Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Indonesia's Rising Religious Intolerance?

In the past few weeks, the so-called Indonesia model of "Islamic Democracy" is under close scrutiny. The New York Times recently published two opinion pieces--"Indonesia's Rising Religious Intolerance" and "No Model for Muslim Democracy"--describing the rising radicalism and attacks on atheists and religious minorities, and questioning whether moderation will hold. My colleague, Brad Nelson, also devoted a post on the attack on Irshad Manji in Indonesia.

I may sound like an Indonesian apologist here in this post, but I have to note that the majority of people here remain tolerant and moderate. Unlike in the Middle East, most Indonesians are either Sufi (a blend of Islam with local mysticism) or moderate Sunnis, where the attitude toward other religions can be summed as c'est la vie. The aforementioned three articles/posts should not be seen as an indictment of the Indonesian population as a whole.

Still, I am not going to go on Suryadharma Ali's path. It is totally stupid and naive to discount the seriousness of recent incidents, that it is true that there have been growing religious extremism and intolerance in Indonesia, especially in the last five years.

The root, however, is not in religious intolerance per se, but in politics. Even since the beginning of Indonesian independence, political Islam has been a potent political force. There has always been a myth of a single Muslim bloc, that should the politicians get it right, they could attract the vote from the Muslims of Indonesia, which comprises about 85% of the population.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, politicians were hoping to tap this "huge bloc" by establishing parties that were supposed to represent Muslims. In turn, they were also afraid of offending this "majority," that they were afraid to be labeled as un-Islamic, and this contributed to their aversion to tackle vigilante groups that supposedly "defended" the Islamic faith -- two of the most notorious were the Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defender Front (FPI).

Still, this does not explain why many people think the situation has deteriorated badly in the past few years if politicians have been afraid to offend and tackling radical Islamists since 1998? In fact, if we pay more attention, closely scrutinize the entire period since 1998, the situation in 2012 is actually much better than in 1999, when we literally had ethno-religious wars in the Moluccas and Poso and al-Qaeda affiliated Jamaah Islamiyah ran unchecked.

First, we have the problem of perception of presidential power. Between 1998-2001, during the height of Indonesian ethno-religion conflicts, the central government's power was very weak. For instance, regardless of his intention to stop the conflicts, President Gus Dur's directives went unheeded due to the intractable tensions between him and the military, which was still in the middle of transition from being a politicized entity to a more professional organization. International Crisis Group, for instance, argued that some elements in the military was training and backing the combatants.

By 2009, the presidency under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was considered to be very strong. Mr. Yudhoyono was elected with 60.8% of the votes and he had support from many elements in society, including the military. He was expected to act decisively and pursue much needed reforms -- basically making a clean break from the dirty past.

When these expectations were not met--he is now seen as just another spineless politician--the blow back has been harsh. When he did not act against radical groups, people no longer saw him as a strong decisive leader, but rather a ditherer. His unwillingness to act, in turn, has only emboldens radical groups to raise the stakes. Mr. Yudhoyono himself, seeing his poll numbers plummeting, became even more hesitant to do anything drastic, wary that it would antagonize the "majority" further.

In addition, unlike past "grand coalitions," which were dominated by two large parties (e.g. Megawati's PDI-P-Golkar Party and SBY's first term's Democratic Party-Golkar), the second term of Mr. Yudhoyono was a coalition of parties, with the Democratic Party only as its core. Should the Golkar Party, which is currently also part of the coalition and at the same time the second largest party in the parliament) decide to join up with the opposition PDI-P, both of them combined would have 201 seats out of 560 total seats in the parliament, compared to Democratic Party's 148 seats. This would make the Islamist parties extremely important to the coalition.

Second, note the argument in my article in the Jakarta Globe, which I quote here in full:
The mass organizations, however, would not have lasted long if politicians had no use for them. They are mostly used for helping the politicians garner votes, and they are particularly helpful when someone contesting an election is virtually unknown among the electorate. 
In short, you want votes? You need to cultivate ties to any "mass" organization, as you need it to garner much needed votes. There is this unholy alliance between politicians and violent groups, one type of mass organization, making it very difficult to crack down on them.

Finally, it is widely believed that the police and the FPI are working hand-in-hand. The police are funding the FPI and using it to do things that it normally cannot do in exchange for allowing the FPI a free hand to do what it wants. It is a political/economic relationship.

Therefore, Indonesia's supposedly rising intolerance is driven less by religious intolerance, but more by the weaknesses of the government itself, particularly its unwillingness to uphold the rule of law and to crack down on the extremist groups due to political considerations.

Monday, May 21, 2012

North Korea in Indonesia: Something Terrible This Way Come?

Last week, President of North Korea Kim Yong Nam visited Indonesia, officially with the purpose of hoping to drum up investment from Indonesia.

Such a trip, however, must be seen under the backdrop of several recent strategic developments that have been very detrimental to North Korea's position.

For the North Koreans, this year has already started badly. First, they botched their rocket launch. Originally, it was hoped that the launch would be a harbinger of a glorious new era under Kim Jong Un while continuing his father's legacy. The launch, however, was a disaster, enraging everyone, even China (there's no way in hell this article could be published, especially in Global Times, without any official approval -- China rarely criticizes North Korea, even with a mild rebuke, regardless how idiotic North Korea acts).

In turn, this lead to another diplomatic headache, another tit-for-tat, where North Korea signaled its displeasure by arresting Chinese fishermen. How this works out in the end will remain to be seen, but this incident shows how angry North Korea is with its patron and at the same time, this "biting the hand that feeds it" policy will probably cause more estrangement, especially from China's side..

Another problem for North Korea is that the President of Myanmar, after having met the President of South Korea, decided to stop purchasing arms from North Korea. From Myanmar's perspective, now that it's reestablishing a relationship with the United States, it is a logical next step to build closer ties to South Korea, especially with South Korea investing all over the place in Southeast Asia. The impoverished Myanmar, of course, would love to have a slice of that South Korean investment.

In my view, a salient question is: what can Indonesia do to help North Korea? While Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa downplayed North Korea's belligerence, arguing that it boiled down to misunderstandings, such an interpretation is questionable at best, as it is unclear if Pyongyang really wants to be a productive and cooperative member of the international community. It certainly rings hollow in Seoul and Washington. Moreover, unlike Myanmar, there does not seem any domestic politics changes that would provide opening for Indonesia to help "democratize" North Korea in ways similar to Myanmar nowadays.

North Korea's latest move is likely a product of two motives. On the one hand, it is probably trying to avoid total isolation. Indonesia is one of the very few countries that still maintain cordial relations with North Korea, a relationship that dates back to the Sukarno era; deepening these ties might make North Korea feel less alone and insecure. In addition, considering the cordial relationship that Indonesia has with both China and South Korea, Pyongyang likely wants to use Indonesia to gauge the reactions of both Beijing and Seoul, two regional powers that sit right on North Korea's doorstep and profoundly impact its national security.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Irshad Manji, a Threat to Indonesian Public Order?

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Don't worry, we have not forgotten about the blog, I promise! Yohanes and I have been busy the last 2-3 weeks finishing a paper (on Indonesian grand strategy) for publication. While working on that project, I did come across a story that captured my attention. It concerned Irshad Manji's adventures in Indonesia.

I'm sure some of you are familiar with Irshad Manji, a liberal public intellectual who has written popular books and appeared on television shows and networks like Real Time with Bill Maher, CNN, Fox News, and so on. She's Canadian, and also a Muslim and a lesbian. Apparently, the combination of these things--specifically, the fact that she's liberal, Muslim, and a lesbian--has upset the delicate world of a group of Muslim extremists in Indonesia. Let's review what happened.

On May 4, at a location in South Jakarta, Manji was scheduled to give a talk on her new book. About 15 minutes into the event, just before she began to speak, Indonesian police stepped in and canceled the rest of the proceedings, claiming that the organizers had failed to secure the proper permits to have a foreign speaker at the gathering.

At about the same time the police intervened, a number of local extremist agitators, upset and angry, began to cause a disturbance--apparently, both inside and outside the venue--allegedly because a lesbian Muslim planned to speak to a public audience. To the extremists, who are also Muslim, the idea of a lesbian Muslim is heretical. And the thought of Manji giving a public speech is even worse. After all, they wondered, what was the point of her talk? Did she plan on indoctrinating the Indonesian masses in her liberal, homosexual lifestyle?! According to a spokesman of the Islam Defender Front (FPI), a group whose members were among the rabble-rousers:

his group disregarded Irshad’s sexual identity but rejected her way to spread her principle, adding that her liberal standpoint is unacceptable. “We don’t mind her sexuality as long as she keeps it to herself. However, as she decides to spread her views [that Islam should accept homosexuality], it is a different story,” he told The Jakarta Post.
The next day, in defending , the police offered quite a a different reason for halting the book talk. No longer was the sole focus on the issue of permits. Jakarta Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Rikwanto stated:

There have been rejections from the local neighborhood and community units as well as an organization [FPI] against the book discussion. The locals urged that the event be ended because it discussed a sensitive issue.  
Besides, Irshad Manji is a lesbian activist and she was going to talk about a book that will offend what the majority of Muslims believe. We saw a potential for a public order disruption.

Unfortunately for Manji, her book launch continued to suffer setbacks while in Indonesia. On Saturday, May 5, she gave an hour long talk on her book. But while that took place, the venue was guarded by 50 members of Muslim youth organization (Banser NU), who applied a watchful eye on 100 members of FPI who stood in the rain to protest against Manji's book and the discussion of it.

There were other troubling signs. Consider this:

FPI Jakarta branch secretary-general Habib Novel insisted that the Canadian activist had been spreading views that Islam should accept homosexuality, which the group deemed “unacceptable”.
“Irshad Manji must leave this country, otherwise we will keep looking for her,” he said.
On Wednesday, the 9th, Manji's book discussion in Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta was canceled by university leaders for "security reasons." To Manji's supporters, like activist and politician Budiman Sudjatmiko, this was one more example of the hardliners and extremists--or religious fascists, as as Budiman called them--putting undue pressure on authorities, getting them to cave in to their demands. Budiman expressed his disappointment to The Jakarta Post: "This is a setback for all of us since universities should take a stand against any form of violence against the freedom of expression."

On the evening of that same day, May 9th, hundreds of people from the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) attacked participants in Manji's book discussion at the LKiS publishing office in Yogyakarta. Thugs broke down the door to the gathering, and once inside, vandalized the publisher’s office and Manji's books that were prominently and openly displayed. Even worse, though her supporters tried to protect her, Manji and her assistant suffered minor injuries from the attack; and dozens of people at the book event were beaten by the mob of Islamic extremists. According to The Jakarta Post, the MMI offered the following justification for the attack:

The MMI said Irshad’s so-called liberty and lesbianism propaganda was blasphemous toward Islam and that her teachings represented covert atheist propaganda
They also considered all those who facilitated Irshad’s event in Indonesia to be enemies of religion and the state.
So what does this chain of events mean? Some might claim that this says something about the state of Indonesian democracy. Maybe, but we have to be careful here. It's not that Islamists are derailing democracy, as some in the West might be tempted to say. After all, Islamist parties and candidates, especially extremist ones, have been marginalized though peaceful, democratic means. Indonesian voters have eschewed them, for the most part, and empowered more secular groups and candidates. Furthermore, Indonesians don't support violence, even violence committed in the name of Islam. And the threat from Islamic terrorists has been capably managed by Detachment 88, with able assistance from the U.S.

All of this tells us that Islamic extremism and violence has been effectively boxed in, contained, and as a result, both pose little to no existential threat to the Indonesian state or Indonesia's burgeoning democratic political system.

The events surrounding Manji show a different problem, though one that does impact Indonesian politics. Specifically, Indonesian institutions and leaders do not function as effectively, optimally as the country and its citizens need them to.

Here are some things to think about. Why wasn't Manji better protected by the police throughout her stay in the country? It's not as if the police were unaware of what could happen.Threats to her events and to her safety were public and well-known. More to the point, in the attack on the 9th, the police were supposedly notified ahead of time about threats to Manji. Yet there was no police presence at the book talk to deter the MMI thugs. Moreover, the police seemed to pin the blame for the constant threats, hostilities, and eventual violence on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Is this because the police force is simply an apathetic institution? Or did individual police officers side with the extremists? Or maybe the police is just an incompetent force? Whichever the case, there's trouble in the police ranks.

We should also consider the the role of failed leadership. What were regional and national leaders thinking? One would think there would be sufficient incentives for them to act, as the failure to do so only puts a stain on their political reputations. There were four days between the initial fiasco and the attack on the 9th. That's more than enough time for leaders to be aware of the dangers that Manji faced, coordinate with police on the ground, and put an action-plan in place to cope with the threats. Yet they failed.

In this environment, if few leaders and officials do their job, it's not too surprising that a small group of motivated Islamic extremists and criminals can wield some semblance of power. The dereliction of responsibilities can create a law and order vacuum that's waiting to be filled, even by misfits and criminals on a short-term basis.

Another result is that, as Amika Wardana recently pointed out, Indonesian hardliners have effectively put Islam in a straitjacket. Anything other than extremely conservative orthodoxy is ruled out and off limits. Concepts such as pluralism, liberalism, and secularism are rejected, and those who dabble in these areas are subject to punishment, usually by the hardliners, of course. This in turn encourages "anti-intellectualism, which clearly violates the freedom of religion and freedom of speech, the primary features of a democratic society."

This isn't just an Indonesian phenomenon, however. It's part of a broader trend in the world that plagues Islam today. Here's how: the very vocal and violent hardliners and extremists often dominate the public discourse of Islam. The moderates, fearful for their lives, unfortunately remain silent, afraid to confront the hardliners on their actions and views. They are more willing to voice their concerns and views outside of the eye of the hardliners, preferring, for instance, to operate in closed academic debates or quietly among friends and family. Yes, there are extremely brave people who do publicly stand up to the extremists, but they are usually the minority and too often suffer inhuman risks and consequences.

This situation has caused the West to malign the moderates unfairly, in my view. Over the last 11 years, scores of so-called pundits and analysts have wondered why Islamic moderates have not done more to counteract the hardliners. The implication, of course, is that by sitting on the sidelines, the moderates are also involved, serving as complicit co-conspirators to extremism and violence. This is nonsense. More properly, blame should be placed on the elites and leaders in Muslim countries. It is up to them to give the moderates enough space, freedom, and protection most importantly, to take on the hardliners and extremists when necessary. Under these conditions, the moderates can more easily coordinate with each other, speak their voice in public, and offer enough compelling counter-narratives to drown out the ideas and arguments of the crazies.

In this vein, I hope Indonesian authorities have learned enough from the incidents involving Manji to be more solicitous of the plight of Muslim moderates. It doesn't matter that the overwhelming majority of Indonesians have dismissed the hardliners as cranks and criminals and that the hardliners have been de-legtimized. The failure to protect and secure moderates--and by extension, the appearance that political elites lack political will--gives hardliners enough of an opening to spout dangerous anti-democratic, violent ideas, and can, in turn, embolden extremists to commit heinous acts.