Intolerance in Indonesia becoming mainstream

Intolerance rising

I recently spent a month travelling around Indonesia. It has much to celebrate, particularly its transition from dictatorship to democracy, and its reputation for religious harmony. These achievements, however, are increasingly under threat.

- Benedict Rogers, The Catholic Herald

During my travels through the world’s largest archipelago, I went to prison twice, to visit an atheist jailed for his beliefs and also a Shia Muslim cleric imprisoned for blasphemy. I met a Christian pastor who had previously been jailed because his church was unlicensed.

I visited Shia and Ahmadi Muslims living in displacement camps after they had fled their villages following brutal attacks. The Ahmadiyya community, whose motto is “Love for all, Hatred for none”, consider themselves Muslim, but are regarded as heretical by many others. I went to Ahmadi mosques which had been forcibly closed, in one instance sealed with 20 Ahmadis still inside, and I saw churches that had been shut down or bulldozed.

I heard of plots to bomb Buddhist temples, and met adherents of traditional beliefs not recognised by the state who told me of the discrimination they face. I even met a Confucian, who had received threats when he tried to convene a Confucian gathering. So can we still say Indonesia is a nation of religious harmony?

Indonesia’s founding philosophy, the Pancasila, its motto “Unity in Diversity”, and its constitution provide equal protection for six recognised religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Traditionally, Indonesian Muslims have followed a moderate strand of Islam, perhaps because it came to the archipelago peacefully, through traders, and was often mixed with local beliefs, rather than being brought by the sword.

There was an attempt in 1945 to introduce sharia law, but the founding president, Sukarno, and his pluralistic vision prevailed. In recent years, however, those who want to turn the country into an Islamic state have grown louder and more aggressive, and gained influence over policy-makers.

It is wrong to dismiss Islamists in Indonesia as a small fringe, whom the Indonesian government is struggling to fight. While many Indonesians remain committed to religious harmony, and voices of moderation within Government are appalled at the direction the country is heading in, president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his ministers are doing nothing to fight intolerance – and are not only negligent, but complicit. Not only has “SBY”, as he is known, failed to act to protect religious minorities, but over the past decade, his government has introduced laws which violate religious freedom.

Photo: An Ahmadi man stands outside a burned down home in Lombok

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