Indonesia’s historic reputation for religious tolerance took a beating for several years as an unholy coalition of Islamist politicians and self-styled enforcers like the Islamic Defenders Front harassed and sometimes violently attacked minorities, including Christians and Shi’ites, Sufi and Ahmadiyah Muslims.
But there are signs that positive change is at hand. President Joko Widodo’s call for the country’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), to promote “moderate Islamic values” has had a knock-on effect, with Haedir Nashir, the newly elected chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-biggest Islamic body, urging the group’s 30 million followers to work toward better protection for religious minorities.
While acknowledging that the President, in his call for moderation, “did something remarkable,” the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) described it as “a tacit recognition that both [NU] and Indonesia’s second largest mainstream Muslim mass organisation, Muhammadiyah, are passively complicit in the problem of worsening religious intolerance.”
“Neither organisation has publicly opposed the 2005 fatwa by Indonesia’s semi-official top Muslim clerical body which ruled that the Ahmadiyah community deviated from Quranic teachings,” the HRW statement read.
That changed with the statement by Haedir Nashir, the newly elected head of Muhammadiyah, that, “We all live in a pluralist nation… The majority should protect minorities; minorities should work with the majority.”
HRW identified the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society under the Attorney General’s office as playing a major role in violating religious rights, particularly during the Administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and called for a review of existing laws, regulations and decrees on religion which impinge upon freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
One might also ask that some extra tolerance be extended to Jewish Israelis, for sporting reasons at least.
Israeli badminton player Misha Zilberman appeared set to miss the World Championships in Indonesia when officials repeatedly refused to grant him a visa, despite his having filed his application six months previously.
Waiting in Singapore with competition about to begin, Zilberman was belatedly allowed entry when Badminton World Federation Secretary-General Thomas Lund flew to Singapore in order to escort him to Jakarta.
It appears the 26-year-old Israeli, who took part in the London 2012 Olympics, was slated to have the briefest possible appearance in the tournament program – having his first round match brought forward to an early morning slot due to security concerns, and losing to his Taiwanese opponent in just 34 minutes.
Furthermore, there was no Israeli flag present in the arena alongside the flags of the other participating countries.
Upon returning home, Zilberman thanked those who had supported his participation but said the Indonesian authorities “tried to break me and humiliate me.”
“I received a lot of threats, on Twitter and Facebook as well. ‘You won’t get a visa’, ‘we will kill you’, ‘you shouldn’t come here’,” he said.
Even so, Indonesian legislators from the Islamist-oriented Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) questioned the decision to grant a visa to an Israeli competitor, media reports said.
“This is a bad precedent,” Ahmad Zainuddin was quoted as saying by Viva.co.id news portal. “How could it be that an Israeli managed to obtain a visa, while Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel?” he said. “This has to be explained.”
He said he suspected that the decision was made after pressure from Israel and the international Jewish lobby. “If that’s true, it shows how hollow is our state principle of supporting Palestinian independence and opposing Israel’s colonisation,” Zainuddin said.
Another PKS legislator, Mahfudz Siddiq, said he was informed that the Foreign Ministry was not consulted in the decision. “It shows that there is no coordination with the immigration department,” he was quoted as saying by inilah.com news portal.
Mahfudz also drew an Israeli connection with recent violence in Papua province, where hundreds of people attacked and pelted stones at minority Muslims performing outdoor Eid al-Fitr prayers in Tolikara district on July 17.
As Chairman of Commission I of the House of Representatives (DPR) Mahfudz called for a probe into the alleged presence of Israelis and Zionist symbols in the area.
“The presence of Israeli citizens in Papua and Israeli symbols in Tolikara as reported on the social media is not by accident,” he stated. Linking the incident to the Papuan separatist movement, Mahfudz claimed it likely that “a certain party has used those people to conduct a political operation in Papua.”
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.