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2010 Review: Wave of Religious Intolerance Intensifies
Dewi Kurniawati | December 30, 2010
Young people chant as an Ahmadiyah member’s house is razed. (JG Photo)
If one trend that emerged in the past year was considered more disturbing than others, it would be the apparent increase in fundamentalism and religious intolerance in a country that prides itself on being a bastion of pluralism.
It is hard to ignore. The increasing trend is evidenced by a constant stream of news reports of attacks against minority religious groups, as well as reports and surveys from various organizations.
The Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy recorded 28 attacks and violations of Christians’ right to worship in the first seven months of the year alone, up from 18 in all of 2009 and 17 in 2008.
In a separate report, the Wahid Institute said it had recorded 196 cases of violence based on intolerance and religious discrimination in 2010, an increase of almost 50 percent from a year earlier. The Moderate Muslim Society, on the other hand, says Indonesia saw at least 81 cases of interreligious conflict in 2010 — an increase of more than 30 percent from 2009.
“What we see today is an excess stemming from the repressive approach to religion during the Suharto era,” said Siti Musdah Mulia, a progressive Islamic scholar from the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace.
“Back then, when there was no freedom of speech, religious councils were established to coordinate all religious affairs.”
“Now that we have democracy, everyone wants to express his or her opinion. Unfortunately, many violated Pancasila and our constitution, and the government just turned a blind eye on it,” she added. “The government should forcefully implement the law against those groups. What we see lately is a process of human rights violations by omission.”
It is not just the number of attacks and conflicts that are worrisome. It is also how emboldened the attackers seem to have become.
Members of the Ahmadiyah sect, for example, have been persecuted in the country for many years. Beginning in June, though, attacks against the group began occurring one after the other, the next one seemingly worse than the last.
In the capital, an Ahmadiyah mosque was firebombed. Then, in Bogor, a mob destroyed a mosque and several homes belonging to sect members.
An Ahmadiyah community in West Nusa Tenggara was also attacked in November and forced to leave its village.
The same trend was seen in conflicts involving Christians in the Greater Jakarta area. The shutdown of churches due to lack of necessary permits preceded violent attacks.
In September, Asia Sihombing and Rev. Luspida Simandjuntak, leaders of the Batak Christian Congregation (HKBP) in Bekasi, were stabbed and assaulted. Asia was stabbed and Luspida was be aten with a stick.
Thirteen defendants — including Murhali Barda, the suspended leader of the Islamic Defenders Front’s (FPI) Bekasi chapter — were indicted in court on Wednesday for a variety of charges, but the root of the problem remains.
Setara researcher Ismail Hasani had said earlier that the suburban regions of Jakarta — primarily Bekasi and Bogor, and even Depok and Tangerang — were seeing a radicalization phenomenon.
In June, a new group calling itself the Bekasi Islamic Presidium even announced plans for a road show aimed at persuading every mosque in the city to prepare for the possibility of “war” against “Christianization.”
Equally — if not more — frustratingly for pluramism and rights advocates is the government’s response to the problem.
While President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made a number of calls for pluralism to be upheld, those demands have failed to translate into action on the part of the government.
Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, for instance, has re peatedly called for Ahmadiyah to disband, and he has shown support for the 1965 Law on Blasphemy that observers say has legitimized acts of violence against minority sects and groups.
The lack of change is also seen among law enforcement officers.
“A police officer once asked why I defended Ahmadiyah because he thinks Ahmadiyah is deviant. I told him that the police should protect them despite what they believe,” Siti said, pointing out that law enforcers should be neutral.
“It shows the lack of civic education in the recruitment process,” she added.
Suryadharma 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.
This has often been cited as the cause of the ongoing problem. In a majority Muslim country, a number of Christian congregations have encountered difficulty in getting consent from locals to build churches, forcing them to use houses or even vacant lots as venues for worship, which local governments say is illegal.
“Indonesians have witnessed an enormous process of mismanagement carried out by the government,” said Siti Zuhro, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).
During the iron-fisted rule of former President Suharto, he said, there was no tolerance shown for religious frictions, and any statements that had the potential to stir up social, religious and racial tensions were limited.
“Our democracy failed to create leaders that manage to protect all citizens. We only have rulers,” he said.
“I remember when President Yudhoyono held a state dinner during Obama’s visit. He repeatedly mentioned the country’s unity in diversity and pluralism,” said Siti Musdah, the chairwoman of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace.
“Yudhoyono should be ashamed of himself with all these problems in the country.”
Adding insult to injury, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) said earlier this month that the proliferation of Santas, reindeer and twinkly lights in malls and public places had gone too far for the nation’s Muslim majority, claiming the decor had sparked complaints about Christmas overload.
“We have a serious problem with the powerless leadership that has no vision on how to keep this country united,” said Father Benny Susetyo of the Indonesian Bishops Conference.
“The state is absent in all of this chaos.”
Benny is worried that if the ongoing religious intolerance continues, Indonesia will become like Pakistan, where violence becomes part of daily life. “We may be shattered like the Soviet Union,” he said.
Another problem Benny highlighted was the moderate voices who have become a silent majority in the whole process.
“Moderate Indonesians should raise their voice and demand serious law enforcement by the state apparatus to crack down on these small, hard-line groups,” he said.
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, 27.6 percent, said they minded if non-Muslims taught their children, up from 21.4 percent in 2008.
“Our education system has failed to instill the mentality to respect others whose views are different from ours. Even some elementary schools teach that people who think or live differently are enemies,” Siti said, demanding the government begin serious intervention on the issue. “Education is our only chance for the future.”