The Paradox of Indonesia’s Democracy and Religious Freedom

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By
M. Syafi’i Anwar
Guest Blogger

More than three decades ago, Indonesia was widely regarded as a wellspring of moderate Islam. The leading U.S. magazine Newsweek described the country as the home of “the smiling Islam,” insisting that the Indonesian version of the faith was more friendly and tolerant than that found in the Middle East. But history has moved Indonesia into a new religio-political situation.

Since the 1998 collapse of Soeharto’s New Order authoritarian regime, constitutional democracy in Indonesia has been progressing. The country has experienced three rounds of democratic and transparent general elections (1999, 2004, and 2009), the development of a vibrant press, and the rise of civil society movements. As a result, Indonesia has been deemed the world’s third largest democracy by population, after India and the United States.

However, the emergence of Indonesia’s democracy has been accompanied by an unintended phenomenon: the decline of religious freedom. The growing influence of militant Islamist groups has significantly contributed to this problem. They promote antipluralist ideologies and intolerant attitudes toward religious minorities like Ahmadis and Christians, threatening the future of democracy in the world’s largest Muslim country. In addition to inciting hatred and discrimination, they have mobilized mass support for communal violence. The evidence shows that these militant Islamists have attacked and even killed members of religious minorities over the last several years.  The Wahid Institute’s Report on Religious Freedom in Indonesia (2011) shows an 18 percent increase in religious intolerance in various provinces and cities compared with the previous year (2010).  Meanwhile, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace noted that there were 299 cases related to violence against religious freedom in 2011. The report also shows that West Java, East Java, and South Sulawesi provinces were ranked at the highest level of religious intolerance.

Not surprisingly, Indonesia has lost something of its former reputation and is increasingly seen as a home to “the angry Islam.” The government appears unable to control the militant Islamists, and religious freedom in the country is now at a crossroads.

There are five main factors causing the decline of religious freedom in Indonesia: (1) lack of law enforcement, (2) contradictory regulations related to the protection of citizenship rights and religious minorities, (3) the spread of intolerant ideologies and hostile attitudes toward religious others, (4) the weak leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and (5) the central government’s laissez-faire approach to local religious persecution.

The first factor refers to the inability or unwillingness of the police to maintain security and control  militant Islamists. Moreover, court verdicts on violent acts of religious persecution have been unfair and unjust. For example, a court decided to punish the perpetrators of a deadly February 2011 attack on the Ahmadi community in Cikeusik, West Java, by sentencing them to between three and six months in prison. One Ahmadi victim was even sentenced to six months in jail for attempting to defend himself from the mob. Many human rights institutions have protested such decisions, but have been unable to change them.

Contradictions related to the protection of minority groups can be seen in a number of regulations issued by the Indonesian government. For instance, the Joint Ministerial Decree on Ahmadiyah in 2008, which banned the group from carrying out certain basic activities, clearly conflicted with the spirit of the Indonesian constitution and international human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). So too did the 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree on Construction of Houses of Worship, which imposes a multilayered approval process for new religious buildings.

The spread of militant Islamist ideologies and intolerant attitudes is also problematic for Indonesia’s status as a plural and multicultural society. With their emphasis on a strict, legalistic, and exclusive understanding of Shari’a, militant Islamists have sought to divide society into “the house of Islam” (dar al-Islam) and “the house of enemy” (dar al-Harb), resulting in a perception that non-Muslims—particularly Jews, Christians, and “the West”—are permanent “enemies of Islam.”

The weakness of President Yudhoyono’s leadership is basically rooted in his ambiguity and indecisiveness in controlling the militant Islamists. Adding to their pressure on the government, in 2011 these groups declared that they would topple Yudhoyono’s administration if the president did not outlaw Ahmadiyah. But he remained silent and offered no reaction to this threat. Similarly, Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali has often made controversial statements against religious minority groups, yet Yudhoyono has never warned or corrected him. It seems that Yudhoyono has been losing his grip.

The effects of Yudhoyono’s weakness are far reaching. The central and local authorities have no clear guidance from the president on the protection of religious freedom and the management of religiously based conflicts. In this vacuum, several governors, regents, and mayors have issued policies and regulations aimed ostensibly at building “religious harmony,” for instance by prohibiting Ahmadiyah and Shiite Muslim groups or closing Christian churches. Ironically, such policies are mostly based on pressure from local militant Islamists and the conservative edicts issued by the MUI (Indonesian Ulama Council). The MUI’s rulings are essentially religious legal opinions and should not be legally binding. But local administrations are increasingly committed to such edicts, regardless of how they contradict the Indonesian constitution and human rights principles.

Among the five factors, Yudhoyono’s weak leadership is the most serious. Clearly, the situation would be better if he became more decisive and committed to enhancing religious freedom. More importantly, he should adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward any groups that are guilty of crimes against humanity or religious persecution.

Under current circumstances, however, it is difficult to see how the political winds might shift to support religious freedom in Indonesia. Consequently, the only alternative is to wait for the rise of a strong, decisive, and committed new leadership that will be able to secure the future of democracy and religious freedom. There are several potential candidates who may run for the presidency in 2014, such as Aburizal Bakrie, Prabowo Subianto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Hatta Radjasa, M. Yusuf Kalla, Wiranto, and others. But it remains to be seen whether the Indonesian people will select the best candidate, one who is devoted to the democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, and willing to uphold them in practice.

* The writer is the former executive director of ICIP (International Center for Islam and Pluralism) and currently a senior Indonesia research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.