Australia/Israel Review

Asia Watch: The Elephant in the Room

Oct 31, 2011 | Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon

Concerns about growing religious intolerance in Indonesia have been heightened in recent weeks in the wake of violent attacks and restrictive local laws, but legislative moves appear unlikely to address the core problem.

Some recent scene-setting events demonstrate the scope of the problem.

More than a decade after Christian-Muslim clashes killed thousands across Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, violence erupted in Ambon on September 11 after a fatal traffic accident in which an ojek (motorcycle-taxi) driven by a Muslim teenager was struck by an automobile driven by a Christian.

After the accident, a text message from an unknown source spread false claims that the ojek driver had been tortured to death by a group of Christians. In the aftermath of the funeral, groups of Muslims, including the victim’s family, approached a group of Christians in Ambon. This quickly descended into a riot involving rocks, machetes and general pillage that destroyed houses, cars and motorcycles and claimed seven lives.

On Sept. 25, a suicide bomber struck a Christian church in Solo, killing one congregant and injuring at least 27 others. A still unidentified bomber detonated explosives at the entrance of Bethel Whole Gospel Church at the conclusion of the service. It was a low explosive device spiked with nails and bolts that aimed to harm people rather than destroy property.

On Sept. 28, a group known as the Indonesian Mujahideen posted a message on the radical website Forum Islam al-Busyro that not only vented anger over the Ambon riots but also claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in Solo as revenge for the killings of Muslims in Ambon.

The intolerance also takes other forms.

In Bogor, outside Jakarta, Mayor Diani Budiarto revoked the building permit for the Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church and has, since January, defied a Supreme Court order to reinstate it.

Instead, Budiarto ordered the building sealed in April, forcing the congregation to hold services on the footpath outside. Now there is the weekly spectacle of hundreds of Christian worshippers being taunted and threatened by members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), with police in riot gear with water cannons separating them.

In recent years, the Ahmadiyah Islamic splinter sect has been a favoured target of the extremists. A sickening attack in western Java’s Cikeusik district in February saw a mob of thousands surround a small Ahmadi community, ransacking their homes and beating them, killing three, while police passively stood by. The sentences for the assailants were scandalously light, while the victims were also blamed for not fleeing their homes.

Local lawmakers respond by further restricting the worship of religious minorities in the belief that this will protect them from harm, which essentially rewards the Islamic extremists.

A decree signed by Bekasi’s acting mayor, Rahmat Effendi, bans the Ahmadiyah group from conducting activities that may be interpreted as an effort to “spread its beliefs”. Since the ban went into effect on Oct. 13, the local Ahmadiyah community have held Friday prayers under tight security from Bekasi police.

A long-mooted “Religious Harmony” bill is set to go before the national parliament in the coming months, but as it stands, it appears likely to legitimise the sort of ban employed in Bekasi, which it states is needed to “preserve and maintain the stability of conduciveness and security, peace and order in Bekasi.”

The current draft of the bill regulates various religious rights and obligations such as proselytising, celebrating religious holidays, constructing places of worship, funerals and religious education.

But critics argue that the bill’s emphasis on religious harmony over religious freedom will entrench the existing problems, legitimising existing discriminatory regulations within the 1965 Anti-Blasphemy Law and a 2006 joint ministerial decree on places of worship, which has contributed to many conflicts.

If the government really wanted “harmony,” it should perhaps start by addressing the prevalence of hate speech.

In Bekasi, just before the ban on the Ahmadiyah was issued, members of the notorious Islamic Defenders Front were in the area. “They came… and intimidated people, telling us to shut down our mosque,” a local Ahmadi told the Jakarta Post.

Some analysts in Jakarta say the real problem is not the need for more laws, but for the government to be serious about enforcing the ones they already have, especially in terms of religious tolerance. What is lacking is forceful presidential leadership on issues like tolerance and sectarianism.

Instead, the focus of President Yudhoyono turned to a bill that amends Indonesia’s anti-terrorism act. He attributed the church bombing in Solo not to a wave of sectarian strife, but to a national terrorist network. “Crime is crime and terrorism is terrorism. It does not relate to ethnicity or religion,” he said last month.

The provisions, now passed, will give sweeping new powers to the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), allowing police and intelligence authorities to begin surveillance operations against anyone without evidence.

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