Political climate change and rising tides, part 2

The immediate reaction of government officials was to call it a “clash” between two religious groups. The choice of this word was widely ridiculed by the Indonesian participants I met at a seminar in Jakarta the week it happened, in view of the obvious discrepancy in numbers and the video evidence. The press had reported that 1000 – 1500 people had been organised by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to descend on the small town of Cikeusik in Banten, West Java, on Sunday 6 February 2011,  there to attack about twenty adherents of the Ahmadi sect at the latter’s house of worship. Three Ahmadi followers were killed by the FPI mob and several more injured. A fourth person died of his injuries a few days later.

Within a day, videos circulated widely showing what happened. Using a little of the video footage, this was Al Jazeera’s report:

I am not embedding the original videos because the images are disturbing, but I will provide the links. You need to make a conscious choice whether you want to watch them.

In the first video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVexuQCVKXg mirrored at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnZdruVH3XM), you see the FPI men marching to a house and tearing it down. There are a few policemen, vastly outnumbered and totally ineffective. In the final scenes you will see men continuing to assault two dead or badly-injured persons, both of whom had been stripped.  The second, shorter video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKWBr2CLFjY) has more of the same.

The President’s initial reaction was to call on the police to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice, without naming any side. Others in his government had no qualms about naming sides, using words that implied that the Ahmadis (the victims) were responsible for what befell them. In fact you see President Yudhoyono alluding to the same in the Al Jazeera video above when he said, “If everyone had followed our agreement, this kind of riot/violence could have been prevented.”

The ‘agreement’ he referred to was the government’s ban on Ahmadis worshipping openly. He was suggesting that the victims were to blame for the attack.

Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

The  President also framed the issue merely as one of  hooliganism and police responsibility:

In a rare acknowledgement of the violence wreaked on Ahmadiyah, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed regret on Monday over the attack on Sunday that killed three followers of the Islamic sect in Banten.

The President instructed law enforcement agencies to investigate the incident and prosecute the culprits.

“The violence should have been prevented. But preventative measures seemed to have been ineffective at the time. Law enforcement officials must enforce the law against anybody responsible for the incident,” Yudhoyono told the press.


Yudhoyono’s statement was met with skepticism from National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) chairman Ifdhal Kasim, who said that the statement was more “lip service” after a series of violent attacks against the Ahmadis.

“After dozens of attacks in the past — in Makassar, in Sukabumi, in Lombok — almost no one has faced legal charges. The government must provide real and immediate action,” he said, adding the Banten incident was a serious human rights violation.

— Jakarta Post, 8 February 2011, Mayhem SBY calls for probe into Banten attack

Yudhoyono signally failed to address the root causes of the incident: hate speech, mob politics and the resulting climate of intolerance that gives groups like the FPI a sense of impunity when they mount such attacks. It wasn’t until three days later, and after a second FPI rampage, this time on Christian churches in Temanggung (see Part 1 for details), that the President said: “We will not tolerate hate speech or calls on certain communities to commit violence, including murder.” (Jakarta Post, 10 February 2011, SBY seeks action against extremists). You would have noticed however that he did not outline any specific steps and once again avoided naming names.

His own Religious Affairs Minister, Suryadharma Ali, felt less constrained. Last October, he had openly proposed banning Ahmadiyah altogether.

Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali said he wanted to disband Ahmadiyah but he did not offer timetable for the sect’s dissolution.

He said that after a long period of contemplation and asking for divine advice, he concluded that banning Ahmadiyah would be the best solution for all the problems relating to the group, which mainstream Muslims view as heretical.

— Jakarta Post, 30 October 2010, Religious Affairs Minister to ban Ahmadiyah

Here was a cabinet minister in a secular state as Indonesia is supposed to be, making a decision based on “divine guidance”  and proudly announcing it too.

He is not alone. When Jakarta city’s police chief warned that the FPI could well mount attacks against Ahmadis living in the capital city and suggested beefing up security, Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo contradicted him saying that whether attacks happen or not is up to God.

The Jakarta administration will not put in place special measures to prevent attacks on Ahmadis, and instead will leave the safety of the sect’s followers in the hands of the Jakarta Police and God, Governor Fauzi Bowo said Wednesday.

“We will not step up our alert status or anything. We will only intensify our approach to community groups and religious leaders at all levels. Only God can decide what will happen next and God willing, Jakarta will remain peaceful,” Fauzi told reporters Wednesday.

— Jakarta Post, 10 February 2011, No special measures for Ahmadis: Fauzi Bowo

Bowo’s statement is precisely the kind of official speak that will be interpreted as carte-blanche to plan another attack.

There is a long history of attacks on Ahmadis and Christian communities in Indonesia, but they became a lot more frequent after the 2005 blasphemy law was passed. Each time, the government failed to do anything significant which naturally encouraged more violence. Just last December, two Ahmadis were killed by a mob in Tasikmalaya, and right after the Banten incident, the FPI in Tasikmalaya again vowed their intention to launch new raids.

[FPI leader in Tasikmalaya Acep Sofyan] said the FPI would destroy all Ahmadiyah property in Tasikmalaya — which is about 60 kilometers east of West Java’s capital city Bandung — if the council did not ban Ahmadiyah within 24 hours.

“We promise to bring more people and . . . don’t prevent us from carrying out our actions,” Acep said.

— Jakarta Post, 10 Feb 2011, Hardliners vow to attack Ahmadiyah in Tasikmalaya

The Wahid Institute published a report earlier this year on the increase in religious intolerance and communal violence. It noted 135 acts of intolerance and discrimination through 2010. Who were the perpetrators? No surprise there: the FPI topped the list with the institute holding it responsible for the largest number of incidents, but shockingly, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) was second. These are supposed to be the wise men of the faith.

Sticking to form, the MUI said after the Banten attack that the Ahmadiyah should have been banned; if they had been suppressed earlier, the killings in Banten would not have happened.

Echoing these clerics, the National Police Chief Timur Pradopo — whose job is to ensure safety and security for citizens —  also said it was the Ahmadis who provoked that attack!

* * * * *

Step back a moment and survey the entire scene. What is happening to the state?

Official inaction has encouraged physical attacks. That inaction is partly due to incompetence, but more due to official foot-dragging. Political leaders in democratic Indonesia are constantly looking over their shoulders at how their statements and actions play out among voters.

This is understandable in a democratic polity– provided that there are, at the same time, clear lines in the sand. There are certain things that call for leadership, and not vote-pleasing posturing. Violence, intolerance and discrimination are among them. Faced with issues and incidents of this nature, leaders have to stand on principle and do what is right, rather than what is popular.

It seems to me that Indonesian leaders have failed to make that distinction; failed to provide leadership and tough action when called for. The vacuum has allowed pressure groups like the FPI to grow and push their way forward till they are setting the agenda. Regular flexing of their muscle with no resistance from the government, has resulted in a a change in the political climate, such that even officers of the secular state now echo the FPI’s demands. That rising tide is slowly swamping the state.

Take this for example: After President Yudhoyono said (as cited in Part 1) that any organisation proven to have engaged in violence should be disbanded, the FPI threw down the gauntlet:

But the FPI issued a sharp retort to Yudhoyono’s statement, warning it would overthrow Yudhoyono if he dared to disband any mass organization including the FPI: “Yudhoyono will become like Ben Ali of Tunisia. Indonesia will be like Egypt. We will topple SBY because he has diverted [attention away from] the [Ahmadiyah] issue,” FPI militia commander Munarman told news portal Tempointeraktif.com

— Jakarta Post, 11 Feb 2011. Police move to ban violent organizations

Days later, Yudhoyono has still not responded to this challenge.

* * * * *

Singaporeans should not be complacent. Our own government is just as capable of demonstrating similarly spineless and quisling behaviour. That said, there are differences, but only in degree. The Singapore government will not tolerate violence, but they stand aside and sometimes even condone psychological lynching.

I speak about their shabby treatment of lesbian, gay and transgender (LGBT) citizens. In the famous repeal debate of 2007, they acted like Yudhoyono and his government, bending backwards to accommodate majoritarian sentiments, and choosing to keep an anti-gay law,  instead of  standing firm on the principle of non-discrimination. They took a position that law professors (except one outlier) considered to be founded on bad law.

Their stance encouraged Thio Su-Mien and company to launch their attempt to capture the women’s organisation AWARE in 2009, wanting to use it as a springboard in their campaign to vilify LGBT persons. Throughout that saga, the government kept ducking and even took brave reporters to task for asking too many searching questions of the Christian fundamentalists and their agenda. Even when the secular women took back their organisation in an Extraordinary General Meeting (July 2009) the government was rushing to amend its Sexuality Education curriculum to please the anti-gay camp.

Meanwhile, discriminatory censorship against LGBT content continues, the excuse being that the government had to ensure that homophobic or religious groups who did not want to be confronted with difference or be reminded of their intolerance had to be protected.

Yudhoyono’s government said that the Ahmadis should have observed the ban on open worship, suggesting that the Banten attack was the Ahmadis’ fault. Ditto the attack on Christian churches and all sorts of regulatory restrictions on them.  Lee Hsien Loong’s government frowns on people “flaunting” their homosexuality, censors content that depicts it, with the implied suggestion that if not for these restrictions on LGBT people and their right to expression, there will be conflict and it would be the LGBT side’s doing. What is the difference between Indonesia and Singapore?

Maybe Singapore is not as bad as Indonesia where the tide of intolerance is rising. But our level of intolerance is not subsiding either and our government is partly responsible too.

7 Responses to “Political climate change and rising tides, part 2”

  1. 1 liew kai khiun 14 February 2011 at 17:44

    I would hope that a post-suharto democratic indonesia would go the way of South Korea and Taiwan rather than that of Nazi Germany. I guess it is difficult to gauge at present the outcome of the struggle between progressive secular forces against the reactionaries in Indonesia.

    As for Singapore, i like your idea of psychological lynching. But, this has only been legitimised by the state who has chosen to position itself as a guardian of so call traditional conservative family values (ironic isn’t it for a system that has created unusually low birth rates?)At the sametime, because of this moral positioning, the singapore authorities have found it difficult to take on fundamentalist islam as seen in how the PM backtracks into political correctness of his old man’s “hard truths”.

  2. 2 Chua Thomas 15 February 2011 at 00:13

    For the last time, let’s banish this ill-conceived notion of the Singapore Government being the so-called guardian of conservative values. Casinos, Orchard Towers and Geylang do not social conservatism make.

    This government’s only religion is staying in power. If it pleases the powerful and mega rich Christian Right to see to it that the LGBT community continues to be sidelined, they will do so. If it pleases the multi nationals that workers’ wages are kept low, they will do so.

    Islam fundamentalism? That’s a no brainer when the ISA is still around. Unless of course, these groups start making significant donations to the PAP, which I half suspect the Christians are already doing so. There’s nothing in the Political Donations Act to forbid religious bodies from making donations to political parties, is there?

  3. 3 Gazebo 15 February 2011 at 02:33

    I like to highlight one key point about Nordic societies, and I believe it is the KEY reason why they are able to move towards such harmonious integration of socialist and individualist ideals. The reason is SECULARITY. The Nordic way, is the “secular-rational” way of governance. secularity and rationalism are mutually reinforcing tenets of a progressive society. As horrible incidents like these Indonesian genocides illustrate, secularity is facile princeps i.e. secularity is a necessity for rational thought.

  4. 4 Anonymous 15 February 2011 at 08:57


    Yudhoyono signally failed to address the root causes of the incident: hate speech, mob politics and the resulting climate of intolerance that gives groups like the FPI a sense of impunity when they mount such attacks…Last October, [his own Religious Affairs Minister, Suryadharma Ali] had openly proposed banning Ahmadiyah altogether…he concluded that banning Ahmadiyah would be the best solution for all the problems relating to the group, which mainstream Muslims view as heretical.


    In my opinion, three violations have occurred here, two of which you have already mentioned:

    1. The first is the freedom of religion, which applies similarly to the freedom to worship differently by sects and denominations within the rubric of a larger religion. Obviously, the Indonesian state attempts to violate this constitutional guarantee in their bid to ban the Ahmadiya sect. (Incidentally, it should be acknowledged that the “mainstream Muslims” referred to in the quote are none other than Sunni Muslims who have a sordid reputation worldwide of extreme religious intolerance and dogmatic insistence on their orthodoxy alone as *the* authoritative interpretation of Islam.)

    2. Where the second violation, that of secularism, occurred should be evident. However, I would like to add that the Indonesian government’s failure to refrain from any interpretation of scripture – the core prohibition in secularism or it would not have joined in with the characterization of the Ahmadayias as ‘heretical’, a common charge against Muslims whose interpretation of Islam differs from Sunni orthodoxy – is the main culprit.

    3. The third violation is an outgrowth of the philosophy of secularism. This is often undertaken informally, though some states have laws that formalize it. Just as officials elected to office are not elected on the basis of their scriptural knowledge, even if they have any of it, it is just as incumbent on religious leaders to refrain from interpreting the scripture, dogma, and teachings of other religions, sects, or denominations in their unending ganme of religious oneupmanship. Religious leaders are trained and schooled only in the scripture, dogma, and teachings of their own religion (or sect or denomination) and have no business deviating from teaching only their own flock based on their own tradition. Observing this tenet, an important one for inter-faith harmony would have also gone some way in de-escalating the problems that you have highlighted.

  5. 6 Breadtalk 15 February 2011 at 11:45

    “Here was a cabinet minister in a secular state as Indonesia is supposed to be, making a decision based on “divine guidance”  and proudly announcing it too.”

    We have people who live by “divine guidance” here too.And they have become very rich and influential.

    Maybe it is time we drag these people to court to talk about “the voice” in their head?

    1) Test the spirit or “the voice”. If “the voice” is indeed all knowing and wise, it should stand up to hard questions?

    2) Publicise the proceeding on national level so people can decide for themselves.

    Maybe then, our world will be a saner and safer place?

  6. 7 Desmond 16 February 2011 at 13:24

    I think “Mr. Wang” from Mr. Wang Says So hit the nail on the head. We keep forgetting that gahmens are never there to make us happy or to align themselves with us. Gahmens are there to administer AND try to keep themselves in power. There are no gahmens that would ever implement something that would shake that power. In the case of Singapore, the gahmen knows that growth and a strong economy is the thing that keeps them it power (for how long more, who would know) and that is all they are doing in other to retain that power.

    See them change their tune IF a strong economy is no longer something that Singaporeans think is of the most importance in a country.

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