Of Indonesia’s 240 Million inhabitants, 85 percent consider themselves to be Muslim. It is the largest Islamic country in the world.

The country was a light house of religious tolerance for many years- but not any longer.

Saudi-financed Wahhabi-sects took control of many mosques and religious schools to turn Indonesia into another totalitarian Islamic state.

In light of this, the prevalence of Islamic militarism will not surprise some observers.

However, the country has a long history of religious tolerance with all faiths considered equal and religious freedom guaranteed.

Yet there has been a surge in extremism in recent years, and President Jokowi has named an unconventional cause: Democracy.

  • Rising sectarianism in Indonesia.
  • Democracy and freedom blamed by President.
  • Government policy the true cause of discrimination.

Since the beginning of the century, Indonesia has witnessed an astonishing increase in the amount of Islamic militarism that blights the nation. It can be traced to the the months following the downfall of dictator President Suharto in 1998.

With his widespread powers, he was able to limit religious militancy of the dominant religion. Yet In his absence a increase in aggressive rhetoric was noticeable. Christians and Jews labeled “infidels”. Muslim’s who did not follow a particular form of Sunni orthodoxy “blasphemers”.

In the time since, these groups have seeked to harass and intimidate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population of Indonesia. The sizeable Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities also attracted unwanted attention.

In recent years Sharia law has become commonplace. Stoning of adulterers, imprisonment for same-sex sexual acts, un-islamic clothing, and for consumption of alcohol are punishments regularly meted out.

President Jokowi scapegoats democracy

Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently claimed that democracy in Indonesia “has gone too far. Political freedom has opened the door for extreme politics, such as liberalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, radicalism, terrorism and other ideologies that contradict Pancasila,” he added.

In response, human rights groups expressed fears that Jokowi’s remarks could be interpreted in a means that limited freedom of expression in the nation. Hendardi of human rights watchdog Setara Institute echoed Jokowi’s statement with regard to improving law enforcement.

“Jokowi actually has an easy way to handle this situation: Enforce the law against those conducting acts of intolerance or terrorism, but not by restricting the freedom of expression,” he said.

The comments came amid rallies and protests by conservative Muslim groups. The protests demanded the prosecution of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese-Indonesian of Christian faith, for alleged blasphemy.

However, this suppression of freedom of expression must be fought, and to label democracy the culprit is disingenuous in the extreme.

Decisions in policy poured fuel on extremist flames

Many of the problems of today can be attributed to the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who came to power in 2005. He vowed to enforce laws against “deviant beliefs” strictly. Throughout his reign, a blind eye was turned to pervasive discrimination, harassment and violence. These acts were overwhelmingly committed by militant Islamists against religious minorities.

The government of Jokowi has continued in its ignorance towards these crimes. Furthermore, the police and legal system clearly exacerbate the discrimination against minorities.

Human rights campaigner Al Araf from Imparsial has reminded the government that it should take care in enforcing the law, instead of seeking to suppress freedom of speech. “Many cases of hate speech are instead left un-investigated,” Al Araf said.

Laws such as the house of worship regulation have been central to this. It requires minorities to request official approval to build or renovate houses of worship. The blasphemy law which has been used most recently against Ahok, punishes deviations from the six officially protected religions with up to five years in prison.

It is imperative that President Jokowi seeks not to use this controversy and division to pursue a campaign against freedom of expression. It should be made clear to Indonesians that religious persecution will not be tolerated, including the police force and government. Until that time, Indonesian secularity and it’s position as a beacon in the Muslim world will be at risk.

(Photo Credit: Flickr)