Jakarta: Every Christmas the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation provides security outside churches to protect them from attacks by radical groups.
The volunteers put their lives on the line.
On December 24, 2000, Riyanto, a 25-year-old Muslim, screamed for the congregation of Eben Haezer church in Mojokerto, East Java, to get down after he spotted a suspicious package. He was killed when it exploded in his hands as he tore out of the crowded church.
Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists detonated bombs in churches throughout Indonesia that fateful Christmas Eve, killing 18 people. Were it not for Riyanto’s act of heroism, the death toll could have been far higher.
“To feel scared is human, however we think that if we protect humanity it is the same as carrying out jihad [striving for a noble cause],” says Dendy Zuhairil Finsa, the head of the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in Jakarta.
“The teaching of Islam is that we have to protect people of other faiths who are carrying out their religious rituals. Because of that I don’t feel fear.”
This noble act embodies Indonesia’s national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).
Indonesia is often lauded as a model for Muslim democracy. About 90 per cent of its 250 million people are Muslim but it has a secular government and sizeable Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities.
The country’s 1945 constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the government recognises six official faiths.
“I have a deep and personal appreciation of Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s commitment to promoting a tolerant and inclusive Islam,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in his 2016 Lowy lecture.
“He says again and again, Indonesia is proof that democracy, tolerance, moderation and Islam are compatible.”
But there are fears that Indonesia’s pluralism is in peril amid growing discrimination against minority groups and the explosive allegations that Jakarta’s governor, a Christian, insulted Islam.
Under the authoritarian New Order regime, the ideology of Islamic groups was repressed. However following the fall of president Suharto in 1998, they had new-found freedom to advocate their views on morality and, for some, a desire to see a rigid interpretation of Islamic practice implemented in Indonesia.
Although homosexuality has never been outlawed in Indonesia – indeed transvestites, known as waria, have been a feature of life for hundreds of years – this year there were a wave of attacks on LGBT people.
Religious minorities such as the Ahmadiyya – a Muslim sect considered deviant in many Islamic countries – Shiites, the Baha’i and the Druze regularly face persecution.
“Radical groups perpetrate many of these attacks and influence the responses of local government officials when violence occurs.”
A survey this year by the Wahid Institute, which promotes a moderate form of Islam, found the number of violations against freedom of religion jumped from 154 in 2014 to 190 in 2015.
The majority were in West Java and Aceh and largely involved closing places of worship and obstructing religious ceremonies.
“Muslims are being bombarded by these very black-and-white ways of framing issues,” the institute’s director, Yenny Wahid, said at a recent forum.
“For example with the case of the Ahmadiyya: ‘If you love the prophet, you cannot support the Ahmadiyya’. That would be the argument of the radicals to convince the lay Muslims.”
Wahid believes the debate over the allegedly blasphemous comments made by Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, is being fuelled in the same way.
“If you love the Koran, then you have to be against the one who blasphemes against the Koran,” she says. “It is really hard when it is framed that way.”
When Ahok became governor of Jakarta in 2014 – the first openly Christian, ethnically Chinese in the role – it was heralded by many as a new era in Indonesian democracy and tolerance.
The ascension of Jakarta governor “Ahok” was seen as a turning point in Indonesian democracy.Photo: AP
But there were those who vociferously opposed his appointment on the grounds that a non-Muslim should not be governor of Jakarta.
The hardline Islam Defenders Front (FPI) rallied outside the city council protesting he was arrogant, had insulted civil servants and used his authority to carry out “Christianisation”. However the FPI was broadly considered a fringe radical group and not taken seriously.
Ahok has turned out to be a polarising governor. He was applauded by middle-class Jakartans for reforming the bureaucracy, his strong stance against corruption and his attempts to improve intractable Jakarta problems such as flooding and traffic.
But Ahok’s undoing proved to be a provocative speech he gave on Indonesia’s Thousand Islands on September 27, while campaigning for re-election in February’s gubernatorial poll.
The mayor told fishermen they had been deceived into not voting for him by his opponents who cited verse 51 from the fifth sura, or chapter, of the Koran, al-Maida.
Some Muslims interpret al-Maida as a prohibition on Muslims living under the leadership of a non-Muslim. Others say the scripture should be understood in its context – a time of war – and not interpreted literally.
Here was the chink in the armour his opponents had been looking for. A video of the speech went viral on Facebook. Three mass rallies were held demanding Ahok be jailed for blasphemy.
Australian National University professor Marcus Mietzner believes the “trumped-up blasphemy charges” have provided a narrative to cloak anti-Chinese sentiment.
“My sense is that deep-seated racial and religious sentiments were able to be mobilised by a case that allowed ordinary Indonesians to justify towards themselves and towards the outside world these very sentiments,” he told the Carnegie Council.
Chinese Indonesians make up just a fraction of the population but own a disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth, and resentment runs deep.
Many Chinese Indonesians are still haunted by the 1998 riots in some cities in Indonesia which were triggered by unemployment and food shortages. The mob vented their rage on the Chinese community, who were perceived to be better off. Chinese shops were looted, scores of Chinese women raped and an estimated 1000 people killed.
Indonesian anti-riot police try to push a group of students during a protest against rising prices and unemployment. Photo: Reuters
Din Syamsuddin is the chairman of the advisory council of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), Indonesia’s top Islamic scholarly body. The council issued a fatwa, or opinion, in October that Ahok had insulted the Koran.
Din estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of those who attended the December 2 rally were from the Muslim middle class and not Islamic hardliners. “There is an accumulation of feeling of injustice and discrimination especially in the field of the economy by many Muslim groups,” he says.
Din believes the sheer scale of the rallies and the level of discontent they have exposed should prompt the Indonesian government to take steps to alleviate economic disparity. “Those people are getting a hard feeling when others blame them of being anti-plurality,” he says.
“I think the majority of Muslims in this country are tolerant.”
Human Rights Watch’s Andreas Harsono is far more pessimistic.
According to Amnesty International 106 people were jailed for blasphemy between 2005 and 2014. Their offences included leading prayers in Indonesian rather than Arabic, pulling the plug on a mosque loudspeaker and punctuating prayers with whistling. The number of acquittals was negligible.
Harsono believes Ahok will be jailed, possibly for the maximum five years.
He also believes there will be more pressure to have Muslim leaders in predominantly Muslim communities. “There will also be more provisions of the sharia [Islamic code of conduct] in Indonesia, whether it is compulsory to wear hijab, whether it is not going out at night for a Muslim woman, whether it is more and more restrictions with the Ahmadiyya, the [Shiites] and others. LGBT violence is also going to increase. This is going to be a very, very difficult time for Indonesia.”
Memories of the 2000 Christmas Eve bombings are still raw and Indonesia always feels jittery at this time of year.
An Indonesian policeman, left, watches as cars burn in the street foll
owing a bomb explosion in front of a church in Jakarta on December 24
, 2000. Photo: AP
But amid all the noise, the selfless actions of the youth wing of NU give cause for optimism. Police have asked them, as they do every year, to provide security outside churches, including the Jakarta Cathedral and Immanuel Church, over Christmas.
“We are always ready to protect pluralism,” says Dendy. “In Islam we have to maintain good relations with people of all faiths.”