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Commentary: Didn’t you see the writing on the wall?
Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post, Washington, DC
As shocking as the attacks on religious minority groups in Indonesia on Sunday and Tuesday were, the news did not come entirely as a surprise to anyone who has closely followed recent trends on interfaith relations.
This is doubly tragic. The attacks might have been prevented if the authorities had not been in constant denial of a creeping intolerance expressed by majority Muslims on one hand and religious minorities on the other.
Sunday’s mob attack on the followers of Ahmadiyah at a member’s home in Pandeglang, Banten, was not an isolated case. The Ahmadis have been the target of several mob attacks in recent years.
Attacks have become bolder and more violent precisely because the police have not acted firmly. As a result, three Ahmadis were slain on Sunday, six others injured and two reported missing in the worst mob violence wreaked against them.
What was so shocking about the tragedy was its brutality. Video clips of the violence posted on YouTube show the murderers beating an already dead Ahmadi while shouting “Allahu akbar!” (God is great). It also showed that the killing took place in the presence of the police.
Tuesday’s rampage in the Central Java city of Temanggung did not lead to any casualties but rioters destroyed three churches. Protests erupted after the local district court sentenced a man to five years’ imprisonment for blasphemy — the maximum penalty. The final day of the trial of 58-year-old Antonius Richmond Bawengan drew thousands of people who apparently were going to be disappointed with anything less than a death sentence.
Predictably, as soon as the verdict was read the crowd turned rowdy. Catholic churches in the town became a target of mob violence on the assumption that Antonius belonged to the congregations.
Police had known about the gathering mob but were unable to stop its destructive actions.
One can make the argument that these were isolated cases and in no way reflected relations between religious communities in the nation, at least not between the larger religious groups.
Ahmadiyah, with followers numbering around 300,000, has been singled out by Indonesia’s Muslim Sunni majority, who resent Ahmadiyah’s claim to be an Islamic sect. The government, on the advice of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), has imposed restrictions on Ahmadiyah, such as a ban on the spread of its teachings and on their organization’s use of the word “Islam”.
Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali even said in August that he was seeking to ban Ahmadiyah completely because its beliefs, specifically belief in a Prophet after Muhammad, blasphemed Islam.
Such an official attitude is carte blanche for radical groups to attack Ahmadis — and for the police not to make any serious attempt to stop such attacks.
The attack on the churches in Temanggung was not an isolated incident either. Many churches across the country have been the target of vandalism in the past year. These attacks have grown both in frequency and intensity. Some of the attacks turned into physical clashes with Christian congregations.
What triggered the attacks on Tuesday may be an isolated case, but the ease with which people were assembled and mobilized to go on a rampage to defend Islam was not. Something is gravely wrong with interfaith relations at the grassroots level. The attacks on churches confirm a recent survey and warnings by experts and religious leaders about the rising intolerance evinced by Indonesia’s Muslim majority.
Religious leaders who have been engaged in interfaith dialogues have clearly failed to communicate a message of peace to their followers.
Two problems have clearly emerged.
First is the police’s inability, or probably unwillingness, to confront mobs, especially mobs using religious symbols. There is nothing holy or religious about attacking, killing or harassing other people because of their faith.
The second and larger problem is the government’s continued denial of a growing problem on the religious freedom front. Religious minorities are finding it more difficult to practice their faith in the face of growing intolerance from Muslims.
Every attack on Ahmadiyah followers or churches has been dismissed by the government as nothing more than criminal acts for the police to deal with.
The roots of the problem — the inability of Christians to build their places of worship or the inability of Ahmadis to practice their faith — were never addressed, let alone resolved.
If there is any silver lining, it is that the tragedies on Sunday and Tuesday finally prompted a large number of Muslims in Indonesia to come out and to condemn the violence carried out in the name of their religion. Their silence in the past might have been construed as condoning the attacks or complicity in the crime.
President Susilo Bambang Yu-dhoyono for once has gone beyond ordering the police to arrest the perpetrators. In a speech on Wednesday the President demanded that the groups that incite violence and spread hate messages be disbanded. He still fell short of recognizing that there were problems in religious freedom, but he went further than he has gone before.
Has the government done enough? Have we seen the last of the violent attacks against religious minorities? Time will tell. But the writing’s on the wall.
The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post. He is currently a visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, DC.