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Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril

17/03/2014 11:34 GMT | Updated 10/05/2014 10:59 BST

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, third largest democracy, fourth most populous country and sixteenth largest economy is at a crossroads: politically, economically and socially.

This year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono leaves office after a decade in power. In many respects, Indonesia has much to celebrate. After a remarkable transition from authoritarianism to democracy, it boasts a thriving civil society, a largely free press and leadership within South-East Asia. From the chaos, conflict and currency crises of the 1990s, and the terrorist attacks of a decade ago, Indonesia is now held up as a leading voice for democracy in Asia, host of the Bali Democracy Forum, and an economic partner sought after by many in the West. The European Union is preparing to sign a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Indonesia, while both the United Kingdom and the United States have identified Indonesia as a strategic partner.

Yet change is in the air. Later this year, Indonesia will go to the polls, in parliamentary and presidential elections, and a new head of state will be elected. The country faces an interesting choice: if the governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo ("Jokowi") runs, he will represent hope and the future, but if Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of the old dictator Suharto wins, it could take Indonesia back to a previous era.

Crucially, Indonesia is facing testing times where religion is concerned. The country that has long been held up by international policy-makers as a role model of a pluralistic and democratic Muslim-majority nation is rapidly losing that status. A growing culture of religious extremism and intolerance has arisen in recent years, resulting in violent attacks on religious minorities, forcible closure of churches and the displacement of Ahmadiyya and Shi'a Muslims at the hands of Sunni fanatics. An atheist, Alexander Aan, spent two years in prison for declaring on Facebook that he did not believe in God, and adherents of indigenous traditional beliefs face discrimination in schools and the workplace. A follower of one indigenous traditional religion, known as 'Sapta Dharma', told human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) that "the problem for our members starts when they are born and continues until they die." Buddhists, Baha'is, Confucians and Sufi Muslims have also faced attacks.

Last week CSW launched a major new report, Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril - The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago, in the European Parliament, with an inter-faith delegation giving first-hand testimony of increasing violations of freedom of religion in the country. The same report was launched in the House of Commons in London the previous week.

The rise of religious intolerance is demonstrated by the statistics. The Jakarta-based Setara Institute documents incidents of violations of religious freedom, and the number has increased year-on-year, from 200 in 2009, to 216 in 2010, 244 in 2011 and 264 in 2012 - and these are just the incidents that are recorded. The Communion of Churches in Indonesia claims that at least 430 churches have been attacked, closed down or burned in the past decade, and the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum reports attacks on churches rising from just ten in 2009, to 47 in 2010, 64 in 2011 and 75 in 2012. Violent attacks on liberal-minded Muslims and LGBT groups have also occurred.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that this is now becoming not only a freedom of religion issue, but a rule of law issue - which has potential ramifications for the pursuit of strategic and economic partnerships with Indonesia. Take the high-profile cases of two churches in West Java, for example: HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, and GKI Yasmin in Bogor. Both churches were approved and legally licensed. In both cases, the local Mayor, under pressure from Islamists, then withdrew approval and forced the churches to close, forbidding the congregations to use their building. In both cases, the churches challenged the Mayor's decision in the courts, and in both cases they won. The courts at every level, all the way up to and including the Supreme Court, ruled that the churches were legal and had every right to open. The Mayor still refuses to allow them to do so, in clear defiance of Indonesia's Supreme Court. The Ombudsman of Indonesia - an official arbitrator - has advised the government that the churches should be permitted to open. Yet no one has taken any steps to ensure that the Supreme Court's ruling is implemented.

In the past year, a new phenomenon has arisen: the criminalisation of victims. In most incidents of violence against minorities, the perpetrators either get away completely, or are given a token sentence. However, the Reverend Palti Panjaitan, pastor of HKBP Filadelfia, has been subjected to numerous death threats and attempted assaults, yet last year he faced false charges of attacking a Muslim leader. In reality, all he did was to hold his hands out in a gesture to say 'stop' when his assailant came towards him. For that, the police pressed charges, although the court threw the case out in a rare act of wisdom. The Reverend Bernhard Maukar was not so fortunate. He ended up spending three months in prison for running an unlicensed church, even though he had offered to pay a fine instead. Prior to his imprisonment, he had been subjected to several attacks by Islamist mobs, but his assailants never faced justice.

On 6 February 2011, a mob attack against Ahmadiyya Muslims in Cikeusik, West Java, left at least three dead, and five seriously injured. One survivor of the attack described what happened. "They stripped me naked on the road, dragged me through a river, beat me with sticks and machetes and tried to cut off my penis. About 20 to 30 people attacked me, and bashed stones on my head. They called the rest of the mob to beat me, and then about 20 to 30 people dragged me between 200m and 500m around the village. One man used a bamboo spear to hit my eye. They shouted that I was an 'infidel' and should be killed." Only twelve of the attackers were arrested - out of a mob of 1,500 - but faced charges of assault and incitement to violence, not murder, and received sentences of between three and five months.

The Ahmaddiyya community has been subjected to a campaign of hatred by Islamists, who regard them as heretics. Last year, the Governor of West Java promised to close Ahmadiyya mosques in return for support from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the vigilante group which is responsible for many attacks on minorities. Several hundred Ahmadis in Lombok live in a temporary camp for displaced people, after their homes were burned. Ahmadis in Tasikmalaya live in fear. One Ahmadi said simply: "Please let the outside world know that we are not safe any longer in our own homes, in our own place. It is not free any more for us to believe in something, to live a normal life, because there are always people who want to force us not to believe what we want to believe ... All we want is to live in peace and to freely believe in what we want. That is all."

It would be easy to believe that this is simply a part of a worldwide phenomenon of rising religious intolerance. In some respects, that may be so. But for too long, the international community has hid behind this explanation and let the Indonesian government off the hook. The hard facts are that President Yudhoyono's government has, in the words of Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch's Indonesia researcher, "laid down the most sectarian regulatory infrastructure in Indonesia".

Early in his presidency, "SBY" as he is known made a speech to the conservative-minded Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), in which he gave a green light for hate speech, promising the clerics "a central role in matters regarding the Islamic faith" and an openness on the part of government to the MUI's fatwas or religious rulings "at any time". Within weeks, the MUI took up his invitation and issued a series of fatwas criticising religious pluralism, and calling for a ban on Ahmadiyyas. Two years later, SBY went even further in pandering to the MUI, telling them that "the tools of the state can do their duty ... We must all take strict measures against deviant beliefs." Since then he has allowed government ministers to make inflammatory statements, failed completely to intervene to protect minorities, failed to uphold the rule of law, and permitted a plethora of discriminatory laws at local and regional levels to arise. As Dr Ahmad Suaedy of the Wahid Institute and the Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, founded by the former Indonesian President who was a champion of tolerance, says, "we are seeing the mainstreaming of intolerance".

These trends have an impact globally as well. It should not be surprising that Indonesians are now fighting in Syria, for example. What is surprising is that the international community is not taking this more seriously.

Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Jakarta, at the end of an Asia tour. He delivered a speech on global warming - but stayed worryingly quiet about religious intolerance. President Obama, who spent part of his youth in Indonesia, often refers to his childhood memories of a tolerant Indonesia that is a model for other nations. Yet Indonesia has changed since President Obama's childhood. President Obama has a unique ability to help Indonesia confront extremism and intolerance, but has so far failed to do so.

If the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and others in the international community, wish to be true friends and partners of Indonesia, then they need to take these issues very seriously indeed. Indonesia's pluralism, set out in its state ideology known as 'Pancasila', is in peril. In Indonesia today, a growing number of people across the board - among progressive pluralistic-minded Muslims, as well as Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities, and secularists - are using the term 'Pakistanisation' to describe the trajectory which Indonesia is on. Indonesia is not where Pakistan is at today, but it has all the ingredients: blasphemy laws ill-defined and widely abused, extremist literature and inflammatory languages spreading, violence and impunity. Yet it is not too late, for there are a good number of Indonesians of all religions who want to preserve their tradition of religious pluralism. The question is, whether they will find a President who will lead them in this way and true friends in the international community who will urge the new government to act.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and author ofIndonesia: Pluralism in Peril - The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago.

Scott Flipse is former Deputy Director of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.