May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Stopping intolerance

Stopping intolerance

Government must act to halt growing discrimination against minorities

An interview with Zainal Abidin Bagir

‘Relocation of the Sampang Shi’ites = Anti-Pancasila’. A protest in Jakarta. Abdul MalikQ: In your recent report on the state of religion in Indonesia, you worry about rising intolerance. How bad is it, and what forms does it take?

There are two critical issues, and they both involve bad regulations that lead to abuses against minorities. First, the 1965 law on the prevention of abuse and defamation of religion has encouraged certain religious groups to accuse minorities of ‘defaming’ their religion. Vigilante groups have organised violent protests against members of the ‘deviant’ Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in many places from 2005 onwards. The radical activist group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is the best known among them. Mainstream Islamic figures agree that Ahmadiyah is deviant, but they have not supported these attacks.

Other groups have launched court cases against minority religious groups. After the Constitutional Court upheld the law in 2010, allegations of defamation and deviancy have increased significantly. There were 11 court cases last year alone, compared with less than ten over the entire period between 1965 and 1998. As the criteria for being ‘deviant’ (sesat) widen, the target has expanded from mystical Javanese sects in 1965 (kebatinan) to Islamic groups much closer to the mainstream, such as Ahmadiyah and now Shi’a. I’m afraid the next target will be unorthodox sufi groups, as is already happening in Aceh.

Second, strict permission procedures for the erection of houses of worship have been exploited by the same groups to harass minorities. In our last report we discussed issues with churches in Aceh Singkil district. Two church cases closer to Jakarta are still prominent in the news: GKI Taman Yasmin in Bogor, and HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi. In each case a growing religious community needs a larger house of worship, but a local majority resists that. Organised groups from outside have turned these cases into national issues. Until a few years ago such attacks were restricted to a few areas. They have now spread to others. Now it is not only churches. Mosques in some Muslim-minority areas have also become a problem, although to a lesser extent. This is what happens when the government fails to solve the problem: it spreads. This is very worrying. Instead of strong political will, we have seen one excuse after another for not taking it seriously.

If law is expected to transform society, the use of legal language such as ‘defamation’ or ‘deviance’ transforms society badly. Similar violent incidents have happened repeatedly in recent years. Some drag on and become much more difficult to solve. More than 100 Ahmadis have sought refuge in Mataram since 2006. Hundreds of Shi’a Muslims in Sampang have faced the same fate since 2012. Other potential conflicts are also not being handled well and threaten to escalate.

However, let us keep it in perspective. Terrorism and large-scale communal violence have receded because the government acted effectively. So if it were not for the two problems of defamation and houses of worship, we would not feel the situation is particularly bad. Indonesia is still more or less religiously harmonious in many places, and democracy is working.

Q: All the incidents you mention took place in provincial towns. Why is that?

Yes, not all of Indonesia is affected by these problems uniformly. West Java has had many problems with these two issues (though recently the police have brought some perpetrators to justice for attacks against Ahmadiyah). In 2012 Aceh saw significant defamation issues, leading to three deaths, and there were more problems with churches.

Q: Acts of intimidation against minority religious groups started with reformasi. First it was small radical groups like the FPI, but now much larger groups agree minorities are a problem. Politicians become afraid to act. What causes this escalation? Smart tactics by FPI? Intolerance among the broader public? Local governments seeking popularity in democratic Indonesia?

All the factors you mention play a role, but the main problem lies with local and central governments. It is very misleading to say, as our minister of religious affairs has several times, that these problems are only administrative. Law enforcement does not work. When local governments and security officials do not act it emboldens hardliners. I don’t think they are afraid to act, because sometimes they do and then we don’t read about it in the newspaper. But there is not enough incentive for them to act boldly on these two issues. It is not important enough to them. I heard that all the recent candidates for district head in Sampang, Madura, held similar views on what they would do about the Shi’ites. If any of them had defended the Shi’a community they felt it would set them apart from other candidates negatively. Interestingly, the incumbent in Sampang had been the boldest in speaking out against the Shi’a community, and he lost the election. So such an issue doesn’t always sell. And they forget that there is also a political risk in inaction.

Decentralisation has made local mayors, district heads and governors so powerful that they sometimes go against the central government. In the case of GKI Taman Yasmin in Bogor, even the President basically said he could not constitutionally be involved. He left it to the local leaders. This is true in non-religious issues too. At the same time, national political leaders tend to consider such concerns to be relatively minor. Religious freedom is not a popular issue among any of the parties in parliament. Even the dramatic attacks on the Ahmadis in Cikeusik and Shi’ites in Sampang only stayed in the headlines for a few days. This was not like the large-scale communal violence of some years ago. It did reach international forums, but somehow the government always got away with merely a normative response.

The fact that religious issues are not always effective politically can actually be positive. Religion may leverage your position a few points in local elections, but if you are weak in other points, it will not save you.  The unlikely victory of Jokowi and his non-Muslim, ethnic Chinese running mate Ahok in the Jakarta governor’s election proved that. They beat the incumbent Fauzi Bowo, who was supported by FPI, Rhoma Irama and other Muslim organisations using religious arguments. They were too strong on other points, so the religious attacks ultimately were ineffective.

The main issue is not intolerance but what we call the ‘management of diversity’. This involves central and local government policy, conflict prevention and resolution, and law enforcement. It also means doing more to deal with potential or imminent conflict between groups. We recommend avoiding legal or rights-based approaches as much as possible. Religious grievances since reformasi are more frequently framed in legal terms: for example, building permits for churches and the religious defamation law. Yet we have big problems enforcing the law, from the police level up to the Supreme Court—and not only on religious matters.

Moreover, our regulations, especially on defamation, are poor. The defamation law is old and bad, yet it is being used more and more. The regulation concerning houses of worship was improved slightly in 2006 but it still makes life difficult for minorities. It created an instrument called the Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB) to resolve problems. There are now around 500 of them. With the exception of a number of such forums at the district and provincial level, they have not performed well and have sometimes caused new problems. This has happened despite some progressive new laws and a constitutional amendment that should have improved religious freedoms.

Rather than rights-based approaches, we recommend mediation. This already happens a lot. Yet it is not always done well because too often the victims have to pay the biggest price. But there are also success stories. We can develop our ability to mediate. Of course I do not say we should forget law, but changing bad laws has been a priority for so long that we forgot to strengthen our society’s capacity for mediation.

Q: In your report you say government leaders often blame the victims of religious intimidation rather than the perpetrators. They urge minority groups to move elsewhere, as if they had no right to live where they do. This would have been unimaginable under the New Order. Why is government today so much weaker?

First, the New Order was not that good either. The harmony was on the surface. Suharto decided who would be the victims—at different points of time they were the alleged communists, Muslims, Christians, and other groups. Transmigration was also a policy of relocation, sometimes by force, though for different reasons.

In any case, second, just as in other democratising countries, the government tends to be weak, or even has to be weakened to give more space for people. Decentralisation weakens central government power, to an extent that is not always clear. Sometimes the president finds this convenient. On things that do not matter much to him, he can be seen to be making compromises. In this case, democracy is not the explanation for his inaction, but an excuse. In cases like this, which have deteriorated because local governments are unable or unwilling to act, the president himself surely has to act.

Even international human rights institutions, such as the United Nation Human Rights Council, cannot force the government to act. Only a few countries have pressed Indonesia on its treatment of minorities and their questions did not go very far. They consider Indonesia’s human rights record is not bad overall.

Q: Other fragile democracies treat their minorities badly too. Burma's Rohingya, Pakistan's Christians/ Hindus/ Ahmadis, Iraq's Sunnis, Egypt's Copts. Minorities are particularly vulnerable at election time. Is this the dark side of democracy?

This shows that democracy should not only be about elections and other institutions. It also means better protection of minorities. With time, I think our democracy will mature. Indonesia’s democracy is better and more stable than those you mention, especially Pakistan and Iraq. Indonesia is more like India, Turkey and Senegal, which all show the success of building a democracy in a religious society. Of course more incidents force us to be more cautious. It is difficult to say that religion should not play a public role in a country like Indonesia. It has done so throughout our history and in my opinion it can continue to play roles in a democracy. But we worry about religious expression that leads to violence and discrimination.

Q: Is there a democratic way to solve this in the short term?  All the democratic solutions you mention in your report seem to be inadequate. You mention mediation, but acknowledge that in practice this often involves blaming the victims. You hope the central government will show more spine, but you know they have shown none the last few years because they are afraid of the voters.

We are now at the point of no turning back. There’s no alternative to democratic solutions. I am still optimistic that most of this is temporary. The problems are not uniformly widespread; in some places leaders have acted tough and kept minorities safe, and police have also done well; in other places budding conflicts have been solved or mitigated. People are not stupid. Democracy can give them ways to punish bad leaders. Our civil society is strong. That is what has saved Indonesia so far. But of course civil society’s strength has limits. If the government, both local and central, does not act to solve these problems immediately, I’m afraid they will grow like a cancer, and our life in Indonesia will be much more difficult.


Zainal Abidin Bagir directs the postgraduate Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University. He is one of the authors of the ‘Annual Report on Religious Life in Indonesia 2012’ (‘Laporan Tahunan Kehidupan Beragama di Indonesia 2012’, He was interviewed by Gerry van Klinken.

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013{jcomments on}

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