Indonesia has long been celebrated for its pluralism, but there are signs that this may be about to change

Earlier this summer, I spent a month travelling around Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and third-largest democracy. It is a nation with much to celebrate, particularly its remarkable transition from dictatorship to democracy, and its reputation for religious harmony and pluralism, symbolised by Jakarta’s Catholic church and the Istiqlal Mosque, which stand across the road from each other and sometimes share a car park. These achievements, however, are increasingly under threat.

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?

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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. He has also given speeches to the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the most powerful body of clerics, promising them “a central role in matters regarding the Islamic faith”. In 2005, he told the ultra-conservative MUI: “We open our hearts and minds to receiving the thoughts, recommendations and fatwas [religious rulings] from the MUI at any time.” The MUI promptly issued a fatwa calling for the banning of the Ahmadiyya and fatwas against pluralism, secularism and liberalism. Two years later, the president said: “After a fatwa is issued, the tools of the state can do their duty … We must all take strict measures against deviant beliefs.” A year later, a government decree placed a ban on Ahmadiyya propagation.

Violations are growing year on year. These include closure of churches and Ahmadi mosques, violent attacks on religious minorities and imprisonment of religious leaders. According to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, in 2012 264 incidents were documented, compared with 244 in 2011, 2016 in 2010 and 200 in 2009. Many churches that have been closed already have licences, but local mayors, under pressure from Islamists, have still forced them to shut down. In at least two cases, churches have challenged the local authorities in the court, all the way to the supreme court. At every level the courts ruled in the churches’ favour, but the local mayors refuse to allow them to re-open, defying the courts and undermining the rule of law.

On my recent visit, I met the imam of the Ahmadi mosque in Bekasi, just outside Jakarta. His mosque has been forcibly sealed, but he has chosen to stay inside, to prevent the authorities, and the extremist thugs known as the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) or Islamic Defenders Front, taking it over. He told me: “We want the international community to know what has happened here. We have tried to negotiate, we have tried to obey, but we are asking for solidarity because what is happening here is illegal. There is a big problem in Indonesia.”

I went from Bekasi to Tasikmalaya, where the Ahmadi community had been attacked in the middle of the night just two weeks previously. One Ahmadi told me: “Let the outside world know that we are not safe in our own homes any longer. It is not free any more for us to believe what we want, to live a normal life, because there is always someone who wants to force us not to believe what we want to believe. All we want is to live in peace and freely believe what we want. That is all.”

The one cause for hope is the unity of those from different religions who are suffering. It was an Ahmadi who took me to a Catholic church in Surabaya and to the displaced Shia people who fled their village after a violent attack by a Sunni mob. Three Protestants took me to another Catholic church, in the suburbs of Jakarta, where Islamist mobs had protested daily – although in this particular instance the local police, and the Governor of Jakarta, had taken action to protect the church. A prominent Jesuit priest and scholar, Franz-Magnis Suseno, SJ, published an open letter speaking up not only for Christians, but for Ahmadis and Shias, too. And two Muslims took me to visit Alexander Aan, a young man jailed for two and a half years in a remote prison in the mountains in West Sumatra.

I have visited Alex twice. He comes from a Muslim background, and declared himself an atheist on Facebook. He was charged under two laws, and jailed. When I first visited him a year ago, I told him I worked for Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He looked astonished. “You know I am an atheist?”

I replied: “I do, and that’s why I am here. I believe passionately that freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must include the freedom not to believe. You and I have different beliefs, but no one should
be jailed for their beliefs, and I’d like to help defend your freedom.”

He looked even more astonished, and then shared his story. Our conversation ended in a strangely beautiful way. I asked if he had read any of the late Christopher Hitchens’s books. He hadn’t heard of him. I told him that, even though there is much that Hitchens and I would disagree fundamentally about,

I admired his intellect, writing and defence of freedom. In turn, Alex told me that he had read the New Testament and admired our Lord’s teachings. “This is wonderful,” I concluded. “I am a Christian recommending an atheist writer to you. You are an atheist, telling me about the Bible. This is what freedom of conscience is all about – the freedom to exchange ideas and explore one another’s beliefs, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, even if it takes place in a prison.”

This year I went back to see Alex, taking the same flight to Padang from Jakarta, and then a four-hour drive through the mountains to the prison in Sijungjung. Alex greeted me with a warm hug. As we talked, he slipped a piece of paper into my hand. “Take it out, publish it for me online,” he whispered. I slipped it into my pocket.

The English is broken, but the essence is clear: “May everything [be] in goodness and happiness,” it begins. “I love all. I cannot accept doctrine which separates some people from others. Let’s live together in love, fight in love, without violence, but with love and brains.”
Speaking up for one another in the cause of religious freedom, and against intolerance, is for me both a moral and biblical imperative and a practical necessity. If we limit ourselves only to speaking for our own kind, are we really fulfilling Christ’s commands? We do, certainly, have a responsibility to speak for persecuted Christians, but when others are persecuted alongside them, we must speak for all. The voice of the Ahmadi in Indonesia is also the voice of the Shia and the Christian and a jailed atheist, and our voice is more likely to be heard if we speak in unity, for each other and against hatred and intolerance.

So what is the future? In 2014, there will be presidential elections, and SBY will not run again. The new president has a challenge: will he allow Indonesia to continue on the path of rising intolerance, or will he stand up to the Islamists and uphold Indonesia’s traditions. Some commentators suggest it may be too late. Ahmed Suaedy, a Muslim scholar at the Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue and Peace, says “we are seeing the mainstreaming of intolerance”.

The Catholic Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo of Jakarta says “the future depends on the government”. If the government upholds law and order, he concludes, “the radicals will not have strength”. But, he adds, “as long as the government uses religion as an instrument of power, I am afraid it will get worse. It can easily get worse, but it should be better.” He fears “Pakistanisation”, a phrase increasingly used in Indonesia to warn of the direction the country could be heading in. Indonesia is not Pakistan today. But if action is not taken to reign in the Islamists, change the discourse, review discriminatory laws, protect vulnerable communities, bring perpetrators of violence to justice, and uphold freedom of religion for all, Indonesia’s pluralism will be in grave peril, and the world will have lost its role model of pluralistic, progressive Muslim-majority democracy.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, based in London. He is currently writing a major report, Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril, to be published in January 2014

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