Jakarta. Increasing intolerance and politicization of religion in Indonesia can be attributed to the practice of hate spin, which experts agree is a widespread phenomenon threatening democracy in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, especially ahead of election years.
The Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy (Pusad) and the Paramadina Foundation, along with the Asia Foundation and the Institute of International Studies, launched the Indonesian version of Cherian George’s 2016 book, "Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and Its Threat to Democracy" in Jakarta on Thursday (21/12).
The book argues that politicians have engaged in a strategy referred to as "hate spin" in order to mobilize supporters and marginalize opponents, which is a double-sided technique combining hate speech and manufactured offense-taking targeting minority groups.
"This book confirms what we are currently experiencing, which is not exclusive to Indonesia but is a global phenomenon," national director of Gusdurian Network, Alissa Wahid, said, alluding to George’s use of prominent examples of intolerance in Indonesia, the United States and India.
She added that hate spin is a political crime, and illustrates the practice of politics without principles.
Identity politics played a major role in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, during which members of hardline Muslim organizations – led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) – mobilized masses against Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama.
The ethnic Chinese and Christian former governor lost to Anies Baswedan, and is now serving two years in prison after being convicted of blasphemy against Islam in May.
Identity politics continued on the fringes of Indonesian politics and society in the months following the election results, but was again incited to the forefront after Anies used the term "pribumi," or native people, in his first public address as leader of Jakarta.
"The Jakarta gubernatorial election is a textbook example of how effective use of hate spin can benefit its users. What FPI did … this will be a strategy to win elections, because it was proven successful," Endy M. Bayuni, chief editor of the Jakarta Post, said.
Endy warned that letting hate spin become the new norm will lead to the destruction of democracy itself, which consequently also threatens freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
The principle of majority rules in democracies is a major aspect on why hate spin can be mobilized so effectively, according to Alissa.
A 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more than 90 percent of Indonesians consider religion an important aspect of their lives, with the global median at 55 percent.
The combination of majoritarianism and religion, therefore, makes it easier for the latter to be shaped to fit various political purposes, Alissa argues.
"There's a big narrative in Indonesia, that Islam is suppressed and on the brink of destruction, therefore Muslims must fight against it and take power. What's even bigger now is the belief that the current regime is anti-Islam," Alissa said.
Pusad director, Ihsan Ali-Fauzi, said the book translation comes at an important time in Indonesia, with regional elections set to take place in June 2018 and the country’s first simultaneous legislative and presidential elections scheduled for 2019.
In his book, George highlighted the importance of building civic nationalism through the use of all available resources and through collaborative efforts from the government, civil society and the media.
"Public spaces in online platforms should be moderated so that they can be more effective," Endy said.
The current "free for all" mechanism in social media has resulted in unsound political debates, which must be tackled by developing a culture of ethics in the use of social media, Endy added.
"For a quality democracy, there must be an effort to develop that culture of ethics," Endy said.
Alissa pointed out that the common, widespread use of hate spin makes it easier for any issue to trigger hatred among Indonesians.
She also argues that law enforcement in the Southeast Asian country is another issue, because authorities place peace and order above constitutional rights of Indonesian citizens.
"We must change this law enforcement pattern so that they understand that social harmony can be achieved when they protect the constitutional rights of citizens," Alissa said.
She acknowledged that public discussions on issues of intolerance, such as the one on Thursday, must take place in more mainstream spaces where "the real battle takes place."
Endy echoed the sentiment, saying that such discussions must actively take place in mosques, where narratives of hate spin often thrive.