Indonesia’s Battle for Religious Pluralism Continues
By Farish A. Noor
Over the past months Indonesia has witnessed, once again, mass demonstrations and mobilisation on its streets. Throughout the month of May, the campuses of the country spilled open and large demonstrations were organised in almost every major city across the Indonesian archipelago to raise awareness about the rising costs of living and in particular the rising cost of oil and gas; in a country that was once a major oil producer but which – over the past five years – has been reduced to being a net oil and gas importer.
While the students of Indonesia’s universities and colleges have taken to the streets to protest on matters that are related to the political economy of the country, other groups have also taken to the streets in protest over issues that have less to do with the material well being of the nation. Since April, Indonesia has also witnessed a string of demonstrations led and organised by right-wing communitarian religious parties and organisations such as the Fron Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders’ Front, FPI) on matters that have little to do with the economic welfare and future of the country.
One such protest came in late April when the FPI, along with several other allied right-wing conservative Islamist groups, protested over the ruling that the Ahmadiya Muslim minority community was allowed to exist in the country as long as they did not openly declare themselves to be Muslims. For more than a century the Ahmadis have been living in Indonesia and historians will point to the fact that the founding fathers of Indonesia’s nationalist and anti-colonial movement were educated and drawn from the Ahmadi community as well.
Yet, the theological disputes between conservative hardliners and the Ahmadis (the former of whom regard the latter as deviants) have come out into the open and led to the eruption of violence and hostility in the streets. Right-wing groups like the FPI have called on the state to disband the Ahmadis altogether, failing which death threats have been issued to prominent Ahmadi leaders and intellectuals, and Ahmadi mosques have been destroyed by mobs of right-wingers.
Thus Indonesia today is once again in the throes of crisis as both external economic-structural factors now impinge on the already fragile social-cultural balance in this, perhaps one of the most complex, diverse and plural of Muslim societies in the world.
The challenge now faced by the government of President Bambang Yudhoyono is to keep the country on an even keel while rising costs made worse by the global energy crisis and the rise of imported fuel prices are raising the level of domestic inflation to an unprecedented level. Massive unrest is brewing though this is not entirely due to the fault of the Indonesian government: for in neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand the rising cost of fuel has also led to rising levels of inflation as well.
The danger, however, is this: Those familiar with the Byzantine world of Indonesian domestic politics will know that right-wing radical groups like the Fron Pembela Islam have never emerged out of a political vacuum without some degree of institutional and party-political support. One other group that attained world-wide recognition was the notorious Laskar Jihad, a right-wing paramilitary group that sent off its members to fight, kill and die as Jihadis in the religious war against the Christians in the Moluccas years ago. Later it was discovered – and admitted by the leader of the Laskar Jihad itself, Ja’afar Umar Tholib – that his paramilitary outfit had received support, patronage and protection of key figures in the political and military establishment of Indonesia itself. Which leads us to the obvious question: who, then, are the real power-behind-the-throne that is pulling the strings of groups like the Fron Pembela Islam?
This week the Indonesian security forces have finally begun to act against the FPI by arresting some of their members and leaders after storming the FPI stronghold in downtown Jakarta. Much to the relief of Indonesia’s mainstream moderate and liberal Muslims, this has come at a time when there is the need to keep such sectarian and divisive forces in check. However analysts remain perturbed by the rise of such right-wing religious groups when Indonesia seems once again to be teetering on the verge of a major economic crisis, made worse by external economic and political variable factors it cannot control.
In the wake of the 1997-98 economic crisis that rocked Asia and crippled the economies of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea; many an extreme right-wing group came to the fore to occupy the centre of the public domain in Indonesia. With hindsight it can be seen that the sudden mobilisation of these sectarian groups that preached inter-religious hatred and conflict was one of the by-products of an economic crisis that had been badly handled. Others suggest that these groups were also useful in distracting public attention from real issues such as economic mismanagement and the failure of governance in the country.
Now that Southeast Asia seems to be on the verge of yet another economic crisis instigated by the global energy crisis, will there be a repeat of the scenario of 1997-2000, when right-wing religious and communitarian groups came to the fore to add to the chaos? Indonesia’s battle to retain the plural spirit of its secular constitution continues, and all eyes are on the government of Yudhoyono to ensure that the fiery tempers that led to the burning of the Ahmadi mosques across the country in April are not reignited again, with a vengeance.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.