Religious Intolerance In Indonesia: Democracy, Islam And Modernity – Analysis


By Gautam K Jha

As the Taliban’s power is gradually eroding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its influence is increasingly manifesting in Indonesia, where Islamic zealots are mustering support to enact sharia in the Muslim majority regions. Indonesia, once considered the most liberal Muslim majority country where multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies co-existed in complete harmony, is now struggling to reconcile its primordial cultural system with a new wave of pan-Islamic ethos.

Stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata, depicted through wayang – puppet shows – are still an integral part of the country’s culture and traditions. Indonesians still enjoy Ramlila and Mahabharata shows by the puppeteers reverently called dalangs, which may soon be replaced by Islamic preachers who endorse a Wahabi-style social system and are about to implement sharia in Tasikmalaya.


Tasikmalaya is a mountainous district located in West Java, the main island province of Indonesia. The district has been a source of numerous pesantrens or Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia. The pesantren education system originates from traditional Javanese pondokan or dormitories, finding parallels in ashrams for the Hindus or viharas for the Buddhists, to learn religious philosophies, martial arts and meditation.

Tasikmalaya is the second Indonesian territory after Aceh where all the administrative functions are conducted in strict conformity with the norms set by sharia. Under the garb of sharia, conservative traditions have been set in motion and women can be accordingly be arrested and caned for not covering themselves properly. This particular ordinance which has come into effect was signed on 24 September 2009 by Tasikmalaya Mayor Syarif Hidayat amid growing local concerns that globalization would adversely impact the residents in a city known for its Islamic schools and rich Islamic ethos. Apart from covered women, the ordinance also identifies fifteen other offences where serious action is warranted. These offences are corruption, prostitution and adultery, homosexuality, gambling, consuming alcohol, drug abuse, witchcraft, pornography, usury, thuggery, propagating cults and abortion.

These developments ironically have come at a time when the Indonesian government is trying hard to curb the influence of Muslim hardliners in society and in the country’s politics. The government’s resolve was reflected recently when Umar Patek, an accused in the Bali bombing of 2002 and facing death penalty if convicted, offered his apologies and sought forgiveness from the victims and the families of the deceased. Ever since the Bali bombing, in which the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is the prime suspect, the Indonesian government has been cracking down heavily on the growing Islamic militancy in the country. However, in spite of its resolve, the government has failed to tame the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism and pan-Islamic culture in the larger part of the twin islands, Java and Sumatra.

An important process which has precipitated the growth of religious fanaticism in certain regions of the country is the entry of some relgious charity groups from Arab countries. It may be recalled that during early 2000, the Indonesian Ministry of Religion had signed a MoU with a Saudi based charity, Al Haramain, to provide financial help to the country’s religious educational institutions. However Al Haramain appears to have largely served as a conduit for transfer of money to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Southeast Asian terrorist organisation that aims to build Islamic states in the region. Similarly there are various charity organisations involved in helping Islamic schools with the sole objective of enforcing Wahabi patterns of Islam.

It needs to be underlined that as opposed to many Arab-Islamic nations, Indonesia has been more or less a peaceful country where a cohesive and an all-inclusive interpretation of Islam has ruled the hearts of more than 90 per cent of the population. However, the new wave of intolerance, which has been overshadowing the Islamic diaspora worldwide, has not spared this land of peaceful co-existence. Hitherto unheard of, the stories of communal violence and ethnic cleansing are doing the rounds.

It is pertinent to mention that the process of Islamisation of Indonesian society is not alien to the country but was never significantly reflected in its constitution Pancasila (in Indonesian ‘c’ is pronounced as ‘ch’) which embodies the secular nature of the State. Most of the Islamic parties and organizations which are as old as the Indonesian State have never been able to muster substantial political support in any of the general elections concluded in the country so far.

However, there is a marked change in the thinking of the youth over the last decade. Since the terrorist attacks in US on 11 September 2001, almost all the Islamic youth organisations have staged anti-US protests across the country, thus unveiling a new face of Indonesian Islam which was hitherto unknown to the world. Though Indonesia’s premier Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono insists that democracy, Islam, and modernity can exist together, he may find it increasingly hard to curb the growing pan-Islamic wave in Indonesian society unless the underlying sources are properly monitored and checked in time.

Gautam K Jha
Southeast Asia Analyst
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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