Religious Pluralism versus Intolerance: Sectarian Violence in Indonesia

By Carool Kersten | Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam - King's College London | Jul 07, 2014
Religious Pluralism versus Intolerance:  Sectarian Violence in Indonesia
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


Religious pluralism has been under threat and sectarianism on the rise during the ten-year (2004-2014) tenure of outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (also known as SBY).  During his two terms in office, Indonesia has seen rising tensions both between and within religious groups, increasing religious intolerance, and more cases of religiously inspired violence. This antagonistic climate has led to the closure and burning of churches, the displacement of Shi‘i communities, physical violence against civil society activists campaigning for religious pluralism, and even the lynching of Ahmadis. Colluding local and regional authorities not only undermine the rule of law by failing to prosecute the perpetrators, but even seek to “resolve” tensions caused by the presence of minority groups by condoning—and sometimes stimulating—intimidation and hate crimes against them.[1]

Significance of Indonesia and its relevance to MEI-MAP

These apparently domestic issues have wider significance for three reasons. First, in addition to being the largest Muslim nation-state in the world and a regional heavyweight in Southeast Asia, Indonesia also has the potential to become a global force on par with countries such as Russia and Brazil; second, its strategic location in an area where the United States, Chinese, and Indian interests meet makes it an important factor in the repositioning of a future world order;[2] and finally, fifteen years of experience with a democratization process demonstrates that shaping a democratic political system for a pluralist society is hard work that must involve both institutional reform and the formation of a civil society capable of facilitating peaceful coexistence among diverse members of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.  As a self-proclaimed “natural bridge” between the Muslim world, Asia, and the West,[3] Indonesia offers a cautionary lesson for other Muslim countries planning alternative political trajectories in the aftermath of regime change.

The History of Islam in Precolonial and Colonial “Indonesia”

Recent advances in historiography offer an important corrective to the persistent image of Indonesian Islam as a largely mystical veneer covering up older Hindu-Buddhist deposits. These findings provide a more varied and accurate picture that helps us understand religious tensions in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s way of dealing with what are the “two sides of the same coin” of religious plurality—coexistence and confrontation—is shaped by its longue durée history.[4] As a political entity, the geographical space now known as Indonesia is a colonial and postcolonial construct encompassing a patchwork of regional cultures, which are politically dominated by the Javanese and collectively part of the greater maritime Southeast Asian milieu. While the majority of its peoples now self-identify as Muslims, this is the outcome of a lengthy and peaceful Islamization process that started relatively late. Even though Indonesian contact with the West and South Asia predates the advent of Islam, the religion did not gain a foothold among the locals until the 13th and 14th centuries. This was the beginning of a gradual process of adherence, conversion, adaptation, and interaction that continues to this day.[5]

While giving rise to a Muslim culture unique to the island world of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, believers from this eastern periphery of the Dar al-Islam also stayed abreast of developments elsewhere through sustained contacts with the centers of Islamic learning and political power. The Indian Ocean functioned as the ecumenical contact zone of the Middle East-Asia nexus,[6] allowing for intellectual and political exchanges that deeply impacted Indonesian society. Throughout the colonial period, Southeast Asian Muslim leaders had appealed to the Ottoman Caliph-Sultan for support against Western imperialism; in the early 19th century, pilgrims returning from Mecca to West Sumatra were inspired by Arabia’s Wahhabi movement to rise up against local notables and their colonial backers. At the start of the 20th century, Islamic leaders began establishing Muslim mass organizations (Ormas) for the emancipation of their constituencies, including the modernist Muhammadiyah in 1912, the puritanical reformist Persatuan Islam (PERSIS) in 1923, and the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama  (NU) in 1926. The support bases which some of these organizations can mobilize are unparalleled anywhere else. Muslim assertiveness was further stimulated by a number of other external factors, including a rise in Christian missionary activity, the arrival of movements such as the Ahmadiyya from other parts of the Muslim world, and the influx of alternative spiritual organizations, like the Theosophical Society.[7]

The Tribulations of Indonesian Political Islam during early Independence (1945-1965)

As the largest postcolonial Islamic political party until the NU secession in 1952, Masyumi managed to function as an umbrella organization bringing together different segments of Indonesia’s Muslim population. Although most Islamic parties accepted the building of a nation-state as a given, the insertion of a reference to Islamic law into the country’s constitution has been a persistent feature in their agendas. The failure of this initiative remains a constant source of frustration.

The so-called “Jakarta Charter”—an amendment designed to impose adherence to Shari‘a on Indonesia’s Muslim citizens—was considered too divisive to be included in the constitution, both by Sukarno’s nationalists and more secular-minded Muslim politicians, including Vice-President Mohammad Hatta and one-time Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir. Instead, the state espoused the Pancasila, or Doctrine of Five Principles, which insisted on the Belief in One God. Although this provision does not assume any particular religious tradition, it gave formal acknowledgment only to Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This left indigenous beliefs and Confucianism without official recognition, and failed to resolve or account for lingering sectarian tensions between and within religious traditions.

For radical Islamists of the Darul Islam, led by Kartosuwiryo, this was reason to proclaim a renegade Islamic state in parts of West Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi in 1949.[8] In addition, new waves of Christianization in the 1950s—and again in the 1960s and 1970s—along with the influence of “non-standard Islams,” remained a cause for concern among Muslim leaders.[9] When Masyumi politicians sided with these secessionists after the introduction of Guided Democracy in 1959, Sukarno completed his power grab by banning the party.

Redefining the Role of Islam under New Order (1965-1995)

The military-dominated New Order regime of General Suharto continued to clamp down on all forms of political Islam, forcing former Masyumi activists to change tactics and switch to religious proselytization (da‘wah) and puritanical religious training (tarbiyah) on university campuses. Meanwhile, certain Muslims and technocrats were co-opted by the government to take part in its economic development policy, and given space to articulate an Islamic discourse that accepted the Pancasila Doctrine and advocated religious pluralism. This preferential treatment, combined with a disproportionately prominent role for Christians, ethnic Chinese, and “non-standard Muslims” in trade, finance, economic advisory teams, the upper echelons of the military apparatus, and security think tanks, bred resentment among “Shari‘a-minded” Muslims.[10]

Regime Change and the Early Reformasi years (1999-2004)

Consequently, Suharto’s efforts to play up his own Islamic credentials in the face of an unmistakable Islamization of Indonesian society and public life amounted to too little too late. Ethnic and religious motivations were blurred in the political violence that marred the prelude to regime change.[11] Events also pointed to the deepening schism within the Muslim bloc. On the one hand, the free election of progressive NU leader Abdurrahman Wahid as president and his more pragmatic Muhammadiyah counterpart, Amien Rais, as speaker of the consultative assembly signaled the rise of the Muslim intelligentsia. On the other hand, Islamic political parties captured only one-third of votes in parliamentary elections.

The momentary power vacuum and breakdown of law and order in the immediate aftermath of New Order’s collapse also saw a re-emergence of secessionism in staunchly Islamic Aceh and the rise of blatantly intolerant Muslim militias and vigilantes such as Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI). Often in active collusion with the security apparatus, which consisted of military and police forces disoriented after a decade in power, Laskar Jihad became involved in violent clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Eastern Islands. At the same time, FPI began terrorizing religious minority groups and moderate Muslims in cities and provincial towns throughout the country.

While Islamic parties on the national level failed once again to secure the insertion of an “Islamic referent” in the constitution, the devolution of power from the central government to provincial and local authorities offered a window of opportunity to regional administrations for introducing and enforcing elements of Islamic law in regions such as Aceh, Banten, West Java, and certain parts of Sulawesi. Meanwhile, terrorist attacks by Muslim radicals on Bali and in Jakarta drew Indonesia’s domestic and international security polices more closely into the U.S.-led global “War on Terror,” providing the tools to act against religious extremists.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s “Religious Nationalism” (2004-2014)

A partial return to New Order seemed evident when retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president along with Jusuf Kalla, leader of the erstwhile government party Golkar, as vice president. A statement issued by the president indicating that he would heed the advice of the semi-official Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) in all religious matters encouraged the head of the council’s fatwa drafting committee, conservative NU scholar Ma‘ruf Amin, to orchestrate the release of a series of fatwas in July 2005. These declarations condemned the concepts of secularism, pluralism, and liberalism as “un-Islamic”; they also opposed interfaith prayers and stigmatized minority Muslim groups, such as the Shi‘a and Ahmadis, as “deviants.”

Although formally outranked by Sahal Mahfudh—the moderately progressive but meek General Chairman of MUI and General President of the NU—Ma‘ruf Amin succeeded by teaming up with MUI Secretary General and puritan Muhammadiyah prominent, Din Syamsuddin. This conservative-reactionary coalition was further consolidated when, in the same year, Syamsuddin took over as Muhammadiyah chairman, ousting his moderate predecessor Ahmad Syafii Maarif as well as progressive intellectuals Amin Abdullah and Abdul Munir Mulkhan.[12]

Opponents of the fatwas responded by establishing the National Alliance for the Freedom of Religion and Belief (AKKBB), a broad coalition of progressive Muslim and non-Muslim civil society activists who used Pancasila Memorial Day 2006 to advocate religious pluralism and protection of religious minority groups. Support from the notoriously indecisive SBY was lackluster, and he actually continued to court the Islamic bloc with his party’s vague slogan of “religious nationalism.” Meanwhile, an ineffective security apparatus and notoriously inept judiciary have been unable to mete out proper justice against the most notorious Muslim radicals and hate preachers.  This polarized setting has inspired Muslim vigilante groups to not only persecute Christians, Ahmadis, and Shi‘a—in 2008 they even attacked an AKKBB rally.[13] Because many of the NGOs in this alliance draw upon universal human rights standards and receive foreign funding, they also stand accused of being Western stooges.[14]

Thanks to the efficient management of Jusuf Kalla, a Muslim businessman with good relations in both Islamic and military circles who had already impressed the public with his handling of 2003 Tsunami crisis and significant contributions to the political resolution of the Aceh problem, SBY was able to secure landslide re-election victory for himself and his Democrat Party. In his second administration, he failed to capitalize on his mandate to defuse interreligious tensions, decrease intra-Muslim polarization, and bolster religious tolerance. Instead, he allowed his interior minister, Gamawan Fauzi, to characterize the FPI as an “asset to the nation” that needs to be “empowered” to play a role in the state’s social policy strategies—a position that effectively vindicated the violence and hate crimes committed by such vigilante organizations.[15] Advocates of religious freedom feel abandoned after the U.S.-based Appeal to Conscience Foundation inexplicably decided to confer the statesman’s award for religious tolerance in 2013.[16]

Conclusions

Indonesia’s ethno-religious plurality and the historical role of political Islam provide the setting for the story of inter and intra-communal relations. The oscillation between religious toleration, sectarianism, and religiously motivated violence is enabled by a variety of factors, including the unprecedented openness of the public sphere after the regime change of 1999; the concomitant political-religious polarization resulting from the emergence of Islamic militias and vigilante organizations along with the establishment of NGOs and other civil society initiatives that advocate religious pluralism; the devolution of powers from the central government to provincial and local authorities under Reformasi; the government’s ambiguous attitude toward protecting religious plurality; and the state’s backing of  controversial MUI rulings. 




[1] Carool Kersten, Islam in Indonesia: The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values (London and New York: Hurst Publishers and Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] Nasir Tamara, Indonesia Rising: Islam, Democracy and the Rise of Indonesia as a Major Power (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2009); Anthony Reid, Indonesia Rising: The Repositioning of Asia’s Third Giant (Singapore: ISEAS, 2012).

[3] Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, “Indonesia: Global Reach, Regional Role,” Lecture at the London School of Economics, 31 March 2009, http://www.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2009/20090126t1712z001.aspx, accessed 15 April 2014.

[4] Eric Tagliacozzo (ed.), Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement and the Longue Durée (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[5] Syed Farid Alatas, "Notes on Various Theories Regarding the Islamization of the Malay Archipelago," The Muslim World 75, 162-175.

[6] Azyumardi Azra, The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern ‘Ulamā’ in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Honolulu: Allen & Unwin and University of Hawai’i Press, 2004); Michael Laffan, The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[7] Yudi Latif, Indonesian Muslim Intelligentsia and Power (Singapore: ISEAS, 2008), 114-115.

[8] Chiara Formichi, Islam and the Making of the Nation: Kartosurwiryo and Political Islam in 20th Century Indonesia (Leiden: KILTV Press, 2012).

[9] Jan Sihar Aritongan and Karel Steenbrink (eds.), A History of Christianity in Indonesia (Leiden: Brill, 2008); Robert W. Hefner, “Where Have All the Abangan Gone? Religionization and the Decline of Non-standard Islam in Contemporary Indonesia,” Michel Picard and Remy Madinier (eds.), The Politics of Religion in Indonesia (London & New York: Routledge, 2011), 71-91.

[10] Carool Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics; New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 78.

[11] John T. Sidel, Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[12] In 2014 he also succeeded the deceased Sahal Mahfudh as General Chair of MUI.

[13] François Raillon, “The return of Pancasila: secular vs. Islamic norms, another look at the struggle for state dominance in Indonesia,” Michel Picard and Remy Madinier, 92-113.

[14] Julian Millie, “Impossible ideal?”, Inside Indonesia, 115, http://www.insideindonesia.org/current-edition/impossible-ideal, accessed 17 April 2014.

[15] Ezra Sihite, “Home Minister Clarifies Comments Calls for FPI to Be ‘Empowered,” Jakarta Globe, 29 October 2013.

[16] “Franz Magnis-Suseno: Religious Tolerance is SBY’s Responsibility,” Tempo, 4 June 2013.