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A wrong turn: Is Indonesia on the path to radicalisation?

As many as 150 regulations restricting minority rights in the country reported; 400 churches closed since 2004 and 264 incidents of religious violence in 2012. Radical groups get increasing say over freedom of thought and opinion, writes Dhruba Jyoti Purkait.

world Updated: Jul 13, 2013 13:57 IST
Dhruba Jyoti Purkait
A-construction-worker-walks-past-an-advertisement-board-in-Jakarta-Indonesia-The-nation-is-witnessing-a-struggle-to-balance-freedom-of-thought-and-its-Islamic-heritage-AP-Photo
A-construction-worker-walks-past-an-advertisement-board-in-Jakarta-Indonesia-The-nation-is-witnessing-a-struggle-to-balance-freedom-of-thought-and-its-Islamic-heritage-AP-Photo

Once known for its verdant beaches, Indonesia of late has acquired a radical hue. This shift came into stark focus recently when the organisers of Miss World pageant bowed down to pressure from Islamic hardliners and scrapped the bikini round from this year's competition to be held in September in Jakarta.

The episode, coming after Lady Gaga's cancelled tour last year and the disrupted book tour of Muslim-Canadian writer Irshad Manji in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, was again marked by a complete lack of dissent.

The Miss World decision came in the wake of the Indonesian Council of Ulema or MUI writing to the country's president about how the competition was "against Islamic teachings." "That contest is just an excuse to show women's body parts that should remain covered," said Mukri Aji, a prominent cleric from West Java province's MUI branch.

This underlines a trend of growing intolerance in Indonesia in the last decade, with such protests against popular culture indicating a much deeper problem. "Protests against Miss World pageant are nothing new. However, the difference lies in how these opinions are expressed. While earlier public criticism was the norm, now coercion and threats are used," said Ahmad Suaedy of the Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue and Peace at the University of Indonesia.

"This is because the police and law enforcement agencies want to avoid violence by the hardliners and let minorities become the victim in the process," he added.

The New York Times reported over 150 regulations restricting minority rights in Indonesia, including a building regulation used to demolish churches. Over 400 churches have been closed since 2004 when President Yudhoyono took office. The Jakata-based Setara Institute reported 264 incidents of religious violence in 2012 alone.

Not all the victims are Christians though. In February 2011, three members of the minority Islamic Ahmadiyya sect were bludgeoned to death by a mob of over 1000, reported BBC. Videos of the killing were posted online but the maximum sentence handed out was to an Ahmadiyya man for defending himself.

In 2008, President Yudhoyono himself issued an anti-Ahmadiyya decree, threatening five years jail term for anyone who "propagates" the group's teachings, said Andreas Harsono, an independent journalist and researcher working in Jakarta.
Rizal Kuddah of the State University of Surabaya, however, disagreed. "The Ahmadiyya sect contradicts Islam. That's why the government had to take such a stance as there was a social outpouring and protests," he said.

"Yudhoyono signed a law that allowed the listing of only six religions on Indonesian ID cards, basically discriminating against more than 350 smaller religions," Harsono said. However, international reaction has been one of appeasement, with Hillary Clinton and David Cameron speaking highly of the regime in 2012.

Hardliners have vowed to prevent "immoral" Miss World beauty pageant from taking place in Indonesia. They believe the event is against Indonesian culture. (AFP Photo)

"Islam is the biggest religion in Indonesia and it is also our guiding light. Indonesia is not a secular state," said Kuddah, "If the pageant is happening in Indonesia, the contestants should represent the culture and ethos of the country and wearing bikini is not in keeping with our mores," he says.

However, the excuse of "against our culture" is gradually threatening any kind of free thinking and is being used to intimidate minorities. "More and more artists, writers and intellectuals are facing problems when they try to take up issues considered controversial by hardliners," said Harsono.

The Islamists, however, claim that they are as 'secular' as the West. "In France, women are banned from wearing hijab (veil). In the US, an azaan (prayer call) cannot be sounded. Here in Indonesia, we celebrate festivals of all major religions, whether it is Islam, Hinduism, Christianity or Buddhism. Can you imagine a European country declaring Eid as a national holiday?' questioned Kuddah.