Lifestyle & Belief

Rights group says Indonesia a hotbed of religious intolerance and corruption


An Indonesian Muslim resident (C) shouts at Christian worshippers during Christmas mass on December 25, 2012. More than 200 Indonesian Muslims threw rotten eggs at Christians, an incident that's part of a growing trend of religious intolerance, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.



Religious intolerance in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, is out of control as members of minority religions face systemic discrimination, violence and widespread abuses, said a Human Rights Watch report released today.

A county of 238 million people, Indonesia is an archipelago made up of 17,000 islands known for tourist havens like Aceh and Bali. But paradise is hard to come by for locals, especially those belonging to faiths other than Sunni Islam, an overwhelming majority of the population.

Although the country's constitution provides for the freedom of religion, a history of state corruption, intimidation and divisive laws disguised as peacekeeping measures have ensnared religious minorities in an increasingly violent web of harassment and injustice.

The report, titled "In Religion's Name," cites the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which noted 216 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2010, 244 cases in 2011, and 264 cases in 2012. The Wahid Institute, another Jakarta-based monitoring group, documented 92 violations of religious freedom and 184 incidents of religious intolerance in 2011, up from 64 violations and 134 incidents of intolerance in 2010.

Many of these incidents are either violent attacks by mobs on individuals, bureaucratic corruption and legal miscarriages of justice in the courts, or vandalism (including arson) of houses of worship.

“The Indonesian government’s failure to take decisive action to protect religious minorities from threats and violence is undermining its claims to being a rights-respecting democracy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release about the report. “National leadership is essential. [President] Yudhoyono needs to insist that national laws be enforced, announce that every violent attack will be prosecuted, and map out a comprehensive strategy to combat rising religious intolerance.”

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Researchers say non-Sunni Indonesians have never truly had religious freedom, notwithstanding President Obama's insistence that the "spirit of religious tolerance… remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics,” a claim he made in 2010.

There are six officially recognized religions in the country, and followers of banned or "heretical" religions such as Baha’i and Ahmadiyah, an Islamic religious revivalist movement that believes in a post-Mohammed Messiah, are in near-constant fear of discrimination or attack.

In 2008, the attorney general's office recommended banning the Ahmadiyah faith, says HRW's report, ostensibly as an attempt to keep the peace and protect followers from harassment (such as a series of incidents in which school children were bullied or beaten) or outright assault.

The report details the attack of 25-year-old Ahmad Masihuddin, who was nearly killed by a mob in 2011, and nearby police did nothing to help.

"They dragged me out of the water. They held my hands and cut my belt with a machete. They cut my shirt, pants and undershirt, leaving me in my underwear. They took 2.5 million rupiah (US$270) and my Blackberry. They tried to take off my underwear and cut my penis. I was laying in the fetal position. I tried to protect my face but my left eye was stabbed. Then I heard them say, 'He is dead, he is dead.'"

Despite the ban on the religion, the Setara Institute reports Ahmadiyah-related "violence rose from three reported incidents in 2006 to 50 in 2010 and 114 in 2011."

Even Shia Islam — the second most common type of Islam —  is considered heretical in some parts of the country where Sunni extremists and militants are in league with local officials, some with acknowledged ties to Al Qaeda.

For example, the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, has been known to be funded by police, despite their roles in vigilante actions and a 2006 attack on the US Embassy.

A Wikileaks State Dept. cable from 2006 notes that the national police chief had provided funds to the group and that the chief used FPI members as his own personal form of intimidation.

He "found it useful to have FPI available to him as an 'attack dog,'" reads the leaked cable, which continues to describe the Sunni group "as a useful tool that could spare the security forces from criticism for human rights violations."

HRW reports that these police partnerships are often at the detriment of religious minorities, the targets of terrorist attacks by groups such as the FPI.

"Police at times have sided with Islamist militants at the expense of the rights of religious minorities ostensibly to avoid violence. After an act of incitement or physical attack by Islamists, instead of investigating and prosecuting those responsible, police have sometimes tried to convince the religious minority targeted by the attack to leave the area or close their houses of worship in the interests of public order. For instance, an Ahmadiyah imam in Sukadana, Campaka district, Cianjur, told Human Rights Watch that the police urged him to leave Sukadana because his presence would upset Muslims and might lead to violence."

The corruption doesn't stop there.

Officials have reportedly bent to pressure by Sunni Muslims to step in to revoke building permits from Christian and Shia groups attempting to construct houses of worship, or look the other way when those churches or mosques are burned down. Local police have also failed to properly investigate these crimes, which suggests a deep level of corruption and complicity. Meanwhile, judges are lenient with perpetrators of violent crimes, although the exception seems to be when the incident in question can only be considered terrorism, such as the suicide bombing of a church in Java in 2011.

Indonesia's blasphemy law is also an easy enabler of bureaucratic corruption, mostly because of its seemingly purposeful vagueness.

"Any person who deliberately, in public, expresses feelings or commits an act: which principally has the character of being of hostility, hatred, or contempt against a religion adhered to in Indonesia; with the purpose of preventing a person adhering to any religion based on the belief of the Almighty God shall be punished up to a maximum imprisonment of five years."

Since 2005, over a dozen people have been prosecuted under this 1965 blasphemy statute, including Sebastian Joe, a Muslim sentenced to four years imprisonment for blasphemy in November 2012 for comments on his Facebook page.

The biggest concern regarding crimes of blasphemy is that the law only covers the six official religions, which are often printed on government-issued identification cards. While it's not mandatory for a citizen to list their religion on their card, those who don't are discriminated against, and even those who do face persecution and legal action, even if they belong to a "protected" religion.

"Individuals who do not declare a religion risk being labeled 'godless' by some Muslim clerics and officials and subject to possible blasphemy prosecution. In 2012 alone, a self-declared atheist, a Shia cleric, and a spiritualist have all been jailed for blasphemy after listing Islam as their religion on their ID cards," says the HRW report.

The law was challenged in constitutional court in 2009, but an 8 to 1 majority opinion won out, again allegedly in an attempt to maintain "public order" and protect religious minorities. One of the key witnesses in favor of retaining the law was Patrialis Akbar, the Minister for Law and Human Rights. 

But blasphemy can even be interpreted as loosely as something like a Muslim attending Chinese New Year parades. Earlier this month, a religious leader in Central Java issued a fatwa (a religious decree that local authorities often interpret as law, especially in areas of Indonesia that rule by Sharia) banning Muslims from joining in the celebration.

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"Of late, there have been a string of edicts handed down by individual clerics that can be considered trivial and even bordering on the ridiculous," wrote Salim Osman in a Feb. 21 editorial in the Straights Times. "There is a need for some sort of control in the way fatwas are issued in the country. The fatwas, though not officially binding, can be a guide but can also lead to confusion because of different interpretations of the same issue."

This kind of confusion lends itself to furthering religious intolerance and vigilante-style actions by extremists, and blasphemy laws and edicts only further eradicate freedom of expression.

A new bill, meant to be voted on by the parliament next month and expected to pass, will continue this disturbing trend by banning associations that contradict a belief in "the One and Only God," the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights announced earlier this month.

“Associations should be free to determine their statutes, structures and activities and to make decisions without State interference,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai. "The State must ensure that any restriction on the rights to freedom of association, expression, and religion is necessary in a democratic society, proportionate to the aim pursued, and does not harm the principles of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness."

For its part, parliament expect to pass the bill by the middle of next month, and the rhetoric in favor of the language that experts say will restrict freedom sounds familiar.

"It is the right of a state to manage freedom, because freedom without control surely disturbs and threatens other persons or groups,” said Abdul Malik Haramain, the chairman of the House of Representatives special committee and a supporter of the law, to the Jakarta Post. 

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