Jakarta. The absence of major cases of violence stemming from religious intolerance in Indonesia this year by no means indicates that the issue has been resolved. Observers noted that political euphoria during Indonesia’s election year has diverted many sentiments of intolerance to the political arena, while poor law enforcement is still considered a main culprit behind lingering, if not growing intolerance.
Islamic scholar Azyumardi Azra said the condition of religious tolerance in Indonesia this year was better than last year in that there were no major cases as had been recorded in previous years.
“Overall, this year is much better than last year. Public tolerance has improved. There’s no big case we should be alarmed of,” Azyumardi told the Jakarta Globe last week.
The history professor from Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, however, scrutinized the intense use of religious sentiment during the elections, for both the legislative elections on April 9 and the presidential race on July 9.
“One thing that must be highlighted this year is the utilization of religion as political means during presidential campaigns,” he said, referring especially to rampant smear campaign against candidate Joko Widodo, who has become Indonesia’s seventh president.
Joko, a Javanese-born Muslim, was called a Chinese Christian, a missionary, a Zionist underling and a communist agent, among other things, in smear messages circulating freely via text messages, chat services and social media platforms among Indonesian voters.
Azyumardi said it was luck that although many voters might have been swayed by the smears, none were inspired to commit violence.
“Fortunately, [the use] of religious sentiments appear to have had no significant effect on voters in that they didn’t ignite violence,” he said.
Muhammad Nurkhoiron, a commissioner with the National Commission on Human Rights, better known as Komnas HAM, said the election festivities rendered religious intolerance issues abandoned this year, resulting in no significant progress being made to address the problem.
“In 2014, no specific policy has been made to ensure better minority protection because of focus on the electoral process between April and July,” Nurkhoiron said last week.
He called efforts to improve religious tolerance in Indonesia a “stagnant” process.
“There are still rallies on minorities’ places of worship, hate speeches in social media and even public demonstrations against a Chinese Christian government official.”
He was referring to Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, formerly deputy governor to Joko, whose ascent to the top job in the capital was marked with rallies by hard-line groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) who objected to predominantly Muslim Jakarta being ruled by a Christian governor.
Among cases of religious intolerance that made media headlines in Indonesia this year are an FPI attack against members of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in Ciamis, West Java in June; the ban on hijab in a number of schools in predominantly Hindu Bali; and the attack on a house hosting a Catholic mass in Yogyakarta in May.
Nurkhoiron said radical mobs especially had been encouraged to keep launching attacks against the minority due to poor law enforcement. Even in the absence of a law specifically guaranteeing the right to religious freedom for minorities, any cases of violence and assaults should be considered crimes, in line with the Criminal Code.
“The police must protect the people, both from the minority and the majority. Sadly, the police often take side with the majority,“ he said.
Nurkhoiron added the intolerance and violence cases were often encouraged or aggravated by some regulations, as well as fatwas issued by local ulema, such as edits of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI.
Hard-line groups such as the FPI have based their violent protests against the Ahmadist on an edict issued by the MUI in 2005 that read: “Ahmadiyah isn’t part of Islam. It is deviant and misleading. Therefore, people who adhere to the religion are infidels.”
“An edict isn’t a law product but is a social product created by and applied for certain communities. Should the edict violate the existing and official laws, it is the task of law enforcers to warn people [against the edict],” he said.
The Jakarta Globe attempted to contact MUI chairman Din Syamsuddin for comment, but he didn’t return the Jakarta Globe’s calls and text messages.
An outdated, but still often used decree issued by Indonesia’s first president Sukarno in 1965 is another example of discriminatory regulations against Muslims who have different interpretations on Islam from the mainstream Muslim communities, Nukhorison added.
Despite the little progress, he said 2014 offered a ray of hope.
“The religious minister this year has given a green light to support minority groups. We are waiting for [the realization],” Nurkhoiron says.
Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin last week said the ministry was drafting a bill on religious tolerance that would guarantee one’s right to freedom of religion, including protection of minority religious groups.
Earlier in July, Lukman won praise from rights activists and minority groups as he said he recognized Baha’i as a faith, although he later clarified that it was his personal opinion, not a policy of the government.
Indonesia recognizes six official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.
Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), emphasized the need for real actions in the form of law enforcement against those who commit violence on behalf of religion.
“So far, there haven’t been real actions made by the government to address intolerance cases in many areas in Indonesia. Although there has been statement from the minister, I’m afraid it could be no more than a saccharine promise,” Haris said.
“The government often forgets that intolerance cannot be addressed by mere stack of papers consisting of regulations. No matter how many laws you propose, without firm actions by from law enforcers, there will still be groups that commit violence on behalf of religion.”
He further added that the drafted bill would be useless if the government did nothing to revoke bylaws that were against the spirit of the bill.
Bylaws in several regions in Indonesia have been subject to rights activists’ criticism because they are considered discriminatory, most notably in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia allowed to adopt the sharia bylaw following its history of secessionist rebellion.
Azyumardi added it was also imperative for the government to take proactive measures to prevent religious-based violence by bridging the gap between interfaith communities in Indonesia.
“We must consolidate our democracy locally. If not, people will get more fragmented and more violence are likely to happen,” Azyumardi says.
Meanwhile, members of GKI Yasmin congregation in Bogor remained unable to hold a Christmas service inside their church on Thursday. This is the fifth year that they have been unable to hold Christmas service in the church since it was sealed by local authorities in 2010.
GKI Yasmin obtained a permit to open a church in Bogor in 2006, but the permit was later revoked by the municipal government following pressure from local hard-line Islamic groups.
A Supreme Court ruling later overruled the local authority decision, compelling the Bogor administration to reopen the church, but even the new Bogor mayor, Bima Arya Sugiarto, who was elected last year, has refused to comply.