Thursday, February 10, 2011

Whose Indonesia?

This has been a rough week in Indonesia, especially for religious minorities. While the rest of the world watches to see whether widespread grassroots protest can or will yield real political change in Egypt, Indonesians find themselves wondering how to address a recidivist and religiously motivated backslide that threatens the future of pluralism in this undeniably multicultural and putatively tolerant nation-state.

Last weekend, Islamist zealots attacked and killed three members of a religious group considered apostate by hardline Muslims. Then, on Tuesday, Islamic fundamentalists rampaged through a Central Java city and burned two Christian churches.

The torching of the churches and a Catholic school building in Temanggung, a city about 30 minutes from Magelang, came after a local judge sentenced a Christian man to five years in prison for blaspheming Islam. The sentence was the maximum allowed under the law but protestors were unsatisfied. They sought the death penalty—the defendant last year had distributed leaflets critical of Islam—and when it wasn't handed down, they set out from the courthouse to the churches and, in full view of local police, burned them to the ground. One of the targeted churches is where my principal and his family worships. That same now-destroyed church is also the spiritual home of another friend, a college student from Jogjakarta whose grandmother and youngest sister live in the town where the arsons took place. The police have reportedly made several arrests but it's unclear how those cases will proceed. The arsonists are believed to belong to the radical Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, which has powerful political supporters throughout Indonesia. The country's president, who has been criticized in the past for being too soft on Muslim hardliners, has called for authorities to disband the FPI but public comments by other government officials make clear that not everyone in power supports that crackdown. The FPI and other fundamentalist organizations have significant electoral pull in some parts of the nation, especially on Java, and placating Islamists is part of the job description for any aspiring Indonesian politicians.

And no wonder politicians are slow to act. There's no organized voice for religious minorities here, certainly not one as loud or inflexible as those coming from the Muslim right. And Islamic hardliners, with their willingness to use violence against their enemies, silence dissent or real public discourse before it ever begins. Better not to make waves as a Christian or other religious minority. Better to be polite and acquiesce. A friend from the high school, an English teacher and Christian, told me the other day that while he was offended by the church burnings he understood where the radicals were coming from. The blasphemy trial defendant had insulted Islam and the actions of the mob in Temanggung were predictable and, in my friend's telling, almost reasonable. He equated distributing leaflets with burning churches. They are the same, really, he said. And anyway, Indonesian Muslims, he said, are not rational when it comes to religion. So an entire nation's notions of civil liberty or equal citizenship are held hostage by hotheads and thugs? My friend did not answer that last question. Instead, he did what many Javanese do when they're nervous: He laughed.

The victims of last Sunday's murders were members of the Ahmadiyah sect, an Islamic group that paradoxically believes Muhammad was not the final prophet. This unusual doctrinal stance makes the Ahmadiyah highly controversial and has made them the targets of repeated acts of violence and repression in Indonesia. The central government three years ago banned the group from openly practicing their religion or from spreading the teachings of their sect. Last fall, two members of the group, including a woman who was stabbed, were attacked on their way to a religious meeting. The media coverage of that earlier event decried the violence against the victims but in my conversations with Indonesians afterward I found an undercurrent of told-you-so unconcern. The Ahmadiyah had made a very uncomfortable bed for themselves—their beliefs are unusual, no?—and it's not surprising that they're singled out for attacks by bullies. My friends seemed unable to make a connection between religious persecution of one minority group and the potential persecution of another. But the church burnings this week seem to have changed that, at least for some. As my principal said in discussing the attack on his church: Not good, sir. Not good. In both attacks this week, the Islamists used fire. On Sunday, they burned a home where Ahmadiyah members were hiding in far West Java and then beat three of them to death when they emerged from the flaming, smoke-filled house. Two days later, a different group of Muslim fundamentalists torched the churches and school building in Central Java.

When he came to Jakarta last November, Barack Obama said Indonesia represented a kind of beacon of democratic hope in the Muslim world. This is the official line here: Founded out of anti-colonial struggle, Indonesia is a nation of many people and different beliefs, a polyglot, multiethnic, religiously free country strengthened by Bhinneka Tunngal Ika, or Unity in Diversity. But is it? The question for all minorities here, religious and ethnic alike, Christian and Papuan and all the rest, is this: Whose country is this?

Clearly that question must be answered by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general and second-term, once-upon-a-time reformer who greeted Obama with much pomp and a state dinner that featured fried rice and meatball soup. He's got the power but commentators and citizens alike wonder if he's got the will. As an op-ed piece in today's Jakarta Globe puts it (read the entire piece here:

The way forward would seem to lie, for now, with Yudhoyono, who will rule until 2014. The vision of a modern, prosperous and diverse Indonesia is within reach, but only if the president reaffirms a real commitment to the secular and tolerant state founded in 1945. To do that he must take steps to repeal the overtly Islamic blasphemy law and the thinly veiled Islamic Puritanism of the 2008 pornography statute. He must see that the police finally break their ties with radical Islamic militias and adequately punish groups who pursue vendettas against minorities on the basis of religion. In short, he must govern on behalf of all Indonesians not just the intolerant few.

One hopes he is up to the challenge.

I don't know if Yudhoyono is up to it but I am hopeful that Indonesians of all faiths—even the non-believers, who have no official standing in this country—are willing to press for a stronger secular state that is governed by law and not by corruption or by religious extremism. That both the Ahmadiyah and church arson attacks this week took place with police looking on suggests just how much work remains to be done here.

Are Indonesians up to the challenge?

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