Indonesia’s Battle for Religious Pluralism Continues

By Farish A. Noor

Over the past months Indonesia has witnessed, once again, mass demonstrations and mobilisation on its streets. Throughout the month of May, the campuses of the country spilled open and large demonstrations were organised in almost every major city across the Indonesian archipelago to raise awareness about the rising costs of living and in particular the rising cost of oil and gas; in a country that was once a major oil producer but which – over the past five years – has been reduced to being a net oil and gas importer.

While the students of Indonesia’s universities and colleges have taken to the streets to protest on matters that are related to the political economy of the country, other groups have also taken to the streets in protest over issues that have less to do with the material well being of the nation. Since April, Indonesia has also witnessed a string of demonstrations led and organised by right-wing communitarian religious parties and organisations such as the Fron Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders’ Front, FPI) on matters that have little to do with the economic welfare and future of the country.

One such protest came in late April when the FPI, along with several other allied right-wing conservative Islamist groups, protested over the ruling that the Ahmadiya Muslim minority community was allowed to exist in the country as long as they did not openly declare themselves to be Muslims. For more than a century the Ahmadis have been living in Indonesia and historians will point to the fact that the founding fathers of Indonesia’s nationalist and anti-colonial movement were educated and drawn from the Ahmadi community as well.

Yet, the theological disputes between conservative hardliners and the Ahmadis (the former of whom regard the latter as deviants) have come out into the open and led to the eruption of violence and hostility in the streets. Right-wing groups like the FPI have called on the state to disband the Ahmadis altogether, failing which death threats have been issued to prominent Ahmadi leaders and intellectuals, and Ahmadi mosques have been destroyed by mobs of right-wingers.

Thus Indonesia today is once again in the throes of crisis as both external economic-structural factors now impinge on the already fragile social-cultural balance in this, perhaps one of the most complex, diverse and plural of Muslim societies in the world.

The challenge now faced by the government of President Bambang Yudhoyono is to keep the country on an even keel while rising costs made worse by the global energy crisis and the rise of imported fuel prices are raising the level of domestic inflation to an unprecedented level. Massive unrest is brewing though this is not entirely due to the fault of the Indonesian government: for in neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand the rising cost of fuel has also led to rising levels of inflation as well.

The danger, however, is this: Those familiar with the Byzantine world of Indonesian domestic politics will know that right-wing radical groups like the Fron Pembela Islam have never emerged out of a political vacuum without some degree of institutional and party-political support. One other group that attained world-wide recognition was the notorious Laskar Jihad, a right-wing paramilitary group that sent off its members to fight, kill and die as Jihadis in the religious war against the Christians in the Moluccas years ago. Later it was discovered – and admitted by the leader of the Laskar Jihad itself, Ja’afar Umar Tholib – that his paramilitary outfit had received support, patronage and protection of key figures in the political and military establishment of Indonesia itself. Which leads us to the obvious question: who, then, are the real power-behind-the-throne that is pulling the strings of groups like the Fron Pembela Islam?

This week the Indonesian security forces have finally begun to act against the FPI by arresting some of their members and leaders after storming the FPI stronghold in downtown Jakarta. Much to the relief of Indonesia’s mainstream moderate and liberal Muslims, this has come at a time when there is the need to keep such sectarian and divisive forces in check. However analysts remain perturbed by the rise of such right-wing religious groups when Indonesia seems once again to be teetering on the verge of a major economic crisis, made worse by external economic and political variable factors it cannot control.

In the wake of the 1997-98 economic crisis that rocked Asia and crippled the economies of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea; many an extreme right-wing group came to the fore to occupy the centre of the public domain in Indonesia. With hindsight it can be seen that the sudden mobilisation of these sectarian groups that preached inter-religious hatred and conflict was one of the by-products of an economic crisis that had been badly handled. Others suggest that these groups were also useful in distracting public attention from real issues such as economic mismanagement and the failure of governance in the country.

Now that Southeast Asia seems to be on the verge of yet another economic crisis instigated by the global energy crisis, will there be a repeat of the scenario of 1997-2000, when right-wing religious and communitarian groups came to the fore to add to the chaos? Indonesia’s battle to retain the plural spirit of its secular constitution continues, and all eyes are on the government of Yudhoyono to ensure that the fiery tempers that led to the burning of the Ahmadi mosques across the country in April are not reignited again, with a vengeance.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Friday, 6 June 2008 - 11:29 am

    Indon leaders must deal with the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) the way China dealt with its Falungong, i.e. with an iron fist. If not, these “religious” bigots would run amok and bring the 200 million Indons back to the Stone Age

  2. #2 by harrisonbinhansome on Friday, 6 June 2008 - 12:50 pm

    Any Islamic fundamentalist sect must be dealt with effectively and disbanded before other Indonesians and foreigners suffers another bloodbath to some other race like the chinks during the Suharto regime that led to his fall and the Bali bombings that not only killed foreigners but locals by the carrier of explosives popularly known as “suicide (homicide)-bombers” “they” branded as heroes.

    Any sorts of fundamentalist in any religions that use brutal and lethal force and warfare against anyone or anything must be stopped, ceased and desist forever.

    This kind of extremisms are not patriotisms of any sane justifications, but an act of lunacy.

  3. #3 by Cinapek on Friday, 6 June 2008 - 12:58 pm

    “….Now that Southeast Asia seems to be on the verge of yet another economic crisis instigated by the global energy crisis, will there be a repeat of the scenario of 1997-2000, when right-wing religious and communitarian groups came to the fore to add to the chaos?…”

    Ys, absolutely. We all know and remembered the proliferation of the JI during that period and the attempts to bomb the Immigration complex in JB amongst others.

    Malaysia should watch this development of the FPI fanaticism closely because we have learned from history there is a high possibility of them exporting such religious extremism to Malaysia such as in the JI case. And with no shortage of Islamic religious extremists in Malaysia ever ready to embrace such extreme fanatic ideology, this evil can take root very fast.

  4. #4 by rainbowseahorse on Friday, 6 June 2008 - 3:45 pm

    I think we already have some of those extremists blokes in our MPs…hmmm..if I am not mistaken, one is the son of a former PM, another is married to the daughter of a really top gun in Malaysian government, one more is assiting that “really top gun” fellow, and one more is just planning to rejoin UMNO….Not really sure lah!

  5. #5 by mauriyaII on Friday, 6 June 2008 - 8:55 pm

    Religious fanaticism of any kind, Islamic or otherwise should be condemned. Fanatics only fan religious fervour to the highest under the delusion that they are the true followers and heaven is only for them.

    Such bigotry can’t be any good to any plural society with diverse religious beliefs. Fanaticism should be nipped in the bud before it blososms and engulfs the whole nation in genocide that happened during the reign of Sukarno when religous fanatics and communists clashed that led to a bloodbath of unprecedented level


  6. #6 by isahbiazhar on Saturday, 7 June 2008 - 5:00 am

    As long as they do not spill over to Malaysia it is well and good.Indonesia is capable of handling this problem because they have better experience than Malaysia.Where Malaysia could not tolerate, they live with it.That is religious freedom.I think we can learn a lot from Indonesia where religious tolerance are concerned.I think it is partly they have the Hindhu religion as base and they have not wiped it out.Malaysia should be concerned only when their(Indonesian) population here increases.If the government only allowed the Malays to learn about other religions in this country we will not face any of those problems.If they are faced with Islam alone they will become fanatic as there are enough ulamas here who can convince them.

  7. #7 by lakilompat on Saturday, 7 June 2008 - 8:10 am

    Islamic state who owned oil like Egypt, for those muslim who went to Mecca for the Haj will know that their petrol is cheap and all luxury car is cheap there.

    Onli Indonesia due to previous govt. admin siphoned too much from the people’s coffer into their own personal bank account like what is happening in Malaysia now. If the government did not re distribute wealth, a country will collapsed the person masterminding it might not be sentence but the people who lived in the country are sentenced to hardship and rising of cost to make a living especially middle and low income earners.

    Not all Malaysian are lucky and inherit wealth from their ancestor, many are working class, for majority Indian they work in estate, for majority malay they work in factory as operator earning RM 600-800 per month, and for chinese most of them are middle management.

    It is ok we protest the street but the problem is, all people must understand, what is done is already history, nothing can bring back the money even if the law were used to penalize it, still the money will not be back, after Suharto died, there’s nothing can be improve becos the country already no money.

    Malaysia will be the same, whoever going up to sit as Federal govt. leader, when they look at the country bank account, there is no more money left even Petronas money are been siphoned out to respective individual personal account. When there is no longer money, subsidies that the people used to enjoy will be cut and sustain the economy.

    Whether PR go up, there will still be problem, racial orientation, if BN still remain, there will still be problem of how they can exploit the M’sian.

  8. #8 by greenacre on Saturday, 7 June 2008 - 12:53 pm

    the battle against religious bigots all over the world shows how true is the great statement ‘ religion is the opium of the masses’

    I am perplexed by the trouble of Islam all over the world. With many great and old religions around only Islam seems to be at a loggerhead with the west as well as the east. Can someone care to explain?

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