By Martin Surridge – President Barack Obama’s Kenyan connection and family lineage is well known, but the Hawaiian-born democrat from Illinois also spent several formative years in the nation of Indonesia–which he hailed last year as a country “defined by more than its Muslim population” and where “individuals are not defined solely by their faith.” The president may regret those words after the events of the past couple weeks, where numerous violent incidents all point towards an interfaith crisis in the Southeast Asian archipelago.
This is Article18-RLTV’s weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we focus on a different nation, and the struggles facing one of its religious communities. This week: Indonesia, where the country’s attempts at cultural and religious plurality may be unraveling at the seams due to a series of violent religiously-inspired attacks against person and property.
Indonesia, despite being thousands of miles away from the Middle East, is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Yet its proximity to mainland Asia has resulted in governmental recognition of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism and Jakarta also acknowledges both Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity. However, these attempts at religious pluralism serve as little consolation to unprotected spiritual groups, such as members of Ahmadiyah faith, three of whom were viciously beaten and killed this month by members of an Indonesian Islamist group. The Ahmadiyah faith “is a variant of Islam that follows the teachings of the Koran but regards an Indian preacher, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a ‘messiah’ who followed the prophet Muhammad.” Mainstream Indonesian Muslim groups, however, typically do not treat Ahmadis as a part of Islam nor as a legitimate separate religion, but rather as a heretical, breakaway sect. Video footage of the deadly attack, which was recorded on a cell phone, showed how the killings were tragically allowed to happen in the presence of police and a cheering crowd.
Radical Islam may be slowly tightening its grip on the hearts and minds of the country’s Muslim population, but the Indonesian justice system has offered a glimmer of hope to the international community this week. As the trial continues for Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, an accused terrorist and jihadist leader, the man widely assumed to be responsible for the devastating bombings in Bali in 2002, it is believed that the police have enough evidence to force him to spend the rest of his life in prison. The move would be especially welcomed by the United States, keen to have Ba’asyir, one of the world’s most inspirational and dangerous radicals, behind bars, thanks not to the efforts of an invading American military force but through the process of Indonesian law.
Perhaps Indonesia really is capable of standing up to extremist thugs. Yet, other religious communities in Indonesia have suffered considerable persecution in recent weeks, also at the hands of emboldened Muslim extremists. Less than two weeks ago, thousands of Muslim protesters burned churches in Java after a Christian evangelist was not given the death penalty, but merely five years in jail for blaspheming against Islam. In January, several Muslim hardliners stood trial for stabbing a Christian church elder in Jakarta as well as viciously beating another church member with a wooden plank. The men suspected of the attack are believed to be part of a group known as the Islamic Defenders’ Front. In the same article the BBC reports that, “Christians have needed police escorts to attend mass in Bekasi since the FPI attacks began” and that such a “high-profile case has highlighted growing religious intolerance in the world’s biggest Muslim nation.” While it appears that the courts of Indonesia may be making progress when it comes to prosecuting terrorism and hopefully those responsible for the stabbing of the Java church members, actual tolerance needs more than the actions of a judge in a courtroom. Politicians must realize that Indonesia is not and never will be the exclusively Muslim nation that Ba’asyir and his ilk so desperately desire.