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.