Indonesian Minister Pledges to Safeguard Religious Minorities

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Indonesian Minister Pledges to Safeguard Religious Minorities

The promise follows the banning of the Islamic Defenders Front, which advances a strict, austere definition of Islam.

Indonesian Minister Pledges to Safeguard Religious Minorities

Protesters call for the arrest of then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama on blasphemy charges, on December 2, 2016.

Credit: Flickr/Abraham Arthemius

Last week, Indonesia’s newly appointed religious affairs minister promised to uphold the rights of the religious minority groups like the Shia and Ahmadiyah and to work to prevent their persecution.

“I don’t want members of Shia and Ahmadiyah displaced from their homes because of their beliefs. They are citizens [whose rights] must be protected,” Yaqut Cholil Qoumas reportedly said on December 28.

Yaqut, who heads GP Anshor, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, was appointed in a reshuffle late last month that saw a raft of changes to the cabinet of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

His remarks came in response to Azyumardi Azra, a professor from the Jakarta State Islamic University and a noted Muslim scholar, who called on the government to safeguard the full diversity of Islamic belief.

In recent years, minority Islamic sects like Shia and Ahmadiyah have been subject to increasing pressure from hardline Sunni Islamic demagogues who view their beliefs as “heretical.” According to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, there were a total of 546 violent incidents against Ahmadi Muslims between 2007 and 2017.

The minister’s comments came a day after Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD announced that the government had banned the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), an influential fundamentalist pressure group that has done much to contribute to the atmosphere of hostility toward religious minority groups.

“The government has banned FPI activities and will stop any activities carried out by FPI,” Mahfud said. “The FPI no longer has legal standing as an organization.”

Founded in 1998, FPI has evolved into a potent force in Indonesian street politics. It was particularly prominent in the campaign to bring down Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also know as Ahok), who was railroaded by Islamist protesters and jailed on a bogus blasphemy charge in 2017.

The group was thrust back into the headlines in November, when its leader Habib Rizieq Shihab returned from exile in Saudi Arabia to a hero’s welcome, after leaving the country in 2017 amid allegations of involvement in a pornography case.

After leading a number of large comeback rallies in which he promised to lead a “moral revolution,” the wispy-bearded cleric was arrested last month and charged with violating COVID-19 protocols and remains in custody. Meanwhile, last month Rizieq’s supporters clashed with police during a protest in Jakarta demanding his release. This came after six of his bodyguards were shot dead by police on a highway outside the Indonesian capital.

Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, Indonesia’s deputy justice minister, said that the FPI was outlawed because nearly 30 of its leaders, members, and former members have so far been convicted on terrorism charges. He also said that the group’s aims conflicted with the nation’s state ideology, Pancasila, and its nation motto Bhinekka Tunggal Ika – “unity in diversity.”

The banning of FPI represents a welcome stiffening of the Indonesian government’s stance against religious intolerance and demagoguery, after a decade in which these forces have gained an alarming amount of ground.

However, it might be harder than it sounds. FPI is politically influential, and its banning is likely to inflame conservative Sunni sentiment against Jokowi’s government. The government also needs to address the deeper social and economic factors that have underpinned the rise of Islamist politics in Indonesia over the past decade.

Chief among these are the economic grievances that have delegitimized traditional politicians and driven many people to embrace hardline, Saudi-inflected readings of Islam. As I have argued previously, the campaign against Ahok drew a considerable portion of its support from Jakarta residents that had been displaced by slum clearance projects and real estate developments approved by Ahok’s government.

Similarly, Islamist pressure groups including FPI have come out strongly against the Jokowi government’s recent Omnibus Bill on job creation, which is feared will undermine job security in the drive to attract foreign investment. While formal Islamist political forces remain fragmented at the national political level, increasing levels of Islamic observance makes the religious card an increasingly tempting play for politicians on the up.

All this suggests that the fight to realize Indonesia’s national motto Bhinekka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) will be a long one.