Faith, tolerance and terror — in Indonesia

As you would expect, there was a wave — totally justified — of press coverage of the major speech that was delivered by President Barack Obama during his return to Jakarta, Indonesia, a city that he called home as a child. To read the speech text, click here.

All of the major stories focused on the same core theme — Obama’s praise for Indonesia’s rich history of religious tolerance, especially in the context of the wider Muslim world. Thus, in the New York Times one could read the following passage:

Mixing the personal, political and religious, Mr. Obama spoke of Indonesia’s history of religious tolerance and its commitment to democracy and diversity before a receptive audience of 6,500 mostly young people at the University of Indonesia. In a 30-minute speech, the president underscored the shared values between the United States and Indonesia, which is known for its tradition of moderate Islam.

Mr. Obama spoke about hearing the “call to prayer across Jakarta,” where he lived for four years as a boy. He referred several times to his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soeotoro, who, he said, “was raised a Muslim” but “firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect.”

“I thought the speech was very good because it showed that Obama knows about the people of Indonesia, our cultures and traditions, and mentioned what we have in common,” said Slamet Effendi Yusuf, a deputy chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations. “He was arguing against the people who say that there is something incompatible between Islamic and Christian civilizations.”

Although 90 percent of Indonesia’s nearly 240 million citizens are Muslim, the country’s constitution recognizes the world’s major religions, and for decades political Islam had little role in this country. But in the past two decades, as Indonesians have become increasingly religious, events in the Middle East and other Muslim regions have gained more traction here.

That last sentence is absolutely crucial and I’ll return to it shortly.

However, you could see some of the same essential issues covered in the following slice of the Washington Post report on the same subject:

(Obama) also praised Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation — for a “spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolized in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people,” a quality worthy for all the world to emulate.

Obama received a warm welcome from the crowd of about 6,500 at the University of Indonesia, particularly when he spoke in Indonesian, as when he recalled buying satay and bakso from street vendors or referenced the national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” or “Unity in Diversity.”

“We are two nations which have traveled different paths. Yet our nations show that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag,” Obama said.

Now, stop and think about this.

Did you notice the following phrase in that New York Times piece? It seems that life has become more complex — the hint is that the emphasis in tolerance has changed somehow — in the “past two decades, as Indonesians have become increasingly religious.”

That’s the phrase that made me think of the following, which is the top of a Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote more than a decade ago — months before the events of Sept. 11, in fact. The setting, of course, is Indonesia:

One wave of warriors came out of the mountains while another came in boats from the sea, crushing the harbor villages on the island of Haruku.

“I heard a grenade and the house went up in an explosion at about 5:30 a.m.,” said an Indonesian pastor, in testimony read in the British House of Lords. “Nine people died at the football pitch. … Some were injured, but still alive, when the military came with bayonets and stabbed them in the neck.”

Similar attacks have destroyed hundreds of churches and mosques during the past two years in the Maluku Islands, which were once known as the romantic “Spice Islands.”

“Those who died were beheaded,” he said. “We have not been able to find their heads, because the soldiers take them.”

Hacking off the heads makes it harder to identify victims in the jungles far from modern Indonesia’s cities. Witnesses say the raiders wear white jihad robes, often over military uniforms.

The material made it into the House of Lords and, thus, the public record, because of the work of a controversial human-rights activist, the nurse and sociologist Baroness Caroline Cox. The key, she said, is that some people believe that it is impossible to stand up and defend universal human rights — such as the freedom of religious conscience — because these concepts are said to be the products of the Judeo-Christian West.

in Indonesia, some of the people who were fighting and dying to protect those freedoms were — yes, emphasize this — Muslims. Churches were destroyed. So were some selected mosques.

… (The) Indonesia crisis is not a simple clash between Islam and Christianity. Cox said she has seen evidence of Muslims dying to defend the homes and churches of neighbors.

The Republic of Indonesia is stunningly complex, a 3,500-mile crescent of 17,670 islands straddling the equinox between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The world’s largest archipelago is nearly three times the size of Texas and the population of 225 million includes 300 ethnic groups. The population of 225 million is 88 percent Muslim and 8 percent Christian, with smaller communities of Hindus, Buddhists and others.

I left that last paragraph in for a reason. Clearly, the journalists covering the Obama visit to Indonesia — and writing about its legitimate heritage of a limited tolerance of minority religions — could not go into these issues in depth.

But, GetReligion readers, did anyone see any mainstream coverage that mentioned that this nation’s heritage of tolerance is under violent attack? Did anyone read about the “white riders”? About kidnappings? Beheadings? The persecution and killing of, for lack of a better word, “moderate” Muslims, as well as members of religious minorities?

And what did the Times report really mean when it said that these problems are in the rise because “Indonesians have become increasingly religious”? Isn’t that a haunting statement to accept as fact?

So Muslims who are more religious are violent. Those who are less religious are tolerant. And note that it is “political Islam” that is the problem, yet this “political Islam” comes to power when people become “increasingly religious.” Is that what the editors meant to say?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    After reading President Obama’s speech and his repeatedly referring to the Indonesian religious scene (Approx.90% Moslem country) as one of “tolerance” I began to wonder about some of the stories I had read about Indonesia over the past few years. And where is some media background on the “tolerance” issue today? Maybe the mainstream media wants to avoid the issue because it might make Americans ask “What planet is Obama on?”

    Only 5 years ago 3 young teen-age Christian girls were beheaded on their way to Christian school by Islamist activists. Some of their murderers were later caught and called the girl’s heads: “Ramadan trophies.” Earlier they had sent notes saying they would murder 100 more Christian teen-agers.

    Since 1998 10,000 Christians have been killed by Islamists in Indonesia and 1,000 churches burned down. Statistics and information about this is available all over the internet on both religious and foreign media sites. … So one needs to ask — as was asked here — “Did anyone see any of this type background in our mainstream media?”

  • tmatt


    When making those kinds of statements its best to provide some URLs to back them.

    Such as:

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I googled “Girls-beheaded Indonesia.” There are more than 10 pages of stories(over 100 stories) about Islamic violence toward Christians in Indonesia listed there. Some are from 2005 and run up to Obama’s visit there. Among the sources I used data from to write my own comment: The Australian; BBC News; Wikipedia; Jihad Watch, and Topix. Topix referred to getting data from AP and the Times.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m puzzled. When I went to the URL you gave it was different from the Google I get by way of Comcast–although most of the stories listed there were the same. And I only needed to click once on your long list of hierogliphics to go to the site you gave. How do I do that so that I can put an URL in my comments with one click without having to type it all out (guaranteed this one finger typist will get at least one of a long list of URL “Egyptian” symbols wrong.)

  • Bob Smietana

    The Times has piece from 2005 with the 10,000 Christians number, but no source for that number aside from “according to campaigners.”

    Interesting, CBN had a piece from 2003,about religious persecution in Indonesia, saying that 10,000 Christians and Muslims were killed during a civil war in the Maluku Islands of Indonesia.

  • TysonK

    The pedant in me wants to note that the proper way to refer to the Member of the House of Lords you mentioned is “Baroness Cox” or just “Lady Cox”; British titles never have “baron” or “baroness” before a first and last name together. (E.g., it’s not “Baroness Margaret Thatcher, just Baroness Thatcher or Lady Thatcher). But seeing as the BBC doesn’t even really get this right, it’s hard to ask American journalists to.

  • Irenicum

    Indonesia is complicated. Haha. As if I even needed to say that. But I remember researching the democratization process in Indonesia ten years ago, and in retrospect I’m struck at how my sources, almost to a person, didn’t take seriously (even then) the resurgent religiosity of the populace that Suharto’s dictatorial power suppressed. Was he Indonesia’s Tito? I honestly haven’t much considered the parallels till just now, so there may be some important variances between the two situations. Yet I am struck at how religious tolerance was enforced by military strongmen, who, after they leave or are deposed, gives way to a new wave of religious extremism. Saddam, Tito, Suharto/Sukarno, etc. This dynamic is fascinating and I haven’t seen it dealt with as far as I know. Just some preliminary thoughts.

  • Hector


    Indonesia’s tolerance of minority religions was always very limited. Indonesia’s constitution requires ‘Belief in One God’, and non-monotheistic religions were taken a dim view of. Hinduism (the main religion of the island of Bali) was tolerated, but as far as I know, animism and the Chinese folk religions were not. If Indonesia had been run by a left-leaning government, instead of by a right-leaning, anticommunist leader friendly to the United States, no doubt we would have piously wrung our hands over the lack of religious freedom.

    Malaysia, right next door, is an officially Islamic country, but as far as I know has been at least as tolerant as Indonesia in practice- there are large Hindu and Chinese minorities which as far as I know haven’t been the targets of pogroms or beheadings.

  • tioedong

    The killings of up to half a million in Indonesia in 1965-66 is also overlooked.

    More HERE.
    “…Large numbers of Chinese began converting to Christianity during the 1950s and 1960s. By 2006, it was estimated that 70 percent of the Chinese population belonged to the two denominations of Christianity in Indonesia.[31] Chinese businessman Tee Siem Tat and wife Sie Djoen Nio founded the Muria Christian Church of Indonesia in 1925.[32]”

    so although the “reason” for the massacres was to eliminate communists, the dirty little secret is most of the victims were ethnic Chinese and many were Christian or Buddhist, not Muslim.

    The anti Chinese violence is covered in the Asian press, but less covered in the US (maybe because the CIA had a hand in supporting the Indonesian government).

    So things tend to be complicated.

    The religious aspects of Indonesian atrocities in East Timor and more recently in West Papua New Guinea is also ignored.

  • Julia

    Then there’s the problem of mostly Catholic East Timor.

  • Jerry

    You asked if people had read that tolerance in Indonesia is under attack and the answer, for me, is absolutely yes. for one. Not MSM but still the reports have been out there including in the mainstream press from time-to-time.

    It’s not surprising when extremism is on the rise everywhere including in the US where tea party congessman elect, Allen West selected Joyce Kaufman who wants to murder illegal immigrants as chief of staff.

    Of course, not all conservative religious people or conservatives in general are violent, but there is a tendency amongst some, Muslim or otherwise, to become violent.

  • Dave

    it said that these problems are in the rise because “Indonesians have become increasingly religious”? Isn’t that a haunting statement to accept as fact?

    It’s a challenging proposition. Do people become less tolerant as they become more religious? Conversely, do violent movements reflexively cover themselves with religion? If the media are going to hint at either of these generalizations they should interview experts with opinions on both sides.

  • Marie

    To build on Dave’s comment is the implication that religion = violence, rather than accepting that as people become “increasingly religious” they can also embrace peace. I mean, one wouldn’t call individuals such as Gandhi and Mother Teresa “not very religious” or “less religious” than those of any faith who embrace violence.

  • john

    I am always amazed that people that have never visited or lived in a country can become “experts” just by googling topics on the internet. I am a Roman Catholic from the USA that lived in Jakarta between 2005 and 2008. I will remember my time there fondly leaving behind what I consider a tolerant and gentle people.

    Does Indonesia have problems? Yes, this is for sure. Were those 3 children murdered 5 years ago when I was there, yes, this was tragic. Have 10,000 people been killed in religious violence or 1000 churches burned, I find absolutely no evidence to support these ridiculous comments.

    Some people also hold up Malaysia as a more moderate example (just next door), I believe someone should look at the facts on ownership rights for non “bumi putra’s”, ethnic malays practicing Islam. Chinese and Indians that are non Malays are restricted from ownership in many industries and have limited civil rights, this is by law. You may also want to “google” the recent problems there with damaging of churches.

    In Indonesia, as in any place where a very large portion of the economy is dominated by a minority, in this case ethnic Chinese that happen not to be of the same faith, there will be tension and problems.

    The media continues to focus on headline grabbing incidents and projects them as the norm.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The Times admits it is political Islam that was not embraced in Indonesia. Thus, it appears what is happening is not a change in religion but a change in Politics.

    Put another way, the question of whether the building of Christian Churches or the preaching by Christian missionaries should be alowed is not a religious question, it is a political one.

    President Wahid showed that someone can be a fully devote Muslim and an advocate for pluralism and democracy. He was no less a Muslim than is Osama bin Laden or bin Laden’s operatives, unless you assume bin Laden is right and to be a true Muslim you must seek to kill those who will not aquiesce in the establishment of religious law.

    These changes in Indonesia are political changes, not religious changes.

    It is both interesting and disturbing to see the Times spreading the idea that truly believing Muslims by definition accept violent Jihad. Would they join with some radicals in Indonesia in deneying the Amadiyyah Muslims the right to claim to be Muslim?

  • John Pack Lambert

    Here is an article from 2 days ago noting that the Religious Affairs Minister in Indonesia has repeatedly called for the banning of the Amadiyyah. This is clearly not the action of a government that embraces religious “tolerance”. The fact that people think it is at all acceptable to ban a specific religious group is disturbing.

    On the other hand we could dig up calls from US government officials, including the President, to destroy the Mormon Church, so it may not be as absolutely bad as it would seem.

    However it does seem to be a major disservice to all truth when the papers do not admit that one of the groups most vocal in deneying jihad of the Sword as a proper tenant in Islam is facing calls for being banned in Indonesia.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In 2008 according to the above linked article the Amadiyyah were banned from any public displays or teachings in Indonesia.

    Then there is this article which quotes the head of the largest Muslim group in Indonesia (with 40 million members) as saying the attacks on Christians are not religiously motivated, but instead due to “social and economic” tensions. Yet he then admits that the people got a huge, wonderful new mosque and are mad that a church moved into a small house in the same complex where the mosque used to be. If people being angry at a church being around is not “religiously motivated” than what is?

    The article also sites a rising trend of violence against Christians in Indonesia.

    Just last month an Amadiyyah Mosque was burned down in Indonesia.

    Then there is the order to remove a statue of the Buddha. This order is from goverment officials.

    While the physical attacks on Amadiyyah Muslims and Christians seem to general be condemned by the government, or at least not done by it, the order to remove the Buddha statue and the ban on public preaching of Amadiyyah and the attempt for an all out ban on the sect are all government actions.

  • John Pack Lambert

    To john,
    Jakarta is one city. Here‘outside-jakarta-west-java’/ is an article from mid-October about burning of Churches in Indonesia.

    On the other hand, one of the articles I linked to above mentione that there were 19 incidents of anti-Christian violence in Indonesia in 2009 and I think 18 in 2008. In a country with over 20 million Christians this is not a significant number.

    The number of Churches burned should also be compared to the number burned in the US.

    I would still say it is the attacks on Amadiyyah and not on Christians that are the most clear signs of a lack of true religious freedom.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Here is a Washinton Post editorial critiquing the “tolerance” in Indonesia and arguing that the upholding of the Blasphemy Law is a major sign that it is not as tolerant as some would believe.

  • Hasan Hakeem

    Mr. John Pack Lambert is correct. Indonesia is not a tolerant nation. It seeks to use Blashpemy Laws against Christians and Muslims — Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

    International Press and Media Desk
    22 Deer Park, London, SW19 3TL.
    Tel / Fax 020 8544 7613 Mobile 07795460318
    3 January 2008
    Persecution of Ahmadiyya Community Indonesia continues as religious authority calls
    for it to be banned
    The organisation regarded as Indonesia’s highest religious authority the Majlis Ulema Indonesia (MUI)
    has submitted what it calls a ‘Fatwa’ against the Ahmadiyya Community in the Office of the Attorney?
    General. The MUI has called for the Ahmadiyya Community to be completely banned from the country.
    The Head of the MUI has said ‘We hope to settle the matter once and for all by getting the group
    banned.1” He went onto say that the Ahmadiyya Community should not regard themselves as Muslim.
    The Assistant Attorney?General has stated that a decision would be made next week at a meeting to be
    held by his Office. In relation to this the Press Secretary of the Ahmadiyya Jama’at Abid Khan has said:
    “We urge the Office of the Attorney?General to reject the so called ‘Fatwa’ against the Ahmadiyya
    Community. If allowed the decision would signal the end for the freedoms guaranteed to minority
    groups under both the State Constitution and the International Conventions that Indonesia is party to.
    The Ahmadiyya Community wishes no harm to anyone and simply desires that its members are able
    to practice their faith in a safe and peaceful environment.”
    The main objection of the MUI is that the Ahmadiyya Community does not believe the Holy Prophet
    Muhammad (peace be upon him) to be the last Prophet. Clarifying the Ahmadiyya Community’s
    position on this matter, Abid Khan said:
    “The Holy Prophet Muhammad was the greatest of all Prophets and the final law bearing prophet.
    Any Prophet who comes after him must be from amongst his believers and subservient. Hadhrat
    Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Community, was such a person, who we believe
    was sent by God to re?establish the true peaceful teachings of Islam as taught by the Holy Prophet
    Muhammad (peace be upon him).”
    Over the past months the Ahmadiyya Community in Indonesia has been subjected to severe
    persecution. Members of the Community have been attacked, others have been forced to leave their
    homes and Mosques have been destroyed. If the Attorney?General’s Office passes the proposed law
    then this would no doubt add a stamp of Government approval to the atrocities that have recently
    occurred and members of the Ahmadiyya Community would be at severe risk of further attacks.
    End of Release