Indonesia's Troubling Intolerance Grows

Intolerance in Indonesia is continuing to grow alarmingly, not only with Muslims squaring off against Christians and but with the majority Sunni Islamic branch going after Shiites, the other major sect, as well as the Ahmidiyah sect, and anybody else who doesn’t agree with them.

A new survey by the Indonesian Survey Circle polling organization, which polled 1,200 respondents from all of Indonesia’s 22 provinces, found that many citizens now say they are uncomfortable living in the same neighborhood with people of different backgrounds.

Many critics blame President Susilo Bambang Yuhoyono for not taking firm command of the issue and denouncing racial, religious and social intolerance in a country that in the past had been known for its acceptance of others. One LSI official attributed the decline in acceptance of diversity to weak law enforcement, with the poll showing that only 50 percent of respondents are satisfied with the enforcement of the law under Yudhoyono’s administration.

In August, a Sunni mob of about 500 men attacked a group of about 30 Shi’ite students and teachers in an East Java city, killing two men and injuring another five who were trying to protect the women and children.

Violence has slowly been picking up against Shias despite a ruling by the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, considered the country’s highest authority on Islam, that Shi’ite religious teachings are in the Islamic mainstream. Horrific violence has been committed against Ahmadis.

Authorities have consistently backed away from punishing the mobs. In June, a judge sentenced Alesander Aan, a 32-year-old professed atheist to two and a half years in prison instead of prosecuting the mob that chased him down and beat him badly after he posted his lack of religious affiliation on Facebook.

Among other things, Aan was accused of uploading three articles critical of the Prophet despite the fact that all of the information in the articles was taken from the Muslim Hadiths, or narratives of the sayings or customs of the prophet and his companions.

“The survey finds that the people who are intolerant and tend to condone violence are generally people with low education and low income,” Ardian Sopa, a researcher with the Indonesian Survey Circle, known by its Indonesian acronym LSI, told a press conference Sunday.

The survey showed that 67.8 percent of people with lower educational backgrounds -- senior high school or lower -- are uncomfortable living in the same neighborhood with people of different religious backgrounds or sexual orientations. Of these respondents, 61.2 percent said they are uncomfortable living next to Shiites, 63.1 percent said they are uncomfortable with Ahmadis and 65.1 percent don’t want homosexuals in their neighborhood.

“Meanwhile, 32.2 percent of respondents with higher education backgrounds [senior high school and up] feel uncomfortable living in the same neighborhood with people of different religious backgrounds or sexual orientation: 38.8 percent of them were uncomfortable with Shiites, 36.9 percent with Ahmadis and 34.9 percent with gay people,” Ardian said.

More than half of people with a low income, defined as less than Rp2 million (US$207) per month, were uncomfortable living in the same neighborhood with Shiites, 61.2 percent with Ahmadis and 59.1 percent with gays. Of those with a higher income, 42.2 percent were uncomfortable with living next to Shiites, 38.8 percent with Ahmadis, and 40.9 percent with gays.

“Intolerance against people with different social backgrounds is growing. The survey also showed that the public’s tolerance toward violence is growing,” Ardian said.

Cultural expert Jose Rizal Manua agreed with the LSI’s findings, citing growing violence against Shia and Ahmadiyah communities in particular. He attributed the growing intolerance on poor law enforcement, including the complicity of the authorities in fostering tensions by taking bribes to side with the majority Sunnis.

“The law must be enforced [or else] it could threaten the state ideology of Unity in Diversity,” Jose warned.

However, sociologist Wardah Hafidz expressed doubt about the findings, saying there were still many regions in Indonesia with high levels of tolerance. “It has to be clear which regions were included in the survey. Indonesia can’t be generalized like that,” she said.

Hafidz added that she believed that open dialogue would strengthen tolerance among Indonesians despite the presence of intolerant groups. “There’s been a trend of setbacks with regard to diversity, but it’s not as bad as what the survey suggested. There’s still hope,” she added.

The LSI’s survey, with a margin error of 2.9 percent and conducted from Oct. 1 to 8, highlights a steady increase in intolerance over the years. A survey of 1,000 respondents by the institute in 2010 showed that 30.2 percent approved of violence on religious grounds, up from 13.9 percent in 2005.

Intolerance is higher among men than women and higher in rural areas than in urban areas,” he said.

(With reporting from Jakarta Globe)