Indonesia: More to religious (in)tolerance than meets the eye

The future looks nice

At the end of 2010, two Indonesian civil society organisations that work to promote tolerance and understanding in Indonesia, the Moderate Muslim Society (MMS) and the Wahid Institute (WI), separately released the results of research they had conducted on religious life in Indonesia. Both showed significant increases in the number of religiously motivated attacks and discrimination against minority religious groups.

Over the last year, MMS recorded 81 cases of religious intolerance, up 30 per cent from 2009, while WI recorded 193 instances of religious discrimination and 133 cases of non-violent religious intolerance, up approximately 50 per cent from the previous year. Among these instances, forced church closures and disruptions of worship services were the most commonly reported complaints, which also included the firebombing of an Ahmadi mosque and violent attacks on congregants.

At first glance, this paints a frightening portrait of religious life in Indonesia, especially as these are the most common stories to be reported in Western media.

Articles that focus solely on violence against religious minorities depict Indonesian Muslims as angry and destructive individuals who restrict the religious freedom of others, even though the Indonesian Constitution formally guarantees the right to believe and practice one’s religion.

While highlighting real problems in Indonesia, the picture painted of Indonesians is misleading: most Indonesians are accepting of other faiths, and most parts of Indonesia are currently experiencing peace.

For example, in Jakarta, the Istiqlal Mosque and Cathedral Church stand across from one another, facing each other in harmony. In Yogyakarta, Muslims and Christians worked together to help the victims of the recent Merapi volcano eruption which forced many Indonesians to flee their homes. And in many parts of Indonesia with large minority religious groups, such as North Sumatra, North Sulawesi and Bali, inter-religious harmony is the norm.

We cannot close our eyes to acts of religious intolerance. Instead, with the vast majority of Indonesians supporting peaceful coexistence, these acts have provided impetus for Indonesians working in this space to continue to develop programmes and initiatives for peacebuilding.

For example, the Paramadina Foundation – founded by a Muslim reformer, the late Nurcholish Madjid – recently published an Indonesian translation of Mohammad Abu Nimer’s 2003 book, Non-violence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice. The author is a professor-cum-peacebuilding activist at American University in Washington, DC.

Abu Nimer counters the stereotype in Western media that the Muslim world is intolerant and warlike, and that Islam as a religion and culture is contrary to the principles of peace. According to him, the main problem is that many analysts are obsessed with acts of violence and terrorism committed in the name of Islam, and thus Islamic values and practices of peacebuilding go unnoticed.

By translating this book into Indonesian, Paramadina aims to promote Islamic perspectives and principles of peacebuilding for Indonesian readers, sharing a model of non-violence, like the ones successfully employed in Poso, Aceh and other places in Indonesia, to resolve the violence that had been occurring along religious lines.

True, Indonesia today is in a state of democratic transition. Nevertheless, it is recognised as the third-largest democratic country in the world, after the United States and India, and the most democratic Muslim-majority country.

In the authoritarian New Order period (1966-1998), Indonesia was rated by Freedom House as a “half-free” state, free from violence only because people were afraid to voice their opinions. But since 2005 Indonesia has entered the ranks of “fully free” states in which people feel free to express their opinions. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that individuals violate others’ freedoms – for example, by expressing an opinion that goes against the right of others to build a house of worship.

The critical issue now is to help foster a healthy debate on religion and how Indonesians can best promote pluralism and respect for others’ beliefs, without infringing on others’ freedoms.

The democratic transition that has been taking place since 1998 still leaves a large amount of work to be done yet in law enforcement, including protecting the right to freely practice one’s religion. This is a responsibility that must be tackled by government, religious leaders, civil society activists, as well as all lovers of peace and freedom.

History shows that Indonesians are up for the challenge. Hopefully, as greater numbers of individuals and groups join the ranks of those already working to promote pluralism and religious tolerance, we will see a marked improvement in religious tolerance reports in 2011.

(Photo: Jeda Villa Bali)

Testriono is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) at the State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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