Making Way, True or Not, in Jakarta

By Rika Febriyani and AbdouMaliq Simone

In a region of thirty million people, what would residents stake their futures on? How would they decide where and on what to devote their time and their, for the most part, limited resources? Readings of the landscape, in all of its multifaceted physical, social and political dimensions, would of course be replete with cues and trajectories. Certainly vast alterations of the built environment with their implications for where and how people reside, socialize, and operate economically to reinforce an intensive individuation of livelihood, obligation, and accountability. In a city where how the world was to be interpreted largely was contingent upon the everyday pragmatics of residents coordinating markedly heterogeneous backgrounds and ways of doing things within dense, collectively-evolved quarters, the ongoing disentanglement of these everyday relations attenuates the accompanying structures of interpretation.

In order to assess the efficacy of action and decisions, increasingly the purview of individuals as opposed to households and local residential and commercial assemblages, it is difficult to know what is relevant to pay attention to and what is not.  It is difficult to exclude things in such assessments. Additionally, even as processes of continuous remaking seem to predominate across the material landscape of Jakarta, the region is replete with “strange contiguities.” All kinds of built forms, histories, economic operations, and thus temporalities, sit uneasily next to each other.

The voluminous use of social media proliferates points of exposure to the capsulized versions of other peoples’ experiences. The algorithmic formats of social media do not so much inculcate Westernized values as provide venues through which these values can be seen as unwelcome intrusions in greater swathes of everyday life.  Social media then becomes an important venue to demonstrate how Jakarta exudes the full range of markets associated with an Islamic ethos—from fashion, finance, food, lifestyle, and education, itself a reiteration of liberal democracy.  Yet, peoples’ participation in social media is still largely shaped by the concept of Musyawarah Mufakat, incessantly reiterated from elementary school through university, i.e., the need to control personal opinion, discern the interests and agendas of others, and never state your intentions directly. Indonesians were discouraged from learning how to formally make an argument expressing a point of view that they attribute as their own, nor availed the conviction that they may actually be able to change someone’s mind on the basis of how an argument is made.

This is not to say that neighborhood life in Jakarta was not full of arguments and play, scathing critique, and wild displays of generosity. Jakartans lived in close proximity to many different backgrounds and ways of doing things, and we had to make things work in the intimacies and day-to-day contact and avoidances. But we could never, or were rather, not allowed to transfer this capacity to a larger public arena, to learn how to build these kinds of bonds across the city as a whole. At a critical juncture in the management of Jakarta’s urban future—amidst major and controversial land reclamation, infrastructure, and spatial redevelopment projects– the defense of Islam has thus become a major facet of urban politics.

In last quarter of 2016, Febriyani’s Facebook page was overrun with incendiary commentary. Most of my Facebook’s friends are Jakartans, and almost two-thirds of them have been in a constant battle with each other, perhaps exemplary of contemporary post-truth politics. The battle was prompted by a poor quality You Tube video of a campaign speech by the sitting governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok). In this speech, Ahok purportedly cautioned voters not to be fooled by constant invocations of a surah in the Quran, Al Maidah 51, that is commonly interpreted as an instruction for Muslims not to be governed by non-Muslims. As the video went viral, much of the ensuing controversy centered on whether Ahok actually stated that Muslims were being fooled with the very existence of the Quranic verse itself.  Ahok, himself, a Catholic from Indo-Chinese ancestry, previously was a vice governor, and is standing in his first election as he was elevated to the governorship when Joko Widodo ran and was elected for the presidency.

Regardless of Ahok’s words, Al Maidah 51 does pose a conundrum for a large percentage of the city’s Muslim population. On the other hand, his brash demeanor, decisiveness as a manager, and willingness to forego political niceties has made him hugely popular among Jakarta’s growing middle class.  Although his reputation often came at the expense of the poor, by mid-2016 no one doubted that he would win the election overwhelmingly. Now he will struggle to beat Anies Baswedan, a former university rector blatantly playing the “religious card,” in the run-off scheduled for April 18th.

While Ahok is presently standing trial for blasphemy, a case that hinges on the extent to which the controversial video may have been doctored, the fault lines in Jakarta are less about him than about who is or who is not a “true” Muslim. Rather than arguing, our social media interlocutors mock each other, paying little attention to the glaring inconsistencies in their statements. Reference to past histories are marshaled as evidence that certain persons have been pretending to be Muslims all along, even when friends may have shared a common history. References to common experiences are invoked as evidence of deviation from Islamic truth for one person or as a sign of unwavering adherence for another. Friends claim to now have known years before that they were convinced that others would end up on the wrong path. In most of these exchanges the contents or ethos of what “true” Islam is are rarely discussed. Rather statements themselves are construed as evidence of a particular truth.

Facebook in Indonesia not only avails individuals to present connections but is commonly used to reassemble the past. For example, it is not uncommon to have nearly every person with whom one shared a classroom since first grade on one’s Facebook page. Even though people may have rarely been in contact with each other during the subsequent years, everyone is implicitly asked to bear witness to a profusion of personal details offered as proof for the authenticity of political claims about the present.

Ironically, these social media battles demonstrate a voracious appetite for the acquisition of information, to turn the most minor or banal experiences into information that can be deployed as a way of knowing how to respond to others that have, in turn, been avidly collected as interlocutors on that social media.  The exigency of being connected and of expanding connections introduces new forms of vulnerability, where everything a person shares or conveys can be construed as evidence of one impropriety or another. These communications invite transgression just as transgression is that which is railed against. The heterogeneity of the city surpasses any easy grasp or definitive statement., yet in our attempts to seek it out, to make each other “stand trial,” we give in to the loss of sociality we desperately attempt to reinvigorate.


Rika Febriyani is a postgraduate student in the program of Media and Visual Anthropology, Freie University, Berlin.

AbdouMaliq Simone is Research Professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity and Visiting Professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London.