Peeling Off Indonesia’s Veneer of Tolerance

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Peeling Off Indonesia’s Veneer of Tolerance

Indonesia’s “dynamism and diversity” are clouded by growing violence and intolerance.

Delegates to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (“APEC”) CEO summit October 5-7 on Indonesia’s island of Bali aren’t likely to hear about Eko Mardi Santoso. Unidentified machete-wielding attackers murdered the 45-year-old Santoso on September 11 in what police suspect was a violent spillover of a long-simmering dispute between two Muslim communities in East Java’s Jember regency.

Instead, the Indonesian government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will use the backdrop of Bali, a Hindu-majority island in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, to help peddle the narrative of Indonesia as a stable, progressive democracy exemplifying religious tolerance.

Meanwhile, across Indonesia there are multiplying incidents of harassment, threats and violence against religious minorities including several Protestant groups, Shia and the Ahmadiyah. These groups have become targets of Islamist militant groups who label most non-Muslims as “infidels,” and Muslims who do not adhere to Sunni orthodoxy as “blasphemers.” Even Indonesia’s atheists live in fear of such groups. 

For the Indonesian government, discussing Santoso’s brutal death wouldn’t just be an impolite cocktail party topic for visiting dignitaries – including U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It would lift the curtain on Indonesia’s rising religious intolerance and related violence and put the lie to the government’s slick veneer of national “dynamism and diversity.” The last thing that Yudhoyono wants during one of the last high-profile international events he’ll host before he steps down in 2014 are awkward questions about his government’s failure to defend internationally guaranteed rights to religious freedom and to protect religious minorities from attack by militant hate-mongers.

Eko Mardi Santoso is just one of the victims of recent religious-related violence in Indonesia. On August 4, a bomb planted by unknown perpetrators exploded inside a Buddhist temple in downtown Jakarta while congregants worshipped, injuring three men. Police say they are investigating. That attack came just weeks after Indonesian Islamist militants vowed vengeance against Buddhists for attacks in Burma by members of the Buddhist majority against the local Rohingya Muslim population. A day later, unknown perpetrators tossed Molotov cocktails into the yard of a Catholic high school in Jakarta. Staff scrambled to extinguish the flames and kept the devices from igniting by dousing them with water from a bathroom.

The government has spared no rhetoric on its professed support for the constitutionally guaranteed right of religious freedom. On May 31, Yudhoyono stated that his government “would not tolerate any act of senseless violence committed by any group in the name of the religion.” On August 16, the president said that he was "very concerned" about rising religious intolerance and related violence. But there has been a glaring failure on the part of Yudhoyono and his government to implement concrete measures to actually protect the country’s besieged religious minorities.

The exemplar of this disconnect between official rhetoric and reality is the conduct of Indonesia's religious affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali. In January 2012, after a meeting with lawmakers, Ali publicly stated that the Shia faith is “against Islam.” In September 2012, he proposed that Shia convert to Sunni Islam. On August 13, 2013, Ali followed up those bigoted statements by choosing to make the keynote speech  at the annual congress in Jakarta of one of the country's most violent Islamist organizations, the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI).The FPI and kindred groups are implicated in multiple serious acts of mob violence against religious minorities. Indonesia's Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, documented 264 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, up from 216 in 2010. Yudhoyono has failed to censure Ali for his actions.

But there is more that Yudhoyono should do to address rising religious intolerance than tackling its militant perpetrators and sacking their government cheerleaders such as Suryadharma Ali. He also needs to address the discriminatory laws and regulations on the books in Indonesia that encourage and facilitate religious intolerance. A first step would be rescinding the blasphemy law that officially recognizes only six religions, and house of worship decrees that give local majority populations effective veto over the right of religious minority communities to build churches and temples.

Yudhoyono should also rein in the Indonesian government institutions that effectively give official seals of approval to acts of religious intolerance and related violence. He could start with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Bakor Pakem) under the Attorney General’s Office, and the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council, which have eroded religious freedom by issuing decrees and fatwas (religious rulings) against members of religious minorities and using their position of authority to press for the prosecution of “blasphemers.”

At APEC this week, true friends of Indonesia should look past its Potemkin “dynamism and diversity” and warn Yudhoyono that the growing intolerance, discrimination and violence against religious minorities in Indonesia can no longer be ignored.

Phelim Kine is a deputy director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch and a former foreign correspondent in Indonesia. Follow him on Twitter @PhelimKine