September 23, 2013

The Indonesian Model: Images of Religious Equality, Realities of Islamic Inequality

Indonesia has appeared “for a long time as a role model” for Muslim-majority societies seeking to maintain equality before the law for all believers, Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW) South Asia expert Benedict Rogers stated at a Hudson Institute briefing on September 12, 2013.  Yet the past and present of the world’s largest Muslim community belie in reality rhetoric of Islamic religious tolerance, a troubling fact for Christians and others worldwide seeking domestic peace in the lands of Islam.

Rogers addressed the topic “Pluralism in Peril in Southeast Asia:  Radical Islamism in Indonesia and Militant Buddhism in Burma.”  To exemplify Indonesia’s traditional measure of interfaith coexistence, Rogers showed slides of Jakarta’s Catholic cathedral adjacent to, and sharing parking space with, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, the Istiqlal (Independence) Mosque.  Yet Rogers presentation emphasized that this religious pluralism is “increasingly under threat” in Indonesia and Buddhist-majority Burma as well.

Rogers referenced grassroots Sunni Islamic supremacist developments in Indonesia previously discussed by him in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).  Mayors responding to local political pressures, for example, had blocked the building of churches under a “zero church” policy.  This occurred even after successful defenses of their building permits all the way to Indonesia’s Supreme Court, making religious freedom a “rule of law issue.”  A 2010 International Crisis Group study, meanwhile, documents how fears of “Christianization” in the form of this faith’s growing influence and number of converts have become a rallying cry for hardline Indonesian Muslims.

The Front Pembela Islam (FPI or Islamic Defenders Front), described by Rogers as “essentially a vigilante mob” and “protection racket,” adds terror to the pressures faced by non-Sunni Muslim communities.  “There is no religious freedom here anymore,” one female pastor said to Rodgers during his May 2012 visit.  Indonesia’s Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims, the latter deemed heretical by orthodox Muslims yet having an “extremely peaceful interpretation of Islam” according to Rogers, are likewise under threat.  “Let the outside world know that we are not safe in our own homes any longer,” an Ahmadiyya said in a quotation in both the WSJ article and the briefing.  “It is not free anymore 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.”

Complementing vigilante violence, the government in a June 9, 2008, decree banned the dissemination of Ahmadiyyah teachings.  This in accord with a 1965 presidential decree banning the teaching of a “deviant interpretation” of Indonesia’s officially recognized faiths.  These six religions recognized by the Indonesian government are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, with Confucianism recognized again since 2000 after an interval of non-recognition beginning in 1979.  The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that since 2003 150 Indonesians have suffered punishment for “deviant” teachings or outright “blasphemy” under Indonesia’s Article 156(a).

The FPI is “not particularly ideological,” but other groups such as the Indonesian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir provide an “intellectual and ideological framework” for Islamic supremacy.  Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, meanwhile, “has made inflammatory comments numerous times,” Rogers recounted.  The Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia or MUI), a grouping of Indonesian Islamic groups including HT, is also “very conservative,” having “some Islamist elements.”  The Islamic legal opinions or fatwas of MUI against the Ahmadiyya and religious pluralism have contributed to a “downward spiral” of intolerance in Indonesia.

While Rogers mentioned Saudi Arabian and Yemeni financial support for militant Muslim groups in Indonesia, tacit government support was significant as well.  Although “there are good people in the Indonesian government,” Rodgers considers official concern for religious equality a “myth.”  In this respect Rogers cited criticism of the American Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a group promoting religious freedom, for having awarded Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono its 2013 World Statesman Award.  Various so-called “green generals” in the military, meanwhile, supported Islamist agendas.  Various generals had helped create FPI and the government could disband it if desired, one FPI leader had argued to Rogers.

Indonesian polling data buttresses Rogers’ concerns.  A 2011 survey of 59 private and 41 public non-religious schools showed that 48% of the polled students accepted using violence to solve religious and moral problems.  Among the teachers, 28% agreed with these students.   A 2010 survey of Indonesian journalists, meanwhile, found 63% of surveyed journalists supporting MUI fatwas criticizing secularism, liberalism, and religious pluralism.  Likewise, 64% backed banning the Ahmadiyya.

Contention over Islam and the state is actually nothing new for Indonesia.  Rogers described a “real struggle” between a “pluralistic outlook” and an “Islamic state” in formulating a constitution during the Indonesian republic’s founding.  In particular, the Jakarta Charter “very nearly succeeded” in incorporating a reference to sharia Islamic law in the constitution’s preamble.  Over a decade after Indonesian independence from the Dutch in 1949, jihadist groups such as Darul Islam continued to fight the Indonesian government.  Throughout these struggles, Rogers noted, Indonesia has “in fact” only maintained a “limited religious freedom” with respect to officially recognized faiths.

Rogers feared that religious intolerance could become even worse in Indonesia, particularly with respect to Buddhism in the context of hostility faced by Christians and Muslims in Burma.  There Buddhist groups such as 969 with government support were “fomenting already deep-seated prejudices” in violent repression of Burma’s Muslim Rohingya community, repression that could spread to all Burmese Muslims.  Recent retaliatory attacks by Muslims upon Buddhists in Indonesia made Rogers fearful of a “continuing cycle of violence,” with Buddhist-Muslim sectarian conflict in Burma and Indonesia “feeding off each other.”

Rogers saw dialogue as one answer to sectarian conflict in Indonesia and elsewhere.  With respect to FPI youth, “changing their minds is not difficult.”  The Hudson Institute’s Paul Marshall similarly suggested at the briefing that many non-devout Muslims often support militant Muslim groups similar to a sports team such as Manchester United, in a kind of “Team Islam” mentality.  One reformed FPI leader, meanwhile, said to Rogers that Sunni and Ahmadiyya Muslims agree on 90% of Islam’s tenets, and the remaining 10% is not that significant.

In all, though, Rogers’ briefing was a sobering assessment of Indonesia, a country often cited as a counterpoint to numerous well-known examples of Islamic repression.  Indeed, Rogers was reminiscent of a Hudson Institute panel four months previously on “The Rise of Islamism: Its Impact on Religious Minorities.”  There the former Pakistani parliamentarian and scholar Farahnaz Ispahani had noted that visions of a secular society predominated among her country’s leadership at its founding in 1947, but today Pakistan is an Islamic Republic repressing non-Muslim religious minorities.  Another commonly cited model along with Indonesia of Muslims coexisting with modernity is Turkey, also drifting in recent years towards more official manifestations of Islamic zealotry.

In all three cases, often top-down efforts to disestablish Islam, separate mosque from state, and create a non-sectarian society with equality for all religious beliefs have ultimately failed to win the allegiance of many grassroots Muslim believers.  After all, Christians who recognize a distinction between God and the state’s Caesar also know from Acts 5:29 that the former has primacy over the latter.  Muslims advocating norms of Islamic supremacy would argue as well that they are simply obeying God as dictated by their faith rather than any state-sponsored secularity.  Such contrasting visions of duty to God and country distinguish Christian and Muslim orthodoxy concerning whether public authorities who “bear the sword” according to Romans 13 are merely an instrument of security or of salvation as well.

Christians like Rogers must heed Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount that “blessed are the peacemakers” and continue out of Christian love to advocate interfaith reconciliation and equality around the world.  Yet with respect to Islam such calls will often have scant scriptural support among the believers.  Indeed, many students of Islam would quibble with Rogers’ recently published assertions that “hate speech is completely contrary to the teachings of the great religions of the world” and that their “core teachings” contain equal goodness.

Here Christians will often have to resort to basic appeals of logic and human decency anchored in modern international human rights norms.  Nonetheless, Christians would do well to remember that Muslims and all other human beings, whatever their faith, bear the image (Genesis 1:27) of a loving God (1 John 4:8) and can recognize Creation’s natural laws (Romans 1:19-20).  Where there is humanity, there is always hope.


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