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"Religious Intolerance Marks the Beginning of the Election Year in Indonesia" by Deasy Simandjuntak

2018/12, 14 February 2018

On Sunday 11 February morning, the residents of the generally tolerant, multi-religious, province of Yogyakarta, experienced a rare bout of religious violence. During a mass at a Catholic church, an unknown young man walked in and stabbed the priest and several church-goers. The police shot the perpetrator, while all victims were rushed to the hospitals and could be saved.

According to Indonesia’s National Police Chief Tito Karnavian, the perpetrator had a “radicalized mind-set” and had once planned to go to Syria. Meanwhile, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto appealed for Indonesians to stay calm as the police conducts further investigation.

This episode marks the latest in the string of incidents of religious intolerance since the beginning of 2018, the year in which many Indonesian provinces and districts will conduct their gubernatorial and district-head elections.

Two weeks ago, a senior Muslim cleric of an Islamic boarding school in Bandung, West Java, was attacked by an unknown assailant after the morning congregational prayers. The cleric, KH Umar Basri and his school are known to be part of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest moderate Islamic organization in the country, known to propagate tolerance and the values of unity in diversity.

Religious intolerance also took the form of a forceful obstruction of minority religions’ activities. Last week, netizens were flabbergasted by a viral video showing some people in Tangerang, Banten, forcing a Buddhist monk to cease what they considered as a religious worship at his house. These people cited the law that forbids residential homes to be used as worship places. After investigation, the police found that the monk was only being visited by his followers, thus not conducting a “worship”.

The same law was repeatedly used by hard-line groups, such as the infamous Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), to “legitimize” the forced closure and ransacking of minority religions’ places of worship across the archipelago in the recent years. In the deliberation of the revised Criminal Code Bill (RKUHP) this year, the parliament plan to include a clause which criminalizes the acts of forceful obstruction of religious worships, ceremonies and meetings. However, this is an extension of the “blasphemy” clause, which could potentially be used to continue curbing minority religions.

Commenting on the incidents, President Joko Widodo stated that “there is no place for those who are against [religious] tolerance in our country”, as religious freedom is protected under the Constitution. Meanwhile, the President’s Special Envoy for Interfaith and Inter-civilization Dialogue and Cooperation, Din Syamsuddin, who is former chairman of Indonesia’s second largest moderate Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah, warned about groups aiming to disrupt harmony. The chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) voiced similar concerns.

These incidents might have several political implications:

Firstly, episodes of religious intolerance could aggravate the existing electoral battle-lines in key regions this year. West Java, where one of the attacks took place, will have its gubernatorial election in June. In 2015-2016, it was listed by Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission as the most intolerant province due to multiple religious freedom violation cases. With its proximity to Jakarta -whose gubernatorial election in 2017 was rancorously sectarian- the recent situation could potentially exacerbate the existing sectarian tensions in the province and disrupt stability during election.

Secondly, intolerant groups have repeatedly used “the law” to legitimize forcefully prohibiting minority religions’ activities. The central government needs to re-evaluate laws which impede religious freedom to curb hard-line movements and preserve religious tolerance.

Deasy Simandjuntak is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.