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Indonesia's religious diversity under threat

Publication Date : 10-09-2012

 

Two contrasting pictures of Indonesian life emerged in the recent Aidilfitri celebrations.

The first: A Catholic church ground in Malang, East Java, serving as a venue for mass Aidilfitri prayers for Muslims on August 19.

The second: A 500-strong Sunni mob attacking a group of 30 Shi'ites with machetes and sickles in Sampang, East Java. Two Shi'ites were killed and 40 houses torched in this sectarian violence on August 26.

The first picture portrays Catholics reaching out to their Muslim neighbours in solidarity with their religious observances, reflecting the spirit of religious harmony.

But it is the second picture that has caught world attention. It is yet another example of the violence that has shaken Indonesia's reputation for religious tolerance. And it comes as the world reads reports of attacks against minorities and churches in recent years.

"We regret this incident," said President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "And, to be honest, it stains our religious tolerance and peace in our society."

One factor that may explain declining religious tolerance is the rise in religiosity among hardliners, who believe Islam is a superior religion and other faiths should acknowledge this position.

They do not accept the reality that diversity in beliefs and practices is a fact of life even within Islam. They treat other faiths and beliefs as if they are an aberration that should not be allowed to grow.

Secondly, there is a sense of insecurity among clerics and their hardline followers, who see diversity as a threat.

So the presence of a Shi'ite minority in a hamlet in Sampang is viewed as a threat to the growth of the Sunni majority. The clerics probably fear their followers may turn Shi'ite, so they initiate moves to curb Shi'ism, the second branch of Islamic orthodoxy.

Similarly, a church or church construction project in a predominantly Muslim area would arouse their suspicion that Christians will proselytise to Muslims, prompting some to instigate attacks on churches and to block Christians from attending church services.

Ignorance also comes into play. The Sunni mob on the rampage in Sampang was ignorant of Shi'ism as part of Islamic orthodoxy, and chose to believe their clerics that Shi'ites are heretics. Nor are such views confined to the flock; even Religious Minister Suryadharma Ali declared Shi'ism a deviant sect.

Muslim hardliners' ignorance of Christianity also fuels their opposition to churches. Many cannot tell the difference between the various Christian denominations and do not understand why a group of Christians would want to build a church when one already exists nearby.

These factors need not necessarily lead to violence but, sadly, many incidents have flared up.

The culprits are emboldened when they get off scot-free after an attack, with the police seemingly afraid of taking action for fear of a backlash. Some analysts warn that if a violent culture becomes embedded among hardline groups, more violence will result when followers see it as the only option to counter threatening groups and their beliefs.

This is why it is paramount for the state and religious leaders to act together to stamp out religious violence and to promote tolerance.

The state has to tighten law enforcement to drive home the message that sectarian violence will be punished. The police must detain those who take part in or instigate attacks. The courts must impose stiff penalties. Too many perpetrators of violence against minorities have been set free while the victims were jailed.

Clear enforcement will send the message that the state will protect religious minorities, so that intolerant groups will not see them as fair game for violent attacks. The authorities must rein in the numerous hardline groups whose agenda is to incite violence against minorities.

The religious elites can play a role by helping the government to encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding between religious groups.

Religious leaders must denounce any act of violence carried out in the name of any religious school of thought. Those in authority could even introduce a fatwa that makes it a sin to harm people of different beliefs.

There must be concerted attempts at instilling a culture of tolerance through education and dialogues, so society can accept diversity as a fact and not a threat. Only then can Indonesia return to the ideal expressed in its motto, bhinneka tunggal ika, or unity in diversity.

 

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