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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.’