FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Adrian MorganNews Weekly
Indonesia, Australia's increasingly intolerant ally
, September 29, 2012
On Monday, August 27, two Shia Muslims were hacked to death and 39 houses were burned in Sampang, East Java. This is just the latest of a series of sectarian killings carried out by radical Sunni Muslims in Indonesia. Over the past decade, Islamism has spread with little opposition from the government, and attacks upon minorities have escalated.
In May 1998, Suharto resigned after 31 years as president. Within seven months of his departure from office, Islamists burned churches in Poso, Central Sulawesi, the beginnings of an inter-religious conflict that soon spread to the Moluccan Islands in January 1999.
FPI founder Muhammad Rizieq Syihab
In Ambon, the conflict between Muslims and Christians escalated in mid-2000, when 2,000 jihadist fighters from Laskar Jihad were sent from Java to the region. Massacres took place, particularly in the village of Soya in Ambon, where even children were attacked with machetes.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald (January 27, 2001), on six of the Moluccan Islands, 3,928 Christians were forced to convert to Islam. The conversions involved forced circumcisions, including female genital mutilation (FGM). Females forced to be “circumcised” included pregnant women, septuagenarians and babies.
Bizarrely, the founder and leader of Laskar Jihad, Ja’far Umar Thalib, was subsequently cleared of inciting religious violence. Thalib reputedly had support from mainstream politicians, including Hamzah Haz, who was Indonesia’s vice-president from 2001 until 2004.
Though Laskar Jihad was officially disbanded, the Front Pembela Islam (FPI), founded in 1998 by Saudi-educated Muhammad Rizieq Syihab, has also enjoyed support from the army and police, with the latter said to have funded the group.
The FPI has enacted vigilante attacks upon bars, threatened aid workers after the 2004 tsunami, and has mobilised vigilantes to pressure judges in court cases, to force the closure of nudity-free Playboy magazine, and to attack the American Embassy in Jakarta during the Danish cartoon crisis. In Jakarta, a local group called the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (Forum Betawi Rempug or FBR) has acted in similar fashion.
More than 17,500 islands comprise Indonesia’s archipelago, encompassing various faiths and languages. The 1945 constitution contains the Pancasila (“five precepts”) doctrine, which guarantees pluralism and religious freedom. Politicians and clerical leaders, who are mostly Muslim and based on Java, are testing Indonesia’s reputed “tolerance”.
There are an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 Ahmadiyah Muslims in Indonesia, though these are regarded by hardliners as heretics. On July 27, 2005, a body of Islamic clerics (the MUI) declared a fatwa against pluralism. Subsequently, supporters of pluralism were threatened, and in Sukadana, West Java, a mob attacked an Ahmadiyah community, burning houses and mosques. In Lombok, an island near Bali, Ahmadiyah have been persecuted. The FPI are involved in such attacks.
On June 9, 2008, bowing to pressure from Islamists, including the FPI and the “moderate” Muhammadiyah group, the government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono passed a decree ordering that Ahmadiyah who proselytise can be jailed for five years for blasphemy. With their rights limited, attacks have increased. In February 2011, a 1,000-strong mob attacked Ahmadiyah in West Java. Three Ahmadiyah were stripped naked and beaten to death while police stood by.
Since 1999, sharia bylaws have also eroded the Pancasila principles. In 2006, the Jakarta Post noted that implementation of sharia bylaws in various regencies was violating the constitution.
Padang municipal administration, for example, had introduced demeaning regulations for all schoolgirls, including non-Muslims, forcing them to wear Muslim head coverings. In South Sulawesi, several administrative regions make it compulsory for female civil servants to wear Islamic dress. All government employees there must be able to read and write Arabic. In April this year, a lecturer at Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yoghyakarta warned that these sharia bylaws could be a “time-bomb” and trigger social conflict.
Without full support for pluralism, Indonesia could split apart, and the ramifications for Australia of such a populous nation fragmenting could be horrendous. Either Australia could be drawn in to resolve conflict, as in East Timor, or it could be faced with the consequences of coping with floods of refugees.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is an ally of Australia. Failure to pressure his government to support its minorities will not be in anyone’s best interests, including Australian investors.
Through the Saudi-dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), there are forces all too ready to encourage Indonesia to abandon pluralism and religious tolerance altogether. Australia cannot afford to have its ally and neighbour turning into a totalitarian theocracy.
Adrian Morgan has written for the UK Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. He hosts a weekly internet radio show called Global Security Matters.