mileage across the political spectrum. There is a good possibility that, as mentioned by Ahmad Imam Mujajid and Zainal Abidin Bagir, the component groups of the spectacular Aksi Bela Islam, is what we would call in Marxist terminology “lumpenproletariat,” who are mainly composed of those marginalized due to an inappropriate government policies. Islam, for them, is not only a political tool, but also helps them obtain a sense of identity. Hence the prevalence of symbolism.

3. Sustained Assault on Established Religious Institutions or Hijacking the Narratives, Under the Garb of Reform.

This is a twofold strategy of creating a discourse around creating a false sense of homogeneity/ uniformity in Islamic thought in a way so as to challenge the culturally accepted norms of tolerance for other ideas, or other religions. Or, making suppression of dissent mainstream under the garb of attacking blasphemy or deviance. The goal is to create sufficient doubt on the way religion has traditionally been practiced, sufficient enough to deem the past or existing positions untenable or incorrect. Increased awareness of their religious identity, combined with a host of preachers who were either schooled in, or at the very least were impressed by the literalist and fundamentalist Salafi-Wahhabi puritanical approach, has seen a sustained attack on the roots of traditional understanding of Islam.

That, coupled with the disingenuous perception that the existing scholars or preachers are state-scholars or state-sponsored scholars, making them somehow less credible than the independent ones. Add to it the fear of how they will end up, especially when it pertains to the unseen, such as the results of their life’s work in the Hereafter, people will gladly follow a preacher who unambiguously promises success in the Hereafter.

4. Using Social Media to Create Manichean Mindset Polarization.

Technology makes it easier to help use intolerance to play a key role in developing a so-called “us vs. them” way of thinking, or a Manichean Mindset. This mindset comes with a reduced view of the world in two social groupings, the first one being “us,” which is implied to be morally superior than the other or “them,” who represent a morally inferior group that needs to be educated, equalized or eliminated. Whenever religion is to be used as a vehicle or catalyst to achieve radicalism, the “us” must represent either sole interpreters of the “purest and uncorrupted” form of religion, or the “us” must stake a claim to be the sincerest implementer of the religion. This is achieved by creating a popular narrative in the social media using humor, fear mongering and other viral strategies to create a popular culture based on this new Islamism. Muhammad Wildan showcases this in context of Aksi Bela Islam. Rather than arguing that Islam in Indonesia is experiencing shifting landscapes towards Islamism, he sees this more of a popular culture, or popular piety. His thesis is that mainstream Islam here is still the Islam of peace, compassion and moderation, but the increasing numbers of participants in such demons are simply joining hands due to the perception of the unity against a common enemy or the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

5. The Existence of a Majority Who Are Either Wronged, Feel Wronged or at the Very Least Can Be Convinced That They Are Being Wronged.

Things like this can be seen in the Middle East with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu, which was replicated in India with the rise of [Indian Prime Minister] Modi, and also in the United States, with the rise of Donald Trump. The Muslim equivalent of this approach is in extending the grievances internationally, using old, unresolved political problems such as the Palestine problem, and championing their cause, such as is being done by [Turkish President] Erdogan in Turkey, and the radical preachers in Indonesia. This is, in essence, a new form of populism, which sometimes can become authoritarianism, even fascism.