A shocking verdict rendered by an Indonesian court underscores the rising tide of violence and discrimination against religious minorities in Indonesia, long purported to be the world’s most tolerant Muslim nation.
In February 2011, Deden Sudjana, a 48-year old Indonesian male, was one of twenty members of a Muslim minority sect called the Ahmadiyah who were violently attacked by an enraged Muslim mob while they gathered in a house in the Indonesian village of Cikeusik.
The fury of the mob attack — which ironically occurred during Indonesia’s Interfaith Harmony Week — was engendered by the presence of Ahmadiyah in Cikeusik. The Ahmadiyah, with 200,000 followers in Indonesia, is considered heretical by many Muslims because of its belief that Muhammad was not the final prophet.
While Sudjana and a handful of Ahmadiyah men tried to defend the property with stones and slingshots, they were quickly overwhelmed by nearly 1,500 Muslims, all armed with clubs, machetes and rocks.
In a terrifying scene caught on video, three Ahmadiyah men were killed and the others badly beaten. As the mob danced around the dead men, laughing and chanting “God is Great,” Indonesian police merely stood and watched.
However, the Indonesian police did manage to arrest Sudjana — whose hand was nearly severed by a machete in the attack — for ostensibly inciting the mob to violence by not leaving the home upon the mob’s arrival.
While that action may have been surprising, it was overshadowed in early August when an Indonesian court sentenced Sudjana to six months in jail. It was a verdict that understandably shocked Sudjana, given the fact that 12 members of the attacking mob had been given sentences between three to six months.
In fact, one of those attackers who had crushed in the skull of an Ahmadiyah man with a rock was released from prison days before Sudjana’s sentencing. Upon his return to Cikeusik, he was treated as a conquering hero by his fellow villagers. As one man said of the attack, “I do feel bad people had to die, but we had to clean our village.”
So, as he was being escorted from the courtroom, an incredulous Sudjana asked aloud, “I’m the victim. Why am I getting a higher sentence than some of the perpetrators?”
Mistreatment of the Ahmadiyah has escalated dramatically since 2008 when the Indonesian government decreed the Ahmadiyah to be a deviant sect whose followers could face up to five years in prison for practicing their faith. Since then, over a hundred violent incidents against the Ahmadiyah have been recorded, incidents which include the torching of mosques and homes.
One of the bigger driving forces behind those attacks has been the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a violent and hard-line Islamic militant group founded in 1998 whose stated goal is the implementation of Sharia law in Indonesia.
Unfortunately, the Ahmadiyah are not the only ones to offend the religious sensibilities of the FPI and other Muslim groups. Christians have also seen a dramatic escalation of discrimination and violence launched against them.
In 2011 alone, the Indonesian Community of Churches reported at least 20 churches were forced to suspend services due to mob threats and government intervention, with scores more torched and vandalized.
Unfortunately, replacing a destroyed church or building a new one is highly problematic as Indonesian law requires that construction of a new church must have the support of 60 percent of a community’s residents, an often impossible task for Christians who make up less than nine percent of Indonesia’s total population.
In one notable example, local authorities in Bogor, a suburb of the capital city of Jakarta, have prevented the Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) from moving into a new building for over two years despite a ruling from Indonesia’s Supreme Court that the church be unsealed.
Yet, Bogor’s mayor, Diani Budiarto, has refused to comply with the order and has recently come up with a new excuse for not opening the church, reasoning that the street the church was built on has an Islamic name and is thus an offense to Muslims.
Unfortunately, the Indonesian government has refused to intervene in the case. According to Indonesia’s Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi, “this is the political reality in the field and it could cause disturbances to security and peace. It would not be healthy in the long run, even for the congregation members themselves.”
Unfortunately, Fauzi’s concern for Christian well-being is well-placed as Muslim intolerance has grown more overt. It’s a trend perhaps best expressed in June 2010, at the second Bekasi Islamic Congress in Bekasi, West Java, when Muslims were instructed to form Islamic paramilitary forces in readiness for a jihad against Christians.
Another more recent example of that intolerance occurred in February 2011 when a Christian man accused of blasphemy for distributing pamphlets that apparently insulted Islam received a sentence of five years in prison. However, a mob of over 1,000 Muslims, believing the verdict required a death sentence, went on a rampage, storming the courthouse and setting several local Christian churches on fire.
Yet, despite Muslims making up over ninety percent of Indonesia’s 240 million citizens, the Indonesian government insists it is committed to promoting religious tolerance, citing its constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.
Instead, some have laid the blame for the rise in religious intolerance squarely at the doorstep of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Critics say that because Yudhoyono relies on the support of Islamic parties in parliament, he has been reluctant to condemn or act upon religiously-motivated violence and thus has emboldened the FPI and other Islamist groups.
While Yudhoyono hasn’t been a profile in courage in dealing with the issue, others say it is the Indonesian government’s own laws and its selective enforcement that are actually fueling the continued harassment and persecution of religious minorities.
Specifically, Indonesia’s blasphemy law grants local governments the freedom to charge and detain members of religious minorities that are considered deviant. In fact, in April 2010 Indonesia’s Supreme Court ruled that that it was constitutional to ban religious groups that “distort” or “misrepresent” official faiths.
While Indonesia officially recognizes six religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism) in practice, the blasphemy law is applied primarily to perceived offenses against Islam.
Unfortunately, the punishment for those offenses, whether carried out by the Indonesian government or by an enraged mob, can be quite severe. As he lingers alone in his jail cell, it’s a fact Deden Sudjana understands all too well.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog www.politicallyunbalanced.com.