Those who take the view that Islam is not wholly incompatible with modernity and democracy tend to look to Malaysia and Indonesia. The latter is held to be a particularly good example, the most populous Islamic nation on earth, a country that has embraced freedom and plurality.
Alas things are not as they were; or rather an ugly truth is beginning to come out from behind a comforting illusion. Last month, on two separate occasions, a Muslim mob attacked local Protestants at the half-finished church at Bekaski, just outside Jakarta, the capital. Shouting death threats, they threw stones and bags of urine. The church itself hasn’t been completed because the pastor has been waiting five years for the necessary permission from the district administration.
The pattern is becoming familiar. In Aceh province at the northern end of the island of Sumatra, an area particularly noted for its Islamic orthodoxy, some sixteen churches have been closed because they supposedly lacked ‘permits.’
The growing wave of intolerance became headline news recently after a proposed concert by Lady Gaga had to be cancelled because a group calling themselves the Islamic Defenders Front threatened to provoke disorder and chaos. Human Rights Watch has reported that incidents of violent intolerance are “becoming more deadly and more frequent.”
None of this is new; it’s just been very well-hidden. The worrying thing is that central government, including President Yudhoyono, is doing little or nothing to stop such attacks and provocations. The assumption is that the president is pandering to Islamist groups for political gain, all in defiance of the Indonesian constitution, which guarantees freedom of worship. People brought before the courts on charges of violence against Christians have generally received light sentences.
Speaking in Jakarta a year and a half ago President Obama was lavish in praising the Indonesians for the “…spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolized in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people. We are two nations which have travelled different paths. Yet our nations show that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag”
All rather ironic, considering that not long before this there was an arson attack on Saint Joseph’s Chapel in central Java. The truth behind these pompous and bogus words is clearly quite different, different then and different now. The best President Yudhoyono is prepared to do is to mouth a few Obama-style platitudes about non-violence and respecting the rights of others, all while passing the problem down to the local authorities. As the Economist noted, this simply makes the extremists all the bolder in their actions, especially as they have the active support of the police in places.
Obama is either ignorant or incredibly ill-advised, most likely both. Some time before his soft soap message the Indonesian government, under pressure from extremist groups, passed legal measures against the Ahmadi Muslim sect. Hilary Clinton has spoken out against the persecution of the same sect in Pakistan but not a word about Indonesia. Clearly it’s all a question of political convenience, criticising persecution in one place and not in another. After all, the threatened minorities in Indonesia can always take comfort that they are “united in freedom under one flag.”