Indonesian Democracy Struggles To Fight Persecution Of Religious Minorities

Asking government to involve itself with the individual freedom of religion is the touchy spot Indonesia has found itself in.

The struggle seems to be somewhere between combating religious extremists and fighting government officials’ fears of expanding their efforts so much that it appears they are meddling in religious affairs.

This conflict persists while “violence is increasing at an alarming rate,” according to a piece by Michael Vatikiotis in the Wall Street Journal last month. “In the first four months of this year, a World Bank-sponsored monitoring system in Jakarta recorded more than 2,400 incidents that resulted in more than 300 deaths.”

Vatikiotis also reported that security forces uncovered a new network of Islamic radicals masterminding violent attacks.

The Wahid Institute Report on Religious Freedom in Indonesia found an 18 percent increase in religious intolerance in 2011 in provinces and cities around the country, compared to numbers in 2010 – which is noteworthy considering that when Indonesia’s authoritarian ruler Suharto stepped down in 1998, after three decades of power, a secular democracy took his place.

But just when the country ushered in democracy, with all its individual freedoms, something contradictory happened: religious freedoms began to diminish. Dozens of attacks took place between 1999 and 2002.

Religious violence is potentially a major threat to Indonesia’s relatively young democracy, for it gives the appearance of a weak state if a government cannot protect its citizens’ basic freedoms.

Often credited with being the exemplar of a moderate and peaceful Islam, Indonesia is at risk of losing that reputation.

If the increase in attacks on primarily religious minorities is any indicator — in August, dozens of Shi’ite homes were burned to the ground in east Java — the government must not be doing something wholly right.

Since the 2002 Bali bombings, in which members of Jemaah Islamiyah — local radicals with ties to al-Qaeda — killed 202 people, mostly Westerners, the government has made a concerted effort to track down and round up, or kill, these sorts of terrorists. If, according to the LibForAll Foundation’s C. Holland Taylor, we define terrorists as “Islamist extremists who seek to kill foreigners and/or government personnel.”

In apprehending these terrorists, Indonesia has been successful.

But some human rights groups assert the government isn’t doing enough to address the swelling violence, despite Vice President Boediono announcing in September that a new deradicalization program involving 24 government ministries and agencies was to be implemented sometime next year.

“Indonesian authorities have failed to adequately address increasing incidents of mob violence by militant Islamist groups in Java and Sumatra against religious minorities, including the Ahmadiyah, Christians and Shia Muslims,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said in September.

This, in a country where, for centuries, a plethora of religions have co-existed and thrived. The archipelago was guided by a broadly defined animism — the worship of ancestors, spiritual beings and the supernatural. Indonesia has seen peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Unlike elsewhere, Islam was introduced to Indonesia peacefully, arriving with traveling merchants in the fourteenth century, first reaching Aceh and gradually making its way east.

Marco Polo reported seeing Muslims in the region in 1292. On the timeline of Islam’s arrival in Indonesia, it was preceded by Hinduism and Buddhism around the second and fourth centuries, and followed by Christianity around the sixteenth century.

Today, roughly 86 percent of Indonesians practice Islam, making it the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation; it’s also the world’s largest majority-Muslim democracy.

So how does Indonesia go about stopping these ever-sprouting groups of extremists, thereby protecting its reputation as a tolerant country while continuing to move forward as a democracy?

The only answer is to counter the ideology of radical Islam, the ideology that fuels terrorism. In targeting the ideology that underlies terrorism, the government, thus far, has been ineffective.

“This creates a window for non-terrorist extremist groups to steadily push the envelope in marginalizing, demonizing and, on occasion, attacking minority groups,” LibForAll’s Holland Taylor said. “This includes the Ahmadiyah, Shi’ites and sometimes Christians, with greater degrees of violence directed toward the Ahmadis then Shi’ites, and less so toward Christians — at the moment.”

Unless they find a way to get to the heart the matter, new networks will continue to crop up and the violence will continue.

Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for The International Business Times. Map of Indonesia courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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