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Religious Intolerance In Indonesia: Political Lassitude Or Budgetary Constraint? – Analysis


By Baladas Ghoshal

The recent budgetary rollback aimed at accommodating the swelling fuel subsidies triggered by soaring global oil prices has particularly affected the National Counter-terrorism Agency (BNPT). For the last two years, it has been on the frontline of the battle against growing religious radicalism that often ignites acts of violence. These measures will undoubtedly force the agency to cut down many of its programmes and its operational budget for uncovering terrorist networks, and preventive measures in its campaign to ‘de-radicalise’ government-supported schools and mosques through partnerships with moderate religious leaders and groups. Eventually it would affect Indonesia’s fight against terrorism and radicalism in the future.


But this is only one side of the picture, as the BNPT attempts to curb extremism that is perpetrated by terrorist violence alone; dealing with terrorists alone may not help much. Extremism that breeds terrorism needs to be checked, according to the Wahid Institute, which works towards “a just and peaceful world by espousing a moderate and tolerant view of Islam and working towards welfare for all.” There are extremist groups in Indonesia that are not known to have exploded bombs, but they practice violent moral policing and persecute minorities. A small minority can create havoc when the so-called ‘silent majority’ remains really silent for the fear of being branded as ‘not true Muslims’.

Since the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued its much-criticized ‘fatwa’ banning liberal concepts of Islam, secularism and pluralism, hard-line Muslim elements have been pushing for the eviction of JIL (a cultural complex set up by progressive and moderate Muslims and headed by noted Muslim scholar Ulil Absar Abdalla, who himself received death threats for publishing articles criticizing the conservatism of some Muslim leaders in the country). In the recent years, Indonesian politics has been roiled by an Islamist attempt to label anything deemed sexually arousing as a form of “porno-action.” Even some “pondoks,” or religious boarding schools in Indonesia, have come under the influence of more extremist clerics. Islamists from the Middle East, Pakistan, Bangladesh and ex-Mujahideen have taken control of the mosques and madrassas radicalizing the discourse on religion and trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims at the grassroots.

Government inaction and its soft attitude towards Islam are also contributing to religious intolerance. Bambang Yudhoyono’s tenure saw rise in radical Islam, which many view as the greatest threat to Indonesian democracy. Groups such as the Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia and the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam) have used strict and exclusive religious interpretations to justify the implementation of Shariah law and the infringement of rights of religious minorities. These efforts undermine the spirit of moderation, tolerance and plurality of Islam that are embodied by Indonesia and enshrined in the country’s founding Pancasila principles of unity and democracy. Experts are beginning to wonder aloud whether the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and third-largest democracy could see its reputation for religious tolerance and freedom tarnished by this vocal and increasingly violent radical Islamic fringe.

The suicide bombing of a church in Central Java on Sept. 25 last year pointed not only to a new level of attacks on religious minorities in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but to a political bent that accommodates Islamist extremism. According to a human rights group in Jakarta, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, there were at least 75 incidents, including violent attacks, violating religious freedom of the Christian community in 2010. Last month was particularly dire for the country’s Christian minority, when about 100 Protestants were attacked by a Muslim mob at their Church in Bekasi on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta. The Church was only half built when it was attacked, as the pastor has been waiting for more than five years for the permission for the local district administration to complete it. Citing lack of permits, the ultraconservative government of Aceh in northern Sumatra has closed at least 16 Christian Churches. Again in May the issue of religious intolerance in Muslim-majority Indonesia caught international attention when Islamic hardliners forced the cancellation of a sold out concert by Lady Gaga, an American pop star.

The most prominent name among these violent extremist groups was the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front or FPI), according to the Setara Institute (founded in 1998 by Saudi-educated Muhammad Rizieq Syihab). These groups oppose the doctrine of “Pancasila,” the Indonesian goal of “unity in diversity” in the Indonesian Constitution, which calls for religious freedom and democracy. In March, an FPI member and eight others were convicted on 12 September 2010. Christians and human rights activists, however, condemned the light punishment of only five to seven months of sentence.

Meanwhile, extremist groups and officials close to them flout laws and violate the rights of minorities with almost complete impunity. For example, the Yasmin Church in Bogor, a suburb of Jakarta, remains sealed by the city mayor, Diani Budiarto, despite a Supreme Court order against his action and recommendation by the ombudsman to give the church back to the congregation. The church still remains sealed.

The government seems to be extremely cautious in taking action thanks to the growing clout of extremist groups in street politics as well as in some mainstream Muslim organizations. With a lack of will on part of the government, extremism has constantly grown since the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto in 1999, who kept radical groups under control. A local Christian, a former member of the students’ movement that played a key role in the fall of Suharto’s government, said that while extremists used democracy to push their agenda, their goal was to eventually abolish democracy and establish an Islamic state. In 2010 the FPI and a new group, the Bekasi Islamic Presidium, launched a campaign against “Christianization” in West Java, accusing local churches of aggressively trying to win Muslim converts – a behaviour that could be labelled blasphemous under Article 156(A).

The hardliners pledged to set up a youth army in order to monitor and attack churches suspected of “Christianization.” While this act in itself could be regarded as “enmity” under Article 156(A), Yudhoyono simply appealed for tolerance and took no action against the organizers. Some Islamic vigilantes involved in a campaign against vice in Indonesia have turned into extremist militants. The International Crisis Group said in a new report that ideological and tactical lines within Indonesia’s radical community were blurring, making it harder to distinguish so-called ‘terrorists’ from hardline activists. The report cited a group from the West Java city of Cirebon, which has been accused of being behind the 2011 suicide bombings of a mosque and a church as an example. Those attacks killed only the bombers. “The Cirebon men moved from using sticks and stones in the name of upholding morality and curbing ‘deviance’ to using bombs and guns, and this may become the common pattern,” said Sidney Jones, Crisis Group’s senior adviser.

Moreover, according to the group report, the Cirebon men represent a generational shift from militants trained abroad or those who fought a decade ago in two major communal conflicts pitting Muslims and Christians in eastern Indonesia. They were radicalized through public lectures by radical clerics and the two suicide bombers in the church and mosque attacks taught themselves bomb-making from the Internet. The Crisis Group said the government needs to crack down on hate-speech and religiously-inspired crimes to stop the radicalization of such hardline groups. This requires political will, rather than an expanded budget.

Baladas Ghoshal
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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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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