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As the Flames of Intolerance Flare, Indonesians Are Reminded of Their Nation’s Origins in Diversity
Nivell Rayda & Fitri | November 28, 2010
Indonesia. A hundred police officers armed with assault rifles and pistols were not enough to dissuade Tuti (not her real name) from walking barefoot for a kilometer, her 3-year-old son on her back, to the village of Gegerung in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, on Friday.
Once she arrived, the 25-year-old mother joined hundreds of people from her village in ransacking and demolishing dozens of houses belonging to members of the Ahmadiyah minority sect.
“Infidels,” she screamed as she pelted one of the homes with rocks. “Get out of our village.”
The mob destroyed 22 homes, with one burned to the ground after villagers emptied a canister of kerosene in it and lit it on fire.
As Tuti watched the house burn, she and the other villagers thanked God for the suffering of those they deemed heretics.
Need for a National Strategy
The seemingly never-ending string of attacks on minority religious groups — at least a hundred against Ahmadiyah alone over the past decade, according to one activist — prompted the International Crisis Group in a recent report to call on Indonesia to adopt a comprehensive national strategy to promote religious tolerance and curb rising sectarian violence.
“There needs to be a long-term vision and strategy. Local officials have been addressing the incidents on a case-by-case basis,” said Jim Della-Giacomathe, the ICG Southeast Asia project director.
“And most of the time, they surrender to those with the loudest voice. If this keeps happening, mob rule prevails.”
Della-Giacoma’s statement highlights an important observation regarding the government’s response so far to the apparent increase in religious intolerance in the country: that the core of the problem isn’t being addressed.
In Bekasi, which the ICG report says is a clear example of the tensions brought about by clashing fundamentalisms, 10 people have been arrested for an attack that saw one churchgoer hospitalized with a stab wound and a female reverend badly injured.
Among those arrested was the local leader of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group that has led calls for Christians to leave the area.
West Lombok Police operations head, Comr. Deky Subagio, has promised that his office will investigate the attack on the Ahmadiyah homes on Friday just like any other case.
Despite local police promises such as these, attacks continue.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice president of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, said if the core of the problem was not addressed soon, sectarian conflicts would be unavoidable.
“There are elements within the minorities that are discontented with the government’s inaction and are becoming fed up with continuously playing the victim,” he said. “These elements may even have become radicalized themselves.”
Bonar notes that the areas prone to religious conflict often have weak law enforcement or government leaders who are easily pressured by majority religious groups.
For instance, in Kuningan, West Java, where mainstream Muslims in July attempted to seal off an Ahmadiyah mosque, the local government has been reluctant to acknowledge marriages involving members of the minority sect.
In West Nusa Tenggara, the local government has also refused to issue mandatory identification cards to followers of the sect, and last month raided homes belonging to Ahmadiyah members, urging them to move out of Gegerung village.
The government announced plans to relocate the remaining members of the community to a remote island in the Sumba Strait, some 40 kilometers off the main island of Lombok, saying it was the will of other religious communities and residen ts.
In Bekasi and Depok, where a string of attacks and forced closures of Protestant churches has taken place, local administrations have defended their position of siding with the demands of hard-line groups against minorities by saying they needed to keep the peace.
“The political support of religious elites is essential even for political parties that are not based in Islam,” Bonar said.
“Religious elites need to expand their political influence; in return politicians enjoy great support from faithful followers of certain religious leaders.”
Analysts trace part of the problem to decentralization.
“Decentralization has brought more autonomy and self-government, but unfortunately the interpretation and implementation of religious freedom and tolerance, in practice, is also left with the local leaders, who sometimes have a narrow view on the subject,” said Siti Zuhro, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).
Zuhro said that during the iron-fisted rule of former President Suharto there was no tolerance shown for religious frictions, and any statements that had the potential to stir up social, religious and racial tensions were greatly limited.
“Today, the situation is different. Hate speech is protected by the citizens’ constitutional rights of freedom of expression,” she said. “But this is a slippery slope.”
Bonar said that although President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had made a number of speeches expressing support for religious freedom and the need to protect minority groups, his words had never been translated into definitive action by local governments.
“There is a discrepancy between the central government’s commitment and the policies and practices at the local level,” he said.
“Decentralization has left the central government to rely heavily on how local officials can translate its directives.
“But while the central government claims that the job of protecting minorities rests with local governments, the local governments tell minority groups that they have to consult with the central government.”
Even at the national level, Yudhoyono’s statements on religious freedom sometimes stand in stark contrast to the words and actions of his ministers.
Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a member of the president’s Democratic Party, pointed out that Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali “has made comments that oppose religious freedom and have a dangerous potential to fuel further violence.”
The minister has repeatedly called for Ahmadiyah to disband, and has showed support for the 1965 law on blasphemy that many observers say has legitimized acts of violence against minority sects and groups.
He also supports the 2006 joint ministerial decree on houses of worship, which requires the consent of the surrounding community for building churches, temples and mosques. Critics say the regulation is discriminatory.
Rohadi Abdul Fatah, the director of Islam and Shariah law at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, denied that anyone had turned a blind eye to the problem of intolerance.
“Our officials always work according to the law and official procedure,” he said. “We never harm other groups, for example by prohibiting them from using public facilities or burning their places of worship. That is totally against human rights and the law.”
Regarding Ahmadiyah, he said the ministry did not tolerate the sect, but that did not mean the ministry was failing to provide members protection.
“We keep trying to persuade Ahmadiyah through education and dialogue to return to the right path of Islam,” he said. “We don’t tolerate anyone who harms them even though their belief is not acceptable in Islam.”
So what should a government that listens to its people do when a number of surveys indicate a worrying increase in religious intolerance among Muslims in the country?
A survey released in September by the Center for the Study of Islam and Society found that among 1,200 adult Muslim men and women surveyed nationwide, 57.8 percent said they were against the construction of churches and other non-Muslim places of worship — the highest rate the study center has recorded since 2001.
More than a quarter, or 27.6 percent, said they minded if non-Muslims taught their children, up from 21.4 percent in 2008.
“The government should not bow down to political pressure from a religious elite that voices intolerance,” Ulil said. “The government should protect minorities and not only cater to the demands of the majority.
“We should re-educate these opportunistic bureaucrats and political parties about ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ [‘Unity in Diversity’], the principle taught by our founding fathers.”
Firdaus Mubarik, an Ahmadiyah activist, said he hoped the government would listen to minority voices as well.
“The government should remain neutral on religious issues and bridge differences between religious groups,” he said.
“If the government continues turning a blind eye to the problem, hard-line Muslim groups will soon target other minorities.”
An Ahmadiyah member holding a burned Koran in Ciampea, West Java, after a mob set fire to a mosque and houses belonging to members of the minority sect. Pluralism advocates are warning of the dangers posed by failing to sufficiently address rising intolerance. Reuters Photo/Dadang Tri