Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Politics Trump God in Indonesia?

Obama lauded Indonesia as tolerant and inclusive. But some Christians worry officials are exploiting religious tensions for votes.

Albert Bonasahat Sigalingging recalls the first time he tasted religious intolerance. He was just a child at the time, but says he remembers a relative visiting from Medan who recounted a story about a small Muslim community in the North Sumatra capital.

‘I was still in elementary school back then and I didn’t really understand what my relative was talking about,’ he says. ‘But I remembered my uncle shouting out at one point: “Just burn the mosque!”’ 

The 34-year-old, who goes by the nickname ‘Bona,’ says that over the years, he found such views weren’t uncommon. But he says that such off-hand bigotry pales in comparison with the kind of discrimination that he and his congregation at the Indonesian Christian Church in Bogor, West Java, are facing today.

Since last April, the 400-member congregation has been forced to hold its weekly Sunday service on a sidewalk outside of the closed construction site of its planned new church. The local government administration sealed off the construction site two years ago, citing complaints from local Muslim residents.

Indonesia may be the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, but it also has other influential minorities, including Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian communities. Despite being an avowedly secular state, the building of houses of worship in Indonesia requires prior permission from the local community. And it’s an open secret here that that religious minorities, particularly Christians, regularly run into roadblocks intheir attempts to build churches in their neighbourhoods.

What’s unusual about the Indonesian Christian Church case is that it had actually obtained permission from its local community in the Taman Yasmin area of Bogor, 70 kilometres south-east of Jakarta, as well as a church building permit from the local administration in 2006. That same administration, however, revoked the building permit on February 14, 2008.

The Church appealed to the Administrative Court in Bandung, the capital of West Java, which ruled in favour of the church; the congregation resumed construction last January. But a month later, the local administration again revoked the building permit for the same reason: complaints from local residents.

It hasn’t just been quiet petitions from locals that the church has had to contend with. It has also received threats from hard-line Islamic groups. When the church turned to local police for protection, they ended up comingunder pressure from local law enforcement to permanently halt construction.

‘The real pressure came from outside—the neighbourhood here has no problem with us building a church, even though the majority are Muslims,’ Bona says, adding that the congregation had approached the community with its plans back in 2001.

This wasn’t the first such case. Churches in Depok, Bekasi and Purwakarta—all in West Java—have been subjected to similar intolerance, threats and even physical violence. The most shocking incident occurred on September 12, when armed men alleged to be members of a radical Islamic group stabbed a protestant church leader in the stomach and beat his wife as they were leading their congregation to a Sunday service in Bekasi.

And the discrimination hasn’t been confined to Christians. The Ahmadiyah, a minority Muslim sect, has been repeatedly targeted by hard-line Islamic groups that seem to have been acting with impunity over the past two years, burning down the sect’s mosques and members’ homes across the country.

In fact the Setara Institute, a Jakarta-based nongovernmental organization that promotes religious freedom and pluralism, has recorded hundreds of violations of religious freedom in a nation whose motto is ‘Unity in Diversity.’

Most of the incidents recorded by the institute were related to the building of new houses of worship, allegations of blasphemy and discriminatory government regulations and policies.

In the first half of this year the group says it recorded more than two dozen incidents of discrimination against Christian congregations as well as attacks against the Ahmadiyah sect and protests against Buddhist statues being placed in public places.

The main instigator of many of the attacks is widely believed to be the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), a violent radical group dedicated to toppling Indonesia’s democracy and replacing it with an Islamic state based on Shariah law. But despite their professed religious motivations, the FPI are frequently accused of being nothing more than a nationwide group of thugs who use Islam as a cover for extortion and protection rackets.

Yet despite the FPI and similar radical groups making up only a small minority of Indonesia’s Muslim population of more than 190 million, the central government, police and local leaders have largely failed to step in to stop the violence. The public, meanwhile, remains largely silent.

The seeming indifference to religious persecution among Indonesia’s Muslims could be down to a fear of being labelled ‘un-Islamic.’ But the silencestill begs the question of whether the majority of Indonesia can really still be described as moderate and tolerant. After all, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has failed to issue an official statement condemning the religious violence against minority Christians and the Ahmadiyah.
And, with the exception of a few tough-sounding words, his administration has largely been impotent in tackling discrimination. Indeed, Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali is reportedly attempting to have the Ahmadiyah banned as a religious group, despite the fact that the sect has been peacefully worshiping in Indonesia since the 1920s.

Last March, a survey carried out by Lazuardi Birru, a nongovernmental organization focusing on combating extremism, suggested that religious prejudice was on the rise. The poll of 1,320 people, the majority of whom were Muslims, showed that nearly 64 percent of respondents would object if other religious groups built houses of worship in their neighbourhoods, while 51.6 percent said they would object if other religious groups held a religious event in their area. In addition, the survey showed that 1.3 percent of the respondents admitted having attacked the house of worship of another religious, while 5.3 percent said they would do so if they had the chance.

Yet despite the findings of the survey,and the ongoing attacks, several religious figures insist that Indonesians remain broadly tolerant. And they’re in some notable company—during his visit to Indonesia last month, US President Barack Obama also praised the country for being a model of tolerance and inclusiveness.

Syafiq Aliela, a youth activist with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organization, says it’s only natural for one religion to dislike the others, and that this is just as true in Indonesiaas anywhere else.

‘But you can’t say society is intolerant,’ he says. ‘Indonesians in general aren’t fundamentalists. The majority of the population is Muslim, but the teachings are eclectic.’

Aliela argues that little of the violence in recent years has been purely religiously motivated. He notes, for example, that the 1998 riots in Jakartawere rooted in political and economic disputes.

Syafiq, editor of NU Online, is less sanguine. He says there are too many political ‘adventurers’ in local politics now, who are willing to try to exploit religious issues. Combined with the lack of leadership and proper law enforcement, religious intolerance is, in his words, ‘rampant.’

Setara Institute researcher Ismail Hasani agrees religious conservatism has been increasing in recent years, particularly in the urban areas where more people are holding mass gatherings and other religious events.

‘Increased religiosity doesn’t necessarily lead to violence,’ Hasani says. ‘However, there are many parties who take advantage of any increase in religiosity to build systematic movements to grab religious authority in the country. It’s to gain power.’

‘There are many groups that use religion as a political bargaining chip. The country’s political power players and elite are exploiting this issue. Religion has become a new low-cost, but effective way to gain political power and followers.’

Hasani says politicians in cities in West Java such as Bogor and Kuningan, have used the issue of the Ahmadiyah sect to recruit voters, promising to ban the sect if they get elected.

‘But we’ve followed several politicians who used religion-based issues such as calling for raiding stores and clubs that sell alcohol and things like that. But once they were elected to the House of Representatives, they no longer cared about religious issues,’ Hasani says. ‘It seems like their interest in these issues has nothing to do with religion. It’s all about political and economic interests.’

Muslim scholar Siti Musdah Mulia, co-founder of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), says their studies show that police at the local level sometimes take advantage of tensions to extort protection money from churches instead of keeping the peace. As a result, the violence often appears out of control.

‘Our society has always been conservative, but it has never used the state to enforce its wishes like it has in the past few years,’ he says. ‘The government is the one to blame because they let it happen. They’ve never been proactive in issuing a warning (to radical Muslim groups).’

It’s unclear why Indonesian officials from Yudhoyono down to provincial district chiefs have wilted in the face of the tiny but vocal radical Muslim minority. Some say it’s reluctance by politicians who don’t feel they have the ‘proper’ Islamic credentials to speak up on the issue, while others believe it’s as simple as not wanting to lose Muslim voters.

Either way, civil society groups are attempting to step in and fill the void by acting as the conscience of the state.

‘The pressure is there, but it’s sporadic and only comes from the same group of people,’ says Mulia. ‘We aren’t yet a progressive and critical civil society. This is terrifying and dangerous. The silent majority must speak up.’

Catholic priest Benny Susetyo of the Indonesian Bishops Council says that the ball is now firmly in the government’s court.

‘Our culture is actually tolerant, and this violence has nothing to do with religion,’ he says. ‘The government must act now to counter this violence.’