Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Religion ruins everything: Indonesia edition

Every so often, I call home to touch base with the folks, get updates on the family and stay in the will keep them updated on the goings-on out here. I'm pretty much an open book, but as with most conversations between children (regardless of age) and their parents, there is a fair bit of editing. While I don't have to hide nights of drinking, doing drugs or cavorting with women of flexible moral fiber — I lack the expendable income to fund the debauched lifestyle of the stereotypical expat journalist in Southeast Asia — there are some aspects of life in Indonesia that are best left unmentioned.

The founding philosophy of this country is Pancasila, or five principles. It includes all the usual stuff — justice, unity, democracy, etc. — with one glaring exception. It also enshrines monotheism as one of the inseparable, interrelated principles of the nation. Indonesians are required by the law of the land to believe in the "one and only God." It doesn't say which god, happily enough, but make no mistake: this is a religious country.

That can be a bit of a bugaboo when your beliefs don't align with the majority — or when you don't believe at all.

Inter-religious strife is nothing new around these parts. Even with the Hindus largely congregating on Bali and the Protestants on Papua, some meeting of beliefs with the majority Muslims is inevitable in a population of 238 million.

Unfortunately, some members of the majority don't subscribe to pluralism. Their actions, if not their words, belie a group that wants every Indonesian to believe as they do — exactly as they do — or else. Some clashes can be put down to random acts or personal differences, but the growing scale and intensity of these incidents born of religious intolerance cannot be ignored:

Lynch mobs batter Indonesia's tolerant image
Indonesia’s cherished image as a “moderate” Muslim-majority nation has taken a battering at the hands of mobs of angry Muslims who slaughtered three members of a minority sect on Sunday and damaged two churches on Tuesday.

The attack on the Ahmadiyah sect was particularly heinous. Captured on film that is too graphic even for Indonesian television to broadcast in full, the lynchers clubbed and stoned their victims to death in front of police, then laughed at their limp, shattered bodies.

Police admit they knew the attack was coming but said they could do nothing to stop it, an explanation dismissed as absurd by human rights groups.
Buildings ablaze in Central Java protest
Roving mobs of Muslims on Tuesday attacked and vandalized five buildings, including two churches, in the small Central Java town of Temanggung following the sentencing of a man on trial for contempt of Islam.

Judges at the district court in Temanggung on Tuesday sentenced Antonius Richmord Bawengan, 58, to five years in jail, as the prosecutors had requested.

The verdict angered members of hard-line Islamic groups, who thought it was too lenient, setting off the spasm of violence.

Two churches, a school and two police stations were vandalized by the mobs and a number of cars and motorcycles were set on fire. Nine people were injured in the violence, most by thrown stones, police said.
Killings put focus on tiny village
Zulkifli, a 21-year-old resident of nearby Malingping town, said he first heard of the little-known village during the anniversary of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) last August.

“The anniversary was celebrated here [in Malingping]. FPI paraded through the city and staged a mass sermon,” he said, pointing to a nearby field.

Zulkifli recounted seeing public officials and senior police officers among the crowd, numbering around 1,000.

“It is halal for the blood of an Ahmadi to be spilled,” he quoted a local cleric named Madzuri, who led the sermon, as saying. “I have received instructions from our leader, Habib Rizieq. Ahmadiyah must be driven out of Banten,” the cleric added.
Video shows brutality of attack on sect
Twenty-one Ahmadi’s had been guarding Suparman’s house after he was detained by local police on suspicion he had been proselytizing, which is forbidden under a 2008 ministerial decree restricting Ahmadiyah’s actvities.

The video shows police attempting to persuade the Ahmadi to leave the house, with one plain-clothed officer filmed warning the group that a mob was headed for the village.

The mob subsequently stormed the village. There were no police barricades erected to prevent clashes.

“Police get out. Burn these Ahmadiyah people!” one man shouted.
Scores of police keep Bekasi protest peaceful
In a fresh case of religious friction, some 50 people rallied on Wednesday outside an unfinished church in Bekasi, where a heavy police presence prevented any violence.
The Galilea Church site became the center of dispute after the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) rallied at the site in February 2010, claiming its congregation would try to convert Muslims in the area.

“They used planks of wood to seal the entrance to the church, but it was never officially sealed by the municipal government,” Tetelepta said. “We continued with our construction plans, even though we tried to do it as discreetly as we could.”
Bekasi Police Chief Sr. Comr. Imam Sugianto said about 60 officers had been deployed to prevent outbreaks of violence.

Endang said the Galilea Church had all the necessary building permits. “That is what matters to us. The church has an official permit, according to the requirements in the 2006 ministerial decree,” he said, referring to the government directive on houses of worship.

However, Saleh Mangara Sitompul, general secretary of the Bekasi Islamic Congress, challenged the city to make the permit public, saying that if everything was legitimate as it said, then “people would not demonstrate like that.”
Religion at odds with Pancasila
When Reformasi swept Suharto from power in 1998, the aftermath was predictable.

It was as if, after being silenced for more than three decades, all the pent-up forces of Islamic right-wingers rematerialized with a vengeance.

It is thus ironic that our democracy has made the reincarnation of such an anti-democratic group possible.

Henceforth, it has sought to redefine Indonesia, aided by successive governments eager to avoid offending the Muslim constituents.

Since Reformasi, we have seen more and more Indonesian women take up the jilbab (headscarf).

We have seen acts of terrorism committed in the name of religion. The entertainment industry has to fake non-existence during Ramadan just to please the whims of the fanatical.

Pancasila, our final vanguard against religious extremism, is on its last legs.
That's just in the last week. What are the authorities doing about this worrying trend, you may ask? The answer, pretty clearly, is not helping:
The 2008 joint ministerial decree forbidding Ahmadiyah followers from promoting their activities is not to blame for the discrimination suffered by the minority sect's followers, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali said on Wednesday evening.

"The decree was not made to discriminate against a certain group, it was aimed at maintaining religious harmony, including to protect Ahmadiyah," he said in a hearing with the House of Representatives Commission VIII, which oversees religious affairs.

Mainstream Muslim groups accuse Ahmadiyah members of heresy, saying that they profess their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, to be the final prophet of Islam — a tenet that runs directly against Islamic beliefs that reserve that claim for Muhammad.

The accusation is disputed by the Ahmadiyah community, but this claim is largely behind the 2008 joint ministerial decree banning Ahmadiyah members from spreading its faith. Activists say this decree gave cover for extremists to act out their hatred.
Imran Muchtar, a lawmaker from the Democratic Party, said he agreed with the solution offered by the minister. "First, Ahmadiyah members should repent, recognize their mistake and come back to the mainstream Islam," he said.

"The second option they have is to leave Islam and declare a new religion. Otherwise the conflict will never end."

Hazrul Azwar, a lawmaker from the Islam-based United Development Party (PPP), called for stronger action.

"The Ahmadiyah should be disbanded permanently, as long as the government is not strict enough the conflict is never going to end," he said. "The fake prophet is a disgrace to my religion. Clerics in the whole world have banned Ahmadiyah, why is the government not doing the same thing?"
Temanggung riot not related to religion, chief says
The Central Java Police claimed on Wednesday that the attack a day earlier on two churches and a Christian school by Islamic hard-liners was not a religious conflict.

Central Java Police Chief Insp. Gen. Edward Aritonang said the attack, which also saw two other buildings vandalized, was “purely an act of criminal vandalism.”

He added the fact that the mob had targeted Christian buildings did not prove that they were hostile to the religion.
Institutionalized bigotry — Indonesia, what a country!

'What do you care?' I hear you ask. 'You don't believe in religion of any sort!' True, I am a non-believer. In most circumstances I'd be able to fly under the radar ... but not here. Not in a country where religion is mandated.
All this has consequences: you have to declare your religion on your ID card, and atheism is not an option. In practical terms, most people will choose to enter the religion their families follow, however loosely (it is often not appreciated that, for many people, especially those in urban areas, religion is often much more a badge of cultural identity than a faith). It still means, however, that atheists are having to profess publicly to something they don't believe in. Their own belief, or lack of belief, cannot be officially acknowledged.
Being acknowledged by the government is the least of Indonesian atheists' worries — even though that has its own pitfalls.
There is no provision for individuals with no religious belief to enter into a civil marriage contract, and no legal documentation for those without such a belief. This results in people keeping their atheist beliefs secret and when the time comes to marry, they make the choice of either marrying in a religious ceremony that is devoid of meaning for them, or not marrying at all, which can leave their family and offspring without legal protection.
Moreover, under Indonesian Law No 23 of 2006 on Civic Administration, individuals are required to record their faith on legal documents such as identity cards and birth certificates. Atheists who ascribe to no religion or those who wish to leave the column blank or to register under one of the non-recognised religions face discrimination and harassment – including refusal of employment.
That's just the government, though. As we've seen, some of the local Muslim don't exactly take kindly to people who believe differently than they do, and that extends to people who don't believe at all.
It was such a stigma that prompted a 35-year-old teacher from West Sumatra, known online as "XYZMan," to start an email mailing list in 2004 to allow atheists to discuss their beliefs. The list now has more than 350 members.

Despite the success of the mailing list, XYZMan said he is forced to keep his own atheism secret in the real world, and has already suffered the breakdown of a marriage with a Muslim woman due to his non-belief.

"If everyone knew that I'm an atheist, I could lose my job, my family would hate me and also some friends," he said in an email interview.

"It's also more likely that I could be physically attacked or killed because I'm a kafir (unbeliever) and my blood is halal (allowed to be spilled) according to Islam."
Fortunately, as the above link suggests, non-believers in Indonesia are not without outlets. There is a group called Indonesian Atheists, among others, and while the climate for non-believers is far from conducive, the Internet is helping people connect like never before.

I took an online college course in Comparative Religions not too long ago, and I lost count of how many times I referred to Indonesia and my experiences here (and not just during the chapter on Islam). I repeatedly went to bat for this country and its people because the majority of them are friendly, peaceful folks who are happy to live and let live while trying to make a better life for themselves and their family. This is a country founded on secularism and pluralism, I argued, and the way its people continue to practice Islam while rejecting extremism flies in the face of the uneducated masses who hear "Muslim" and immediately think of the likes of Osama bin Laden, Mohamed Atta and Richard Reid.

It's a young democracy, sure, and it's bound to make mistakes along the way. At the same time, it's a grand experiment in balancing democracy, secularism and Islam. I hope it works — I want it to work — but damn if this place doesn't leave that hope in tatters some days.

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