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Stop calling Indonesia a role model

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

The 15-year-old schoolgirl’s eyes filled with tears as she put down her phone. Her best friend at school, the friend she did everything together with, had just called her. “We can no longer be friends,” she had said. “My God does not allow me to be friends with people like you.”

This conversation took place in a city in Indonesia with a reputation for tolerance. The two girls were students at a high school described as “the most tolerant” in the city. The caller who ended the friendship is a Muslim, the devastated recipient of the call a Christian. The conversation took place within days of a court’s decision to jail the governor of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, for two years on charges of blasphemy.

A Christian governor jailed

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, is a double-minority — ethnic Chinese and Christian — and a poster boy for Indonesia’s pluralism and religious tolerance. His three years as governor of the capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation was, in the opinion of many, marked by extraordinary improvements in public services, a fight against corruption and a sharp intolerance of inefficiency. A Jakarta taxi driver summed it all up with two sentences: “Ahok is very, very good. The only reason he is no longer governor is because some people do not like his religion.”

Ahok’s imprisonment has sent shock waves through Indonesia’s religious minorities and among moderate, pluralistic-minded Sunnis. If a talented, popular governor who was not corrupt — a rare breed in Indonesia — could be brought down and jailed because of religion, what fate awaits the country’s grass-roots Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shiites, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and those Sunnis who do not subscribe to radical Islamist ideology?

The signs are already there to see. Over the past decade I have visited Indonesia many times, and on every visit I have seen churches and Ahmadi mosques closed and Ahmadiyya and Shiite communities forcibly displaced after their villages have been violently attacked. I have met with representatives of traditional local religions who face discrimination in schools and other public services, and with followers of “Gafatar,” a syncretistic movement blending together teachings of the Abrahamic faiths — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — and banned as “deviant.” Year on year, the statistics show, incidents of intolerance have risen; this is not a new phenomenon.

Blasphemy conviction for Jakarta Governor Ahok. Blow for religious freedom

Still, Ahok’s case highlights the erosion of Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism, and exposes its fragility. “It’s over for Indonesia’s tradition of moderation,” said Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch’s researcher in Jakarta. “In 10 years, Indonesia could be Pakistan. No bars, no beer, very limited rights for minorities, and women completely covered, especially in the most conservative Muslim areas. And there might be big violence.” Or, in the words of a Christian pastor, “if action is not taken soon to curb the radicals’ influence, Indonesia could be the next Syria.”

Peter Carey, a Briton married to an Indonesian Chinese and living in Jakarta, told me he presented his Indonesian relatives with three scenarios to explain the consequences of Ahok’s case. “The first — that it’s a storm in a teacup, an isolated incident, and we will move on. The second — it’s more serious than that, but Indonesia will recover, muddle through and carry on much as before. The third — that a Rubicon has been crossed, the die cast, and the radicals now have the upper hand,” he said. ” ‘It’s the third,’ they replied, without a moment’s hesitation.”

Last week, I spent seven hours driving through North Sumatra to meet church pastors from Aceh. One pastor’s story summarizes Indonesia’s unreported intolerance. After churches in Aceh were burned down in 2015, he endured specific death threats — posters and Facebook posts called for his killing. A public advertisement was put out with a price on his head, a reward of 100 million Rupiah ($7,500) to capture him dead or alive. After these threats, he escaped and went into hiding. His family, now reunited, was traumatized. And after the imprisonment of Ahok, he and the other pastors told me: “We really feel afraid.”

Ahok has now dropped his appeal, not because he admits guilt but because his family has faced threats. His sister, Fify Lety Indra, a lawyer helping him, was warned that if he appeals, she would be charged with blasphemy too. Ahok himself has received a specific death threat from Jafar Umar Thalib, a jihadi who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Indonesia’s justice system is now held ransom by radicals.

Playing with fire

Indonesia likes to pride itself as a role model — a Muslim-majority democracy that is moderate and pluralistic. Traditionally that has largely been true, and there remain many Muslim clerics, scholars, civil society activists and leaders who continue to defend pluralism.

But a country where Muslims are told they cannot vote for a non-Muslim as governor, where that governor is then jailed for blasphemy on flimsy evidence, where minority places of worship are closed down and religious minorities live increasingly in fear is no longer a role model of tolerance. A country where supposedly “moderate” Muslim politicians give radicals a platform, unleashing and emboldening the forces of intolerance, is a country playing with fire.

Talk of Indonesia as Pakistan or Syria sounds grotesquely alarmist. Such a description is not an accurate way to depict Indonesia today. But it is a fair warning. If the government of Indonesia and the international community wish to prevent such a fate, urgent action is needed. The international community must continue to support voices of moderation among Indonesia’s Muslims, but it must stop unconditionally praising Indonesia as the role model it has already ceased to be.

Repeal blasphemy laws

The Indonesian government must be pressed to repeal the blasphemy laws, which are the cause of so much injustice. The laws have poor definitions, no proof of intent, and a low requirement for evidence; they are misused often for political or social score-settling and wreak chaos and sometimes violence in society.

The Indonesian government should listen to the United Nations special rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of opinion and expression, and the independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, who recently described blasphemy laws as “an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression” which “disproportionately target persons belonging to religious minorities, traditional religions, nonbelievers and political dissidents.”

The three experts described the imprisonment of Ahok as a step that will “undermine freedom of religion or belief and freedom of speech in Indonesia.” Blasphemy laws, they argued, are incompatible with a democratic society and harmful to religious pluralism. Ahok’s case “illustrates that the existence of blasphemy law can be used to justify intolerance and hate speech.” Instead of speaking out against hate speech and violent protests against Ahok, the U.N. experts said, “the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased incitement to religious intolerance and discrimination.”

Ahok’s case should be reviewed and he should be released, and funding for the radicals stopped. Politicians of all mainstream secular parties should adopt a “no platform” policy for the Islamists, and laws restricting the practices of non-Sunni religious minorities repealed. Only such bold actions can bring Indonesia back from the brink.

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