Is Indonesia Slipping Back from its Historic Tolerance?
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the reformasi movement in Indonesia. Begun with the shootings of four Trisakti University students in Jakarta, a week of violent demonstrations throughout Java followed, and the subsequent political turmoil, including brutal anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta, eventually removed former President Suharto from power. May 1998 remains an important milestone for the imperfect and sometimes chaotic progress the country has made toward representative democracy.
In this beautiful tropical country, well-founded fears among minority groups have been rampant and rounds of exoduses of persecuted minorities are expected in the near future. This month marks the escalation of two things that the Indonesian government has been consciously imposing on its minority constituents: the politics of avoidance and the politics of listening to the loudest. That is, Indonesia’s government is notorious for avoiding legal actions against human rights abuses and for bending to Islamic extremists and radicals, regardless of the fact that they make up less than 10 percent of the overall Muslim population.
The 1998 violence, which included looting and targeted gang rapes, resulted in 1,338 deaths and the rapes of 92 Chinese minority women, according to tallies by human rights groups; among the casualties were some who were considered “native” Indonesians. There are several theories on who orchestrated the anti-Chinese incidents, yet Komnas HAM, the human rights commission created by the government to investigate this incident, has not come up with any substantial conclusions.
As long ago as 2000, Komnas HAM was criticized by the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network for its repeated failure to respond to individual victims’ complaints and for its “conciliatory and clandestine mode of engagement (that) commissioners prefer to take in dealing with the government. It quickly became apparent in interviews with Commissioners that many were still committed to an old style of affecting change — using the Commission’s ‘good offices’ to the exclusion of a publicly transparent and, when necessary, adversarial role.”
The government has also failed to protect innocent citizens by its refusal to apply a civil action lawsuit in April 2008 enacted by the Supreme Attorney General, Kejaksaan Agung, on the ground that it is awaiting the results of an ad hoc tribunal. No meaningful follow-ups have been done after 10 years.
One of the most disconcerting recent developments is the possibility that the government will back away from its original stance and outlaw Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect of about 200,000 that was labeled “heretical” by the Indonesian Ulema Council and Bakor Pakem (Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society Agency). The Ulema is known for its active stance against secularism, pluralism, and liberalism. The United Nations Committee against Torture has recommended that the government refuse to outlaw the sect, saying the ban would legitimize persecution of the members of the group. UNCAT, in Geneva on May 16, noted that security forces and authorities had failed to provide Ahmadiyah members with adequate protection or to conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations into the recent violence against sect members.
The politics of avoidance or of listening to the loudest are also evident in the country’s failure to nullify more than 600 and possibly more than 1,000 sharia-based and sharia-inspired bylaws enacted in municipalities, in which include regulating women’s participation in the public sphere and dress code. In Tangerang, just 10 kilometers from the capital city of Jakarta, arrests and charges of prostitution have been reported against female factory workers simply because they were working night shifts. In Padang, non-Muslim women have been forced to wear the hijab, or head scarf.
In Aceh Nenggoro Darussalam, oppression of “religious freedom” within the context of Islamic tolerance also appears in writing that might have been lifted directly from ancient Middle Eastern practices, which are obsolete and unrealistic in today’s circumstances.
According to anthropologists on the scene in Aceh, non-Muslims have been forced to sign unilateral written agreements, or so-called “social contracts” in the province that agree to limit worship activities, banning prayer groups in residential areas and limiting the number of churches allowable in those areas. Clauses in the agreements say failure to comply would result in destruction and possibly, human casualties.
On top of that, a widely popular fundamentalist political party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which has been receiving support from those in power and even moderate ulemas, has been successful in instilling fundamentalist elements in society through pop-culture, such as the wildly popular movie “Love Verses” or Ayat-ayat Cinta.
Of course, there is nothing wrong in instilling exemplary virtues in society, such as compassion and grace, as long as messages of “mine is better than yours” aren’t promoted nor imposed as heavily in insensitive ways. It would be favorable to filter out such arrogance intelligently by referring to the Quran’s Book of Feast 5:48 that clearly promotes respect of differences, “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that He had given you, so compete in doing good.”
Unfortunately, this verse is not that popular.
While few political observers and scholars think Indonesia will become the next Islamic theocracy, we should be prepared for more “Arabizations.” If worst were to come to worst, Indonesia would become the world’s largest Islamic state in which, under Quranic law non-Muslims, are considered second class and categorized into three: dhimmis (permanent residents who pay a jizyah or poll tax in exchange for protection), hudna (those who sign a treaty after being defeated), and musta’min (those who are not obliged to pay the jizyah tax but are urged to convert to Islam).
Indonesia boasts a pluralistic and tolerant culture, which is evident in its moderate Muslim majority. The question is why are most of them silent? And why does the government listen to those who speak the loudest, the radical extremists? The Indonesian Ulema Council does not seem to represent the peaceful majority either.
If the politics of avoidance and the politics of listening to the loudest continue, Indonesia’s spiral into the darkness is going to the point of no return. Please don’t let Indonesia become a land of legalized persecution.
At last, allow me to cite a Somalian author who wrote in New York Times, “When a ‘moderate’ Muslim’s sense of compassion and conscience collides with matters prescribed by Allah, he should choose compassion.”
Jennie S. Bev is a columnist for The Jakarta Post