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REVIEW & OUTLOOK ASIA
Religion Run Amok
Indonesia is reeling from some of the worst sectarian violence in years.
Indonesians have been shaken this week by some of the country’s most horrific episodes of sectarian violence in recent memory. On Sunday, hundreds of Muslims stabbed and clubbed to death three members of the minority Ahmadiyya sect in a village in Java. Mobs struck again on Tuesday after the sentencing of a Catholic man accused of blaspheming Islam. Believing the judge’s verdict to be too lenient, some 1,500 protestors stormed through the streets of Temanggung in Central Java province, torching churches and Christian schools.
Violence motivated by religious radicalism is hardly new in Indonesia, but it has the potential to hold the country back just as it is poised for a burst of development and globalization. Ratings agencies are upgrading the country’s risk profile, and foreign investment is flooding in. The government announced on Monday that GDP grew at 6.9% year on year in the last quarter of 2010, exceeding analysts’ expectations. The stakes for safeguarding the country’s tradition of secular pluralism are high.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promptly condemned this week’s bloodshed, denouncing the “anarchic” acts in Temanggung and directing police to move swiftly to find the perpetrators. At an address on Wednesday, the president went further, calling for authorities to disband all violent sectarian groups: “Even though a democratic country upholds freedom of expression and the right to assemble, we must not give any space and tolerance to public speech or calls to carry out violence or murder on anyone.”
Associated PressA police officer stand guards at the damaged house of a member of Ahmadiyah after it was attacked by Muslim mob in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, Monday, Feb. 7, 2011.
These words carry extra weight coming from a leader who prides himself on caution and a cool political head. But on the whole his government’s efforts against Islamist creep still proceed in fits and starts. An over-reaching antipornography law continues to eat away at speech freedoms, nourishing the climate of oppression. And the judiciary frequently waffles when prosecuting the terrorists and radicals that police haul in. On Monday prosecutors recommended a mere six-month jail term for a member of an extremist group accused of assaulting two leaders of a Protestant church last September.
Another serious obstacle has to do with Indonesia’s police force itself, which, since being split from the armed forces after the fall of the Suharto regime, has become hobbled by pervasive corruption. Footage from Sunday’s assault shows police standing nearby, resisting the attackers only feebly.
Half-heartedness seems to afflict the force at higher levels, too: The chief of the Central Java police declared on Wednesday that the Temanggung riots were “purely an act of criminal vandalism” and not religiously motivated. Such evasiveness has long been seen as evidence that radical groups trade political favors in exchange for a lighter hand against their activities.
Defending the Ahmadiyya in particular will require further initiative by lawmakers, even if firmer enforcement prevails. The sect, which is viewed as heretical by mainstream Muslims, is targeted for ostracism by decree under a 2008 law requiring its adherents to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam.” President Yudhoyono supported the legislation before it passed and has in the past kept silent after previous mob attacks against Ahmadiyya followers.
If the president has, as his rhetoric suggests, truly been shaken out of complacency by this week’s brutality, then making strides on any of these fronts would constitute a welcome start. The upcoming trial of Abu Bakar Bashir, a radical cleric who was arrested last August on terrorism charges, will serve as another key test for his government. The aging spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiya, a jihadist group linked to al Qaeda, Bashir received only short prison sentences after trials in 2003 and 2005. Tough justice this time around would be a major symbolic victory.
The reaction from one hardline outfit, the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, is a sign that Mr. Yudhoyono’s expressions of resolve are already having an impact. An FPI leader was quoted in the local press yesterday as threatening a nationwide uprising if the president follows through on his pledge to disband violent religious organizations. “Indonesia will be like Egypt,” the militia commander warned.
The sectarians apparently think President Yudhoyono is serious about stopping their violence. But Indonesians will be waiting to see if he backs his promises with action.