Religious freedom under threat in Indonesia

Indonesia is a bewilderingly complex country. It’s not the sort of place that gives up its secrets easily. Even old hands like fellow Londoner Jakartass and myself find it difficult to know what people are really thinking here.

Partly this is due to Indonesia’s rich ethnic diversity – there are some 300-plus ethnic groups here, ranging from the fiery Acehnese in the northern most part of Sumatra to the Christian Timorese many thousands of kilometers to the east.

But more significant, I think, is the old Javanese feudalistic mentality that still has a very strong influence here. The Javanese are not known for being straightforward. Even when they disagree with you, a Javanese will smile happily, giving the impression that everything is okay. Conflict is to be avoided at all costs; harmony is everything.

But perhaps things are about to change. Because the old way of Javanese thinking is now facing a strong challenge from the radicals. And these dudes don’t care about the traditional Javanese Kejawen beliefs that also combine some elements of other religions, especially Hinduism.

The radicals see things in black and white. And their ranks are growing rapidly: God is an attractive proposition when you live in a corrupt hierarchical society in which corruptors live like kings and the poor can barely survive.

And the radicals are getting more confident. So confident in fact that they’ve decided that Christians shouldn’t even be allowed to go to church.

Besides this, the emergence of groups like the Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance (AGAP) and the Anti-Apostasy Front (BAP) is extremely ominous. Anti-Apostasy? What does that mean? Only Muslims have the right to pray, I fear. If you hold other religious beliefs, tough luck. After all, you are an apostate. And you will go to hell…

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) is hardening its stance. It doesn’t even bother anymore to pretend that pluralism is a good thing:

Fauzan Al Anshari argued that there was no such thing as freedom of thought in Islam, but only the optimization of thinking.

"Human reason is very limited. Total freedom of thought, it is feared, would lead to apostasy."
He also said Islam and liberalism are incompatible, as long as liberals question the validity of religion.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to know how many Javanese share such beliefs. Not so many judging by the shopping malls in Jakarta where tank tops and tight fitting jeans are far more common than traditional clothes. But then Jakarta isn’t Indonesia: attitudes are very different in the countryside and even in Java’s main towns where conservative attitudes prevail.

Some people wonder if Indonesia is heading for an Islamic revolution like in Iran. Although I’d say this is an unlikely prospect, it is less unlikely than five years ago. The radicals are definitely growing in numbers, and attitudes are hardening. Maybe Bali is the only hope after all!


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