Indonesia's Veep Speaks Out Against Violence

Indonesia’s Vice President has become the only top official in the country to speak out against rising religious intolerance, calling in a major speech last weekend for the "silent majority" to take a stand against radicalism.

Boediono, the respected former central bank governor, who was criticized during the 2009 election for not being a sufficiently devout Muslim, thus presents a strong contrast to other officials, particularly President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who have failed to challenge intolerance and violence.

"Once we allow radicalism to take over our way of thinking, it will lead us toward destruction," the vice president said in a speech Saturday at the opening of the Global Peace Leadership Conference, organized by Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization. "Freedom of expression has been used by certain groups to spread hatred," he added.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Oct. 15, religious intolerance has been reaching deeper and deeper into the Indonesian population, with 30 percent of those polled in a recent study saying violence should be used against the Ahmadiyah sect, a Muslim offshoot that preaches that its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last Islamic prophet, succeeding Muhammad.

In addition, bands of youth calling themselves Laskar Jihad – holy warriors – have been raiding performances of wayang, the traditional Indonesian shadow theatre. Other thugs in the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have been intimidating non-Muslims, threatening pork sellers and raiding night clubs. Attacks on Christian churches are on the rise and a mood of intolerance is becoming pervasive, especially outside Jakarta.

Boediono has clearly become increasingly concerned both by the violence and the government's lack of action. During the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan in early September, Boediono held an evening fast-breaking gathering at his home for the top two dozen newspaper editors in Jakarta. That evening, the traditional sermon was given by Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a well-known liberal Islamic scholar and leader of the Jaringan Islam Liberal (Liberal Islam Network). Ulil was threatened with death in 2002 by radical clerics because of the moderate view of Islam he espouses, including tolerance for Ahamdiyah.

The symbolism of Ulil’s appearance was not lost on the elite audience, said one editor who attended. They were struck by the fact that the vice president openly identified himself with Ulil, who still receives regular threats from Islamists.

"If only President SBY would invite Ulil to the palace publicly," quipped one editor.

The government has done little to discourage violence against the Adhmadiyah and Yudhoyono himself has never called on the police to arrest the hooligans. On Monday, the House of Representatives approved the appointment by Yudhoyono of Timur Pradopo as national police chief. Timur has acknowledged his ties to the Islamic Defenders Front and defended the organization during hearings into his appointment. The leader of the FPI, who did a brief stretch in prison for leading an attack on a peace rally in 2008, has praised Timur as a friend.

In contrast, Boediono told the Peace Leadership gathering that although racism and interreligious conflict are fundamental issues that exist in most societies, Indonesians should protect the foundation upon which the country was built – the principle of unity in diversity. "Although Islam is the religion of the majority of people, Indonesia is not an Islamic state," he said.

Boediono said the country must not abandon the basic principle — known as Pancasila — that guarantees religious freedom for all.

To do this, he called on the silent majority to take a stand. "Radicals are usually vocal, though they are few in number. They drown out the silent majority," he said. "But there are times when the silent majority must dare to speak out. We must loudly reject radicalism and return to the original agreement of the founding fathers of the nation."

Pluralism advocates applauded him for speaking out on a threat they have long warned of but that officials have paid little attention to. Week after week, stories of discrimination against minority religious groups fill news pages, and several surveys have pointed to a worrying increase in intolerance among Indonesians.

Ahmadiyah, which claims about 600,000 devotees in Indonesia, has been at the epicenter of controversy since 2005 when the nation's top Islamic body, the Indonesian Council of Ulema, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling its teachings blasphemous. At that point, 13.9 percent of Indonesians said violence should be used against the sect; that number has doubled over the last five years. In 2008, the government issued a joint ministerial decree that prohibited Ahmadiyah followers from practicing their faith in public and from spreading its beliefs.

Today the violence against the sect is raising concern that it could lead to a serious explosion. On Oct. 1, 200 villagers, responding to rumors of violence, descended on an Ahdmadiyah community in East Java, setting cars afire and looting and destroying homes and an Ahdmadiyah mosque. Seventeen homes were destroyed. Although three of the attackers apparently were identified as perpetrators of the violence, the only person to be arrested was a sect member who other members said was beaten by police into confessing that he had used a knife on a youth in the melee.

It is Yudhoyono's apparent lack of commitment to religious tolerance that has disturbed human rights groups. Burhanuddin Muhtadi, an analyst from the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), said that Yudhoyono had never strongly addressed radicalism.

In August, Yudhoyono decried "groups that threatened the nation," but his vague message could not be grasped by the public, Burhanuddin said. "He is too focused on his own image. He doesn't want to be considered antagonistic toward Islamic hard-liners."

Another important government figure who needs to stand up against those who promote hatred is the religious affairs minister, the liberal scholar Ulil told reporters..

"For example, in several Islamic gatherings people openly call for the banishment of [minority Islamic sect] Ahmadiyah. That should not be allowed," he said, adding that he regretted that Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali had adopted a conservative approach that fostered radicalism by openly advocating the banning of the Ahmadiyah sect.

With additional reporting from the Jakarta Globe