Islam’s most populous nation, Indonesia, is the most diverse nation imaginable — a far-flung archipelego of 13,466 islands where 238 million people speaking 742 languages live in everything from luxurious skyscraper penthouses to squalid cardboard slums, mountainside-hugging bamboo huts and rain-forest tree houses.
The government only recognizes six religions. Census figures show the population is overwhelmingly Muslim at 86.1 percent with 9 percent Christian (Catholic and Protestant combined), 3 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist and 1 percent Confucianist.
And while freedom of religion is guaranteed by the national constitution, the minority religions complain of an official bias toward Islam, write university professors Moh Yasir Alimi and Salim H. Ali in separate articles in the Jakarta Post and the International Herald Tribune.
“Four men, traumatized, terrorized and stigmatized, sat in a Jakarta apartment and described to me how they were almost killed by a Muslim mob earlier this year,” writes Benedict Rogers of the London-based human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide in a guest column in the Wall Street Journal:
One was stripped naked, beaten to a pulp, a machete held at his throat. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting “kill, kill, kill.” He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim.
The four were members of Indonesia’s Ahmadiyya community, a Muslim sect regarded by other Muslims as heretical. They were victims of an attack in Cikeusik, Banten province, on February 6. More than 1,500 Muslims attacked 21 Ahmadis, killing three. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called for a full investigation.
If Cikeusik was an isolated incident, it could be dismissed as a tragedy. Sadly, such tragedies are increasingly frequent. Last month I visited Cisalada, West Java, the scene of a similarly violent attack in October. Houses had broken windows boarded up, and some had been burned. A mob had thrown Molotov cocktails at the Ahmadi mosque and carried samurai swords. Anti-Ahmadi abuse was scrawled on the walls.
“Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism, enshrined in its state ideology “pancasila,” is now under increasing threat,” worries Rogers. “The world’s largest Muslim-majority nation has won applause for its religious tolerance and remarkable transition from authoritarianism to democracy, but these achievements are undermined by an increasingly vocal, violent Islamist minority. Under pressure from Islamists, the government banned the dissemination of Ahmadiyya teachings in 2008.”
Indeed, the rise of militant Islam has caused some in Indonesia to warn of “Pakistanization,” notes Rogers. In Pakistan, non-Muslims live under constant threat of being charged with “blasphemy,” which can be punishable by death and has no defense. The accused or their sympathizers, if non-Muslims, cannot testify against Muslims.
And so, new laws favoring Indonesia’s Muslim majority are worrisome. “The anti-Ahmadiyah decrees in Pandeglang West Java and most recently in East Java have incited fears among many hearts that the country is heading towards ‘Pakistanization.'” writes Moh Yasir Alimi, a lecturer at Semarang State University in Central Java, Indonesia.
Indonesia should not choose as a role model Pakistan, writes Alimi in the Jakata Post, one of the Indonesian capital city’s daily newspapers. Pakistan, far from being a model, is “a failed state” and “a laboratory of abuse in the name of religion.”
A country built upon egalitarian values, Pakistan is now a place devastated by religious vigilantes, a place suffocated by the rancid smell of blood, a place where Ahmadiyah, Islamic sects and religious minorities are persecuted, a place where bombings take place every day, weakening the power of the nation to build.
Alimi worries that new restrictive decrees in Indonesia’s heavily Muslim provinces of West Java and East Java “will criminalize the religious activities of Ahmadiyah and will embolden religious extremists to further persecute Ahmadiyah followers. The ordinances look like a license to kill.”
Ahmadiyah is a sect of Islam that fundamentalists consider blasphemous. Its founder claimed to fulfill the prophecies of the return of Jesus Christ, Islam’s “Hidden Imam” Messiah-figure, the Buddha and Hinduism’s god Krishna. By decree, Ahmadi Muslims are denied many rights enjoyed by Pakistan’s majority Sunni Muslims. The result, writes Alimi:
… is frightening: murder before the police, mosque attacks, expulsions of Ahmadis from many state universities, widespread violence, exclusion of Ahmadis from votes, arson attacks on their homes, businesses and mosques, desecration of their graves and more.
We fear that Indonesia can fall in the same situation. As the state fails to protect its citizens, many groups in society will create their own paramilitary armies to protect themselves. We can predict the consequence of such a situation.
Therefore, not only are the ordinances in West Java and East Java a blatant violation of international human rights law, the Constitution, the dreams of our founding fathers, but they will threaten our national security and the existence of the nation.
The deepest moral crises take place when religious leaders begin to see other people merely from their outer dress, not from their inner humanity. When these two characteristics are absent, the blessings of God will leave us.
But it’s not just the Ahmadis who are suffering in Indonesia, writes Rogers in the Journal:
Christians are also under pressure. Radical Islamists have stirred tensions and forced churches to close. Even churches that have legal registration and secured Supreme Court rulings in their favor have remained sealed, their congregations forced to worship in the street. According to the Setara Institute in Indonesia, 91 violations of religious freedom were documented in 2010, at least 75 of which affected Christians.
Both Ahmadis and Christians warn that if their persecution continues, Indonesia could fracture.
Some warn that it is only a matter of time before there is ‘Sudan-ization,’ of Indonesia — a splitting of the country between Muslims and minorities — as has now happened with north and south Sudan. Indonesia does have constitutional and legal protections for minorities — but outside observers are concerned at the persecution of non-Muslims, writes Rogers:
In fact, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, in a letter to Indonesia’s foreign minister in April, called for a review of all laws restricting religious freedom, to “ensure they comply” with Indonesia’s own constitution and international covenants.
The core problem is the weakness of the government. President Yudhoyono makes tepid statements condemning violence, but takes no action to protect minorities. Perpetrators of violence are arrested, but face minor charges and paltry punishments.
Indonesia’s traditional “moderation is eroding,” writes Saleem Ali in the International Herald Tribune:
Last year, Indonesia had an appalling spate of violence against Ahmadis and Christians, reminiscent of Pakistan. During my visit to Indonesia, the leader of one of the Islamic schools in Java refused to allow his students to sing the Indonesian national anthem or respect the flag, branding the practice un-Islamic. It appears that the tropical ‘paradise’ of these lands is being eclipsed by the seductive absolutist shortcut to heaven offered by many clerics.
A group of fanatical women in Malaysia influenced, inter alia, by individuals such as Pakistan’s evangelical lady of middle-class piety, Dr Farhat Hashmi, have set up an ‘Obedient Wives Club’. Their motto, according to one of the founders, Rohayah Mohamed, also a medical doctor, is to “obey, serve and entertain.”
No mention is made by these good doctors of how such a servile inculcation among women has set them up for abuse in so many societies by dominant men. Why can’t these well-intentioned ladies suggest good family values of mutual respect rather than asymmetric empowerment that has proven to lead to exploitation?
BBC correspondent Mishal Husain asked the Indonesian foreign minister, at an interview after the World Economic Forum, if Indonesia was afraid of being ‘Pakistanised.’
That fear is very real and palpable for moderate Muslims in the region.
Recent attrocities against Christians and other minorities “have tarnished Indonesia’s international reputation as a tolerant society,” writes Rogers.
The rise of radicalism is not only a problem between Indonesians. We need the international community to be a watchdog. If there is no help from the international community, we are hopeless, we will be destroyed.
If Indonesia abandons pluralism, the geopolitical consequences will be significant. The democratic success of the largest Muslim-majority country will be in jeopardy. The world will have lost a role model of tolerant, moderate Islam, which doesn’t bode well for the success of democratic revolutions in the Middle East.
It is in all our interests to ensure that does not happen.