Information und Analyse

Breaking the myth of Religious Tolerance in Indonesia

Information and analysis, 23 April 2013

by Basilisa Dengen


Most of Indonesian people, especially Indonesian government officials, nowadays still think that Indonesia is a country with a high degree of tolerance towards different religions and cultures. How far is it true?


Demo GKI Yasmin

Biweekly demonstration in front of the President’s palace

photo: Alex Flor

The regent of Bekasi sealed an Ahmadiyah mosque on 4th April in the evening. The Public Order Squad, Satpol PP, attached fences to block access to the building. Ahmadiyah members in the field questioned the reason for this sealing. The mosque has a legal building permit and has been used as a house of worship since 1999. The police was on duty, but being idle. Two weeks earlier, a similar case happened in the same regency. A Batak Church was demolished. TV news showed hundreds of ordinary people, men and women, shouting »God is great!«, male youngsters in white robes singing and yelling: »crush the church right now!« On the other side, church members, of which most of them were women, wearing black dresses, were mourning and crying. Another surprising scene was that some people were taking pictures and watching the incidence as if it was just a film setting. It reminded me of the German term ›Schaulustige‹. The term describes an act of people who witness events such as car accidents or violent actions and enjoy watching them without helping the victims.

Two days later, I read similar news from the regency of North Tapanuli, North Sumatra. A group of Christians, representing the majority’s faith in that region, rejected the building of a mosque in their neighbourhood. They claimed that the planned mosque would be located too close to two churches. Ironically, this opponent group bears the word »peace‹ in their organization’s name (Aliansi Masyarakat Nahornop Marsada Peduli Kedamaian).

Local governments, ordinary people and some civil society organizations in Indonesia, not to mention the radical groups, are showing widespread religious intolerance. Being aware of  recent news around this topic it’s quite difficult to keep one’s mind optimistic. How and why may such cases happen ever and ever again? How will Indonesia look like in ten years from now? Islands of diverse ghettos separated from each other? And why has religious intolerance amongst Indonesian society been increasing during the last few years?

We do live in harmony, don’t we?

As an Indonesian spending my childhood under the New Order and its regime propaganda, I learned at school that Indonesian people live in harmony with each other despite their diverse cultures and beliefs. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity, is a term that all pupils will proudly present when they try to describe the characteristics of their home country, Indonesia.  Those words have been used for many years to legitimize the saying that Indonesia is a country with diverse cultures and beliefs. A country, where people live in harmony and  tolerance towards each other. A country where the state respects all the different religious beliefs of its citizens.

It was this stereotype proudly pointed out by President Yudhoyono in his speech at the opening ceremony of the tourism expo ITB in Berlin earlier in March this year. Those myths and lies got a big applause from the audience. Unfortunately the same myths were reconfirmed by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who in her speech at the same event referred to Indonesia as a model case for peaceful coexistence between different religions and faiths.

Education on the state ideology of Pancasila was a subject in school, when I was young. My generation had to learn every point of Pancasila by heart. We learned how to behave ›morally correct‹ in various situations, from simple situations such as helping an elderly crossing the road to more complex situations such as how to respect people from different ethnic or religious backgrounds. I remember very much how we were taught to respect other religions.

It wasn’t too complicated, since there were only five official religions to be respected. According to the government, any other beliefs were deviant. For example, we were taught that it’s not allowed to make any noise when passing by a house of worship while people were praying there. Another example: it was suggested to greet people on their religious holidays in order to show respect for their religion. Those are indeed good practices. Unfortunately, people learned them by heart, but not with heart. What happened to these Pancasila teachings? Last year I read that Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), forbade Muslims from wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. Later on, they also tried to forbid the republic’s president to attend religious ceremonies of other religions. There was not yet any clear response on it by the president.

This is today’s reality. Setara Institute, Wahid Institute and other Indonesian NGOs reported an increasing trend for violations of religious freedom in Indonesia. This finding was also confirmed by a report of Human Rights Watch earlier this year. All reports are emphasizing the inability of the state to guarantee religious freedom, either directly (by commission) or indirectly (by omission). Human Rights Watch recommends the government to implement zero tolerance to violent groups. Interesting and very important is a recommendation by the Setara Institute: the human rights perspective should be accompanied by sociological studies to identify the root problems of intolerance amongst different groups of society.

Weak law enforcement and discriminative state administration

Law enforcement is a key term that most human rights organizations suggest to the current Indonesian government. This is an important point since the state is obliged to respect and protect the people and their rights. In cases such as the attack and killing of three Ahmadiyah members in Cikeusik, Banten, in 2011, and the attack on the Shiah community in Sampang, East Java, earlier this year, as well as in most other cases state institutions such as the police could not show their ability to act rightfully to prevent vigilante attacks. In some cases, they were even the perpetrators. As an institution with the obligation to protect the people, the police seems to be paralyzed, particularly in dealing with abusive actions by radical groups.

Lack of knowledge and skills on human rights might be one answer to its inability. On the other side, the Indonesian police should learn how to act impartially by not tolerating any form of violence. Does it need more and better capacity building for the police? Or is it a matter of political unwillingness?

Other state institutions, such as local governments, also allow intolerant behaviour. The case of  the Taman Yasmin church in Bogor is an obvious example of how weak the justice system in Indonesia is. A decision by the Supreme Court to open up the church was simply neglected by the city mayor of Bogor. This reflects the excessive implementation of decentralization policy. More authority granted to local governments should mean more guarantee and protection for people’s economic, social and cultural rights as well as their civil and political rights. Sadly, reality shows on the contrary, that decentralization rather gives more opportunity for local governments to restrict people’s freedom.

Another political dimension of religious intolerance in Indonesia is the political coalition in the current government. In order to win the majority support for its administration, the  Democratic Party  under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) made a coalition with four major Islamic parties PAN, PKB, PPP and PKS, which constantly show more and more conservative behaviour. Responding to the case of the Batak Church Setu, Bekasi, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali from the PPP blamed Christians for the closure of churches in the country, claiming that they had politicized an issue that was purely administrative in nature. He argues that in regions with Christian majority, Muslim communities were also facing the same problem but they would not talk to the press and would not protest or perform prayers in front of president’s palace. Earlier this year, he also mentioned a controversial statement regarding the attack against the Shiah community in Sampang claiming that Shiah’s teachings are deviant from Islam.

Furthermore, the request for an invitation to Indonesia by UN Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt, was not responded by the government. A source inside the government informed us that the invitation has not been granted, because of fears that such a visit would raise even more accusations of Western intervention.

Less tolerance in the society?

My standpoint is clear: It is a matter of fact that today’s Indonesian society is becoming less tolerant. But how do we explain it? Is this a new phenomenon, or just the blossoming of a plant which roots were always in existance?

The political processes in Indonesia’s post-independence era could be considered as the beginning of tensions among influential political groupings. The discussion around whether the Republic of Indonesia should be an Islamic theocracy or rather being based on secularism can be found in the debates within the BPUPKI (Badan Penyelidik Usaha Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia), a body which prepared the independence and facilitated the discussion on the Indonesian constitution. The Jakarta Charter was an agreement among different groups about the foundation of Indonesia as a state. A most debatable point in this Charter was the phrase »with the obligation for the adherents of the faith  to carry out islamic sharia«. This was rejected by nationalists and Christian groups who saw it as a threat to  the nation building process and the unity of the state. They argued that this phrase was discriminative and was not in line with the principle of a secular state. The compromise was to put the belief in God on the first point of Pancasila, the state foundation. To this degree, political process and actions at this era could be regarded as accommodative to all beliefs and ideologies. The first Indonesian President, Sukarno, was open for ideological debates in the political arena. However, this attitude did not overcome the persisting suspicions between both groups that the Muslim side will always intend to build an Islamic state and the Christians, associated with the colonizers, will always try to convert people to Christianity.

Under the New Order regime, the moves of religious organizations, particularly the Islamic ones, were marginalized. Political Islam was strictly controlled. Suharto  only allowed Pancasila as the single state ideology. Therefore the debate on ideology in state affairs was closed. The regime carried out an intensive economic ›development‹, and people, who tried to voice their grievances, would be accused as communists. Many victims, who had to give up their land or, who were expelled from their homeland for government projects, were pressed to accept repression and to be silent. Disappointment, isolation and abuses were growing among the people. After the fall of Suharto, the anger of more than 30 years injustice broke out; communal conflicts erupted in the late 90s and early 2000s such as in Maluku, Poso, and Sampit. Furthermore, Frans Magnis Suseno, an Indonesian intellectual and Jesuit priest contended rapid modernization as one of the reasons why communal conflicts escalated. By breaking down of traditional structures people lose grips – a momentum that makes  Indonesia’s plural society becoming fragile.


Indonesia without FPI

photo: Alex Flor

In current Indonesia, we observe the rise of radical groups such as the FPI (Front Pembela Islam; some rowdies claiming themselves as defenders of Islam). The absence of an intact state has been an advantage for such organizations, enabling them to influence public opinion. There is a tendency that people start to embrace the existence of FPI and its violent behaviour as a normality. Such inclinations must strongly be avoided. Last year aroused a civil initiative called ›Indonesia without FPI‹, a civil courage, which should be supported. However, the media coverage on this initiative was not comparable with the frequent media reports that ›raised‹ FPI’s popularity. A survey conducted by four mass media in Indonesia on the question, whether the FPI should be dismissed, resulted in more than 50% of the respondents saying they would like FPI to remain. Perhaps, it would be a good idea to learn from Germany, where an unwritten common agreement between most politicians and the media says that it needs to be avoided to offer any kind of public platform that could be used by the Neo-Nazi party to raise its profile by spreading fascist propaganda. In my opinion, this is an important and effective measure to restrict a party or an organization, without legally forbidding it.

In some mosques and several of the smaller society groups spreading hatred is common ground. I used to study at a university in West Java. Then it was common — and I believe until today it still is — to hear hate sermons broadcast by loudspeakers, when one coincidentally passed by the university’s mosque. University, a place where an individual learns to become a scholar who dedicates his/her life to science and humanity, has become a haven for radical groups to proliferate misunderstandings and disrespect for other religions.

The understanding of freedom is also a challenge, if we talk about Indonesian society. ›Reformasi‹ has become the gate to realize aspirations for freedom, particularly for freedom of expression. Radical groups – however some of them opposed to democratic values – are effectively using this fundamental democratic right for their own purposes. Not only that they perfectly know how to make use of conventional mass media like TV, radio, and print media, they are also very actively using new social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Besides that, they visit households in cities and villages, to propagate hate speeches through pengajian (communal Quran reading). Police or local governments in most cases do not take any measures to prevent these activities that clearly undermine Pancasila and therefore the very basics of the Republic of Indonesia’s unity. Apparently they are worried that any steps taken against radical Muslims could be judged as violations of the right to freedom of expression. Maybe some local politicians also fear to become less popular, if they do something ›against‹ religion. There’s no surprise, if religious intolerance amongst Indonesian people is on the rise. Even women, children and teenagers often can be seen shouting in support of attacks and mob actions.

Furthermore, religious groups, which are not directly affected, tend not to intervene or express their solidarity. ›As long as it is not an attack against my group, I’d rather keep in silence, otherwise I would encounter more problems‹, is a common excuse to describe passive behaviour.

What to do?

Some people might say that we need myths to gather people for achieving our goals. This would perhaps be appropriate for a tactical movement, but not for building a strong state foundation. Tolerance and respect between different groups in a plural society should be based on individual awareness, not on myths for the purpose of state propaganda. The government should understand the NGO’s reports on religious freedom as a tool for reflection and a starting point to act properly. A first step that could yield a good precedence is to enforce the city mayor of Bogor to execute the decision of the Supreme Court and if necessary to impose a sanction on him for disobedience. Here, equality before the law should be the key principle for state institutions to enforce the law. It is not the matter of favouring the majority, but to act justly and fairly.

It is the responsibility for all groups of Indonesia’s society to promote peaceful relationships and deeper understanding between different religious groups. First of all, the government should stop denying the fact of growing intolerance among Indonesia’s society. It must be acknowledged that radical groups influencing public opinion and mobbing minority groups have too long been tolerated. The discussion on nation building should be continued. Many politicians think that after 1945 or 1998, Indonesia was born and take it for granted. The problem is that the society is changing, new groups are emerging, and therefore there are always constant challenges to rearrange policy and politics.

On the other side, civil society groups promoting interfaith dialogues and tolerance should be supported and encouraged to intensify their works and develop more approaches. A sense of solidarity and respect should be promoted among religious groups and become a part of the school curriculum. Religious leaders should have the courage to show their support to the victimized groups. Awareness raising activities against violence should be nurtured in the society. Lastly, it is important to identify potential conflicts to prevent violent actions of the radical groups and society members from occurring. The myths should be broken, so that the society could start anew.

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