Religious Tolerance Makes a Comeback in Indonesia

Indonesia seems to be making welcome moves to rein in Islamic radicals, with President Joko Widodo calling on the country's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, to promote “moderate Islamic values” to counter violent militants.

A few days later, on August 7 and possibly at the president's urging, Haedir Nashir, the newly elected chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-biggest Islamic body, urged the group’s 30 million followers to work toward better protection for religious minorities, who have suffered rising attacks from Islamists in recent years.

Indonesia is a secular republic guided by an odd philosophical construct, Pancasila, put in place by the country’s founder, Sukarno. The five-sided creed features belief in one god, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy and social justice. It was created to unite a diverse nation and to forestall efforts at the time of independence to make Indonesian an Islamic state.

The large majority of Indonesia’s 206 million Muslims, who make up about 87 percent of the population, have a reputation for being moderate and laid back. There are an estimated 23 million Christians in the country and a variety of Muslim sects. The worst attacks have hit out at Christians, Sufi Muslims and Ahmadiyah, a Muslim offshoot that the Indonesia Council of Ulema, which purports to oversee Islam in the country, has branded as apostate. Followers of Shia Islam have also been attacked and at times forced from their villages.

Post-Suharto freedom

After the strongman Suharto was forced from office in 1998 after 32 years in power, restrictions on freedom of the press and religion were lifted and a strong current of religious militancy began to fester. Where Suharto had ruthlessly suppressed radical Islam as a destabilizing influence on the state, later governments declined to respond decisively for fear of alienating Muslim voters, something Suharto did not have to worry about. As a result, while the nation remains overwhelmingly moderate, intolerance has grown, expressed by harassment and violence, some of it tacitly condoned by the state and the National Police.

The Islamic Defenders Front [FPI], called by the International Crisis Group an "an urban thug organization," was founded in 1999 with the open support of top police commanders and is said to receive direct funding from the force. The FPI specializes in harassing women on the street for not being modestly dressed and busting up nightclubs. They have raided prayer sessions for Christians, Shia and Ahmadiyah worshipers across Java, calling for them to be closed. They also extort protection money from businesses and are used as enforcers-for-hire for non-pious reasons.

Radical Islamist terrorist networks such as those that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings and attacks on Western targets in Jakarta have largely been eliminated in recent years by thorough and ruthless police work. More “useful” groups like the FPI have not been targeted by the police and have only faced arrest when a public outcry ensues.

SBY Ignored the problem

Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is among those accused of turning away from the problem. Other than a few public pronouncements of alarm, the former president did little to stop harassment and violence – some of it deadly – directed against several Christian groups, Shia Muslims, and the Ahmadiyah. There have been least five major attacks on Christians in which worshipers have died since 2011.

Perhaps the most horrific incident occurred in 2010 when a howling mob of about 1,000 was caught on video as they descended on an Ahmadiyah compound in the western Java town of Cikeusik in Banten province. Three men were run down and beaten to death as they fled for their lives. In a distressing miscarriage of justice, the leader of the mob, Idris bin Mahdani, was convicted of nothing more than illegal possession of a machete.

Mahdani was jailed for five months and 15 days. Dani bin Misra, a 17-year-old who was shown in in the video smashing a victim’s skull with a stone, received three months for manslaughter. None of the 12 who stood trial faced murder charges. Some of the Ahmadi residents were even threatened with prosecution for resisting the mob by refusing to flee from the town.

Widely approved

With Muslim dress far more widespread than under Suharto and the radical fringe sometimes held up as an example of religious devotion, it has seemed at times as if even Indonesia might one day go the way of Pakistan and other formerly secular countries that became hard-line Islamic republics. A 2010 study found that 30 percent of those polled approved of violence against Ahmadiyah, which preaches that its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last Islamic prophet, succeeding Muhammad.

“Widodo’s call for the NU to address religious intolerance is also a tacit recognition that both it and Indonesia’s second largest mainstream Muslim mass organization, Muhammadiyah, are passively complicit in the problem of worsening religious intolerance,” according to a statement by Human Rights Watch. “Neither organization has publicly opposed the 2005 fatwa by Indonesia’s semiofficial top Muslim clerical body which ruled that the Ahmadiyah community deviated from Quranic teachings.”

That changed his week with the statement by Haedir Nashir, the new head of Muhammadiyah.

“The reality is that we all live in a pluralist nation,” Haedar told a press conference soon after his election. “The majority should protect minorities; minorities should work with the majority. We need the capacity to mediate conflicts, whether they concern religious or ethnic minorities, and we must create a pluralist culture that looks after minorities wherever they are.”

Take an active stance

While acknowledging that the president, in his call for moderation, “did something remarkable,” Human Rights Watch demanded that Jokowi “put an end to the Indonesian government’s well-documented role in victimizing religious minorities. Widodo can start by pursuing swift punishment of police and government officials who are too often passively or actively complicit in incidents of harassment, intimidation, or violence against religious minorities.”

The New York-based NGO said the president should also order a review of existing laws, regulations and decrees on religion to identify provisions at odds with freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, and create a timetable for revising or repealing the offending provisions.

Human Rights Watch identified the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society under the attorney general’s office as playing a major role in violating religious rights. Non-Sunni sects are frequently derided for spreading false and mystical ideas; even traditional Javanese Islam, which is a tolerant and syncretic blend of animism and Islam, has been a target of Islamist groups out to enforce a Middle-Eastern brand of “pure” religion.

“Until Widodo’s government prioritizes the protection of religious minorities and implements a zero-tolerance policy for abuses by Islamist militants, Indonesia’s religious minorities will continue to live in fear,” the report said.