Indonesia: When intolerance becomes more intolerable

Backgrounder: The most disturbing aspect of all this is not the violent behaviour of the radicals or the failure of the state or the police in providing protection, but the indifference shown by the majority of the people towards the attacks on freedom of speech, association and religion. The silence of the majority is read in some quarters as condoning the violent attack

Endy Bayuni, for Straits Times, 23 May 2012

FOR much of the last 14 years, May is the time when Indonesia marks the end of three decades of authoritarian rule and the start of a more democratic and accountable system of government.

This year, however, there is little to celebrate for many Indonesians because – in spite of democracy or because of it – they have lost some of their freedoms.

There is every reason to worry that Indonesia is backsliding on its commitment to protect freedoms of speech, association and religion. All these freedoms and more are enshrined in the Constitution, and for a few years they were widely observed. Rising intolerance, however, is starting to rear its ugly head to curtail the civil liberty of a wider net of people. Inevitably, the quality of democracy suffers.

Freedom of speech and expression has been under fire this month, coming not only from the usual suspects like radical Islamic groups, but also from the police and, of all institutions, from state universities.

When Canadian Muslim writer Irshad Manji came to Indonesia to launch her book Allah, Liberty And Love, one of her speaking events was forcibly stopped by the police, another was violently disrupted by a radical Islamic group, and yet another, at the prestigious state-run Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, was cancelled on orders from the rector.

Few of these perpetrators had read her book – which encourages young Muslims to break free from old traditions – but they had objected to her presence nevertheless because Ms Irshad is openly lesbian.

Early suggestions that the university ban was an isolated case have been squashed. The Diponegoro University, another state- run institution, based in Semarang, in the same week banned a film festival from being held on the campus, apparently because some of the films portray the lives of same-sex couples. Homophobia runs deep. You can tell freedom is in peril when universities, the very institutions that should be on the front line in pushing freedom to promote free thinking, are leading the assault.

Young Indonesians have also become targets of this growing intolerance. Already there are indications that the police will cancel the concert of Lady Gaga in Jakarta, scheduled for early next month, following threats from the Front for Islamic Defenders (FPI) to disrupt the event. How the 60,000 fans of Lady Gaga who bought and paid for the tickets react remains to be seen.

Religious minorities have felt the brunt of intolerance the longest, having been at the receiving end these past two or three years. The FPI is leading others like it in instigating villagers to persecute people of other faiths. It has expanded its target to include the followers of Ahmadiyah, Shi’ite and all sects of Islam which the mainstream Sunnis regard as deviant and blasphemous, and increasingly Christians, the largest among the religious minorities.

The state itself played a pivotal role in leading some of the religious persecution.

The district chief of Singkil in Aceh this month sealed 18 Christian and Catholic churches in his region. The mayor of Bogor, a town near Jakarta, continues to ignore a Supreme Court order to let the followers of GKI Yasmin Christians hold their Sunday Mass in church, which he had sealed. In Bekasi, another satellite town, the followers of the HKBP Filadelfia have had to pray in the streets every Sunday because their church had been forcibly closed down by the local people working with FPI.

In many of these cases, the police cannot be counted on to protect the religious minorities in the face of harassment and intimidation. The best they could offer is protection for their lives, but not their property, their right to build places of worship, and or even to practise their faith.

The most disturbing aspect of all this is not the violent behaviour of the radicals or the failure of the state or the police in providing protection, but the indifference shown by the majority of the people towards the attacks on freedom of speech, association and religion. The silence of the majority is read in some quarters as condoning the violent attacks.

Indonesians’ understanding of tolerance has been stretched to include tolerating the intolerance. The perpetrators are emboldened as each violent action was met with little public objection or condemnation. Their attacks become more frequent and more violent and their attacks spread.

As officials go around bragging about Indonesia being the world’s third-largest democracy and the largest Muslim-majority democracy, the country increasingly fits what Fareed Zakaria aptly describes as an illiberal democracy. In spite of regular elections that could be described as free and fair, it is a democracy with fewer and fewer freedoms.

Some external pressures are being exerted on the Indonesian government to get its act together. This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council began a periodic four-yearly review of Indonesia’s human rights record. On the basis of events this month alone, it is unlikely that Indonesia will pass the test on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

But ultimately, the pressure that matters is the one that comes from within Indonesia. The police and the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will not likely clamp down on these violations against freedom unless the public speak out. This is not forthcoming, at least not so far. In the meantime, Indonesians will simply have to live with fewer freedoms.

During a discussion to compare life for religious minorities today against the era of former president Suharto, one Christian leader admitted that Christians felt much more secure before. But he added that they would not trade their freedoms for the repressive security the Suharto regime provided. ‘All we are asking is for the state, the police in particular, to enforce the law. That’s all.’

 

The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post.

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