Indonesian Intolerance Rising

Last Saturday night, a band of fundamentalist Islamic thugs showed up in the Indonesian town of Sukoharjo in Central Java and broke up a performance of wayang, the iconic Javanese shadow puppetry that is a symbol of Indonesian culture.

Throwing rocks and waving machetes, the youths, calling themselves Laskar Jihad – holy warriors – forced the audience out of the performance. Two people were beaten, witnesses said. It was the latest of an escalating series of disturbing incidents across Indonesia that threaten the country’s traditional reputation for tolerance, not only for the arts but for non-Islamic religions.

Ki Slamet Gundono, a puppet master, said the gang had broken up other performances in the Solo area, threatening audiences and breaking up the shows. Gundono said he only recently learned about the incident from fellow wayang practitioners who were afraid to report it to police.

What is more disturbing is that during the six years that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been in office, religious intolerance has grown markedly, according to a study by the polling organization Indonesian Survey Circle that found that as many as 30 percent of respondents in 1,000 towns and cities across the country support the use of violence against the Ahmadiyah sect, an offshoot of Islam that believes its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last Islamic prophet, succeeding Muhammad. The group has been attacked frequently in many countries for being heretical.

A poll by the same group in 2005 found only 13.9 percent of respondents – a disturbing number in itself – backed violence against Ahmadiyah. In 2005, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa, or edict, calling the sect’s teachings blasphemous. Since that time, the government has done little to discourage violence against the sect and Yudhoyono himself has never called on the police to curb the violence.

Of 1,200 adult Muslim men and women surveyed nationwide, the polling organization found, 57.8 percent said they were against the construction of churches and other non-Muslim places of worship – the highest level recorded since 2001. Some 27.6 percent told the pollsters they would object to non-Muslims teaching their children in school, up from 21.4 percent in 2008.

Yudhoyono’s attitude is reflected in the Oct. 7 appointment of Timur Pradopo, who has strong ties to the violent Islamic Defenders Front, as national police chief. Questioned by members of the House of Representatives, Pradopo defended the organization.

The Defenders Front, known by its Indonesian initials FPI, has often resorted to violence, ransacking bars, threatening pork sellers and attacking peaceful demonstrations, particularly Ahmadiyah rallies. It has also tried to prevent Christian churches from being built in communities near Jakarta.

Since its inception in 1945, Indonesia has been guided by a philosophical construct rather than a state religion. Pancasila, as it is called, consists of five principles — belief in god, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice. This state ideology argues that all major religions can coexist, even if atheism and communism are banned. In recent years, however, the concept has been badly strained.

In June 2008, an FPI gang attacked a rally celebrating Pancasila at the National Monument in central Jakarta, injuring 70 people. When human rights organizations demanded that something be done about an increasingly lawless group, Hendarman Supandji, the Attorney General, said the FPI would not be outlawed. And while Yudhoyono condemned the attack, he refused to order the police to take decisive action to crack down on FPI violence.

It is Ahmadiyah’s 500,000-odd members in Indonesia who have taken the brunt of the intolerance and violence, although there have been other problems. The Indonesian edition of Playboy Magazine, which was quite tame and carried no nudity, was put out of business by Islamist protests. Its editor went to jail this week to begin serving a two-year term for indecency after a recent Supreme Court decision upheld his controversial 2008 indecency conviction.

Islamic fundamentalists also have made increasingly incendiary speeches, gays have been threatened, Christian churches have been burned and their followers beaten. Christian groups in the Bekasi area of suburban Jakarta report systematic and disturbing increases in pressure on them.

On Oct. 1, Yudhoyono appealed for calm after hundreds of villagers armed with sticks, axes and sharp weapons burned a car, four houses and part of an Ahmadiyah mosque in Bogor, near Jakarta, after false rumors spread that two members of the sect had stabbed and killed two villagers. The president has not ordered the police to crack down on the violence, however, raising concerns about his commitment to religious tolerance — or his willingness to risk any political capital by confronting the organized Islamist minority.

On Tuesday, Yudhoyono blamed the rise of hard-line activity on the country’s transition toward a full-fledged democracy. “In a large-scale transformation, there might be disorientation and resistance,” he said. “It often causes uncomfortable feelings [and leads to different groups] blaming each other. It happens because the old values have been abandoned while the new values have not been properly established.”

In the aftermath of the failed coup against founding President Sukarno that was blamed on communists, former President Suharto eventually forced the country’s Muslim parties into Golkar, his massive and secular political vehicle. However, with the collapse of the strongman’s government in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998, the Muslim parties were regenerated and, a flock of jihadi groups also emerged, like FPI.

Critics say the president has done little to quell the violence and anger. Adrian Sopa, a researcher for the polling group, said the government “must do something before the problem escalates.” He called for Yudhono to “put an end to hate speeches and attacks and ensure religious freedom.”

On Monday, the government-owned national news service Antara quoted Zaini Arony, district head of West Lombok, as announcing a plan to relocate 20 Ahmadiyah families to a deserted island, a move that shocked many in Indonesia, although Arony said the plan was to protect Ahmadiyah members.

Whether the plan become reality or not, the prospect of sending religious dissidents off to an island exile is enough to strike a chill into observers here who cherish the country’s secular traditions.