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Briefing 114 / Asia

Indonesia: “Christianisation” and Intolerance

The Indonesian government needs a strategy to address growing religious intolerance, particularly in areas where hardline Islamists and Christian evangelicals are competing for the same ground.

I. 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

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.
 

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013