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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South East Asia > Indonesia > Indonesia: “Christianisation” and Intolerance

Indonesia: “Christianisation” and Intolerance

Asia Briefing N°114 24 Nov 2010

OVERVIEW

Religious tolerance in Indonesia has come under increasing strain in recent years, particularly where hardline Islamists and Christian evangelicals compete for the same ground. Islamists use “Christianisation” – a term that generally refers both to Christian efforts to convert Muslims and the alleged growing influence of Christianity in Muslim-majority Indonesia – as a justification for mass mobilisation and vigilante attacks. The tensions brought about by these clashing fundamentalisms are nowhere clearer than in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, where a series of disputes since 2008 over church construction, alleged mass conversion efforts and affronts to Islam have led in some cases to violence. The Indonesian government needs a strategy to address growing religious intolerance, because without one, mob rule prevails. Local officials address each incident only when it gets out of hand and usually by capitulating to whoever makes the most noise. Every time this happens, the victors are emboldened to raise the stakes for the next confrontation.

Christian-Muslim tensions have increased in Indonesia for several reasons:

  • Failure of the government to prevent or effectively prosecute incitement and intimidation against religious minorities.
  • Growth of Islamic vigilante organisations and various like-minded coalitions that have become a public order menace.
  • Aggressive evangelical Christian proselytising in Muslim strongholds.
  • Effective devolution of power through decentralisation to local authorities, even on issues such as religious affairs which are supposed to be the preserve of the central government.
  • Reluctance to prosecute “hate speech” partly out of confusion over acceptable limits on legitimate free expression.
  • Lack of any serious effort to promote tolerance as a national value.

The incidents in Bekasi exemplify some of the dynamics involved. Islamist organisations like the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, DDII) and Islamic Student Movement (Gerakan Pemuda Islam, GPI) have long been active there, both with a strongly anti-Christian streak. Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) has had a strong presence for the last decade, and recent years have seen the formation of a variety of anti-apostasy coalitions. Bekasi also has a well-entrenched salafi jihadi community, and Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), the organisation established by the radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in 2008, held its inaugural ceremony at the dormitory for Mecca-bound pilgrims there.

On the Christian side, several evangelical organisations committed to converting Muslims have also set up shop in Bekasi, some funded internationally, others purely home-grown. Yayasan Mahanaim, one of the wealthiest and most active, is particularly loathed by the Islamist community because of its programs targeting the Muslim poor. Another, Yayasan Bethmidrash Talmiddin, run by a Muslim convert to Christianity, uses Arabic calligraphy on the cover of its booklets, suggesting they are Islamic in content, and requires every student at its school as a graduation requirement to convert five people.

While officials and legislators talk of the need for “religious harmony”, there is a sense that this can be legislated or even imposed, rather than requiring sustained time and effort to understand how tensions have grown and developing programs designed to reduce them. Interfaith dialogues are not the answer; with a few exceptions, they are often little more than feel-good talk-fests that do not grapple with real problems.

Among the many reasons for developing a strategy to curb communal tensions, one deserves particular attention: the issue of “Christianisation” may be driving non-violent and violent extremists together. Until recently, the attachment of salafi jihadis – the violent extremists – to a more internationalist agenda led them to generally steer clear of local “anti-apostasy” activists. But the loss of other local drivers for recruitment, particularly the end of sectarian violence in Poso, Central Sulawesi, has made “Christianisation” more attractive as a rallying cry. In Palembang, South Sumatra in 2008, a fugitive Singaporean member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) recruited members of an anti-apostasy group called FAKTA by first persuading them that murder, rather than non-violent advocacy, was the only way to stop Christian proselytisation. And in September 2010, dozens of Acehnese on trial for taking part in a terrorist training camp cited as one of their motivations concern over “Christianisation” in Aceh.

Terrorist networks in Indonesia have grown substantially weaker and more divided over the last five years, but systematic exploitation of the fear that Christians are making inroads on Islam might bring them new followers, including from among the vigilantes that they have hitherto largely shunned.

Jakarta/Brussels, 24 November 2010