Should Outsiders Be Meddling In Indonesia’s Religious Affairs?

A woman who is a member of Ahmadiyah Islamic sect, whose son and two others died in a mob attack, walks by the remains of a family home after it was burned in Pandeglang, Banten. (AFP Photo/Nurani Nuutong)

A woman who is a member of Ahmadiyah Islamic sect, whose son and two others died in a mob attack, walks by the remains of a family home after it was burned in Pandeglang, Banten. (AFP Photo/Nurani Nuutong)

As local authorities debate over banishing Indonesia’s Ahmadiyah Muslim sect and several congregations remain barred from their houses of worship, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono this week will jet off to the United States and address an audience specifically concerned with respect for religious freedom. But it will not be an occasion for the country’s leader to be criticized.

Instead he will be the guest of honor at a ceremony hosted by New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation. There he is expected to accept an award from the interfaith coalition of business leaders “in recognition of his work to support human rights and religious freedom in the country.”

Yudhoyono’s nomination for the World Statesman Award has sparked outrage within Indonesia. Many have complained that this “inappropriate” recognition propels an idealistic notion to the world that Indonesia is, in fact, a model of religious harmony, which begs the broader question as to what role the international community should play within Indonesia’s struggle for religious tolerance.

For Andreas Harsono, researcher for Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, the ACF’s decision to award the country’s president is a source of significant frustration.

“We are concerned because it will send the wrong message about Indonesia,” he said.

In February the international rights group released a report documenting numerous instances and statistics that pointed to an escalation of religious intolerance and faith-motivated violence throughout the archipelago. It also strongly condemned the government’s “complicity” in tackling the trend.

A disconnect

Riding on global publicity that the report attracted, Andreas has been traveling throughout the United States and Europe promoting HRW’s concerns and findings. Yet he says the tour has been plagued by a disconnect between how world leaders describe the state of religious harmony in Indonesia and what is actually happening on the ground.

“I traveled to the US first, and I spoke at campuses, I spoke at think-tank councils for foreign relations in New York … the reaction was not one of surprise. They are people who are not ignorant of Indonesia,” he said.

“What they cannot understand is that their government leaders, including President Barack Obama, say things that do not connect with the reality on the ground.”

In 2010, Obama made a point of praising Indonesia’s religious tolerance. More recently in her visit to Indonesia last year, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared: “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”

According to Andreas, other Western leaders have joined the bandwagon in promoting Indonesia’s “model” of tolerance.

“Even [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel said similar things just a few months ago in Berlin when she was opening an exhibition where President Yudhoyono was present. [Former Australian Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd and [British Prime Minister] David Cameron have also spoken of Indonesia’s tolerance,” Andreas said.

Indonesia — on the surface — is a convenient example of religious harmony. But adding to this narrative is the fact that the archipelagic nation is the world’s most populous Muslim country, which also happens to be blessed with an array of valuable resources and is currently witnessing a record economic boom. So evidently, there are internationally vested interests in upholding Indonesia’s reputation as a moderate Muslim-populated nation, but at what cost?

This rhetoric, Andreas says, is compromising the Indonesian government’s commitment in tackling intolerance as it does not hold the country’s leaders to account.

“One of the most difficult things in fighting for religious freedom in Indonesia is the perception that Indonesia is a model Muslim democracy. It is so difficult to persuade decision makers inside Indonesia and also outside Indonesia.”

On why the world is so desperate for Indonesia to be recognized as a thriving and religiously diverse nation, US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook points to the country’s potential for religious harmony, which could “become a model of success for the rest of the world.”

“It is important for Indonesians to be successful because the world is watching and the world has interests in Indonesia’s overall success and a prosperous democracy,” she told the Jakarta Globe on Friday.

On Thursday, Johnson Cook, alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry, released the state department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom. The document expressed deep concern over a series of violations against religious freedom in Indonesia and, like HRW, it pointed a finger at the government’s “inaction” and discriminatory laws.

“No matter how the world is perceiving the issue, what we want to make sure is that the US and Indonesia continue to be engaged, and we will continue to engage their government. We know that there are challenges, but we will continue to engage them in order to progress in the area of religious freedom.”

Last resort

But many victims of religious intolerance fear that mediation and damning reports are not enough to inspire their country’s authorities to act. Instead they hope to attract crucial global appreciation of their struggles by calling for fierce condemnation from world leaders over their government’s failures.

Bona Sigalingging, spokesperson for the GKI Yasmin Christian congregation in Bogor, West Java — which has been locked out of its church by municipal authorities since 2010 despite two Supreme Court orders ruling in its favor — says turning to global leaders for support has become the group’s last resort.

“For GKI Yasmin we have already exhausted our options. There is nowhere else in the Indonesian system that we can go and submit our complaint to demand the decision of the Supreme Court.

“All levels of the Indonesian government know about this case, and now it is really a matter of Indonesia’s friends, true friends internationally, reminding our leaders that there are problems.”

Respecting democracy

But according to US Ambassador to Indonesia Scot Marciel, who has been mediating regular talks between Indonesian religious minorities and government officials, there is only so much the international community can do before it crosses a line. He says that world leaders have some role to play but to suggest that it is the international community that will make or break this issue “is a mistake.”

“It’s not always the case that loud public statements are always the most useful,” the ambassador said in an interview with the Jakarta Globe on Friday.

He reiterated the short history of Indonesia’s democracy, noting that despite notable pitfalls, overall the country was progressing positively following the fall of Suharto in 1998. Marciel commended the nation’s free press and vibrant political debate.

“I think Indonesia is at the stage, after 15 years of democracy where it is still trying to find that balance. And for us rather than simply just criticizing the failings we think it’s useful to encourage this debate and to do what we can to facilitate Indonesian society to continue this debate, so that the Indonesian people can find a path that I’m confident will be toward respectful religious freedom,” he said.

Echoing Johnson Cook’s sentiment that prioritizes engaging with the Indonesian government to assist in finding a peaceful solution, Marciel expressed caution on the role of world leaders.

“I think the key is, Indonesia’s democracy came about because of Indonesians. And Indonesians maintaining respect for human rights and improving the weak areas is going to be because of the work of Indonesians, not because of foreigners,” he said.

But this is a bitter pill to swallow for the nation’s religious minorities at a time when their cries are falling on deaf ears and their suffering has been marred by the ACF giving an award to the president who analysts say should be doing more to defend their rights.

Nonetheless there is an undeniable trend opposing the government’s disregard to religious intolerance and discrimination. Minority groups as well as supporters from the majority Sunni Muslim community are uniting and taking a stand, and this movement is growing stronger, says Andreas.

“These groups which believe in diversity, which believe in religious freedom, which believe in human rights, they are still small now because they are being repressed by the Sunni Muslim militants … but this idea will not die, it can only grow bigger and bigger,” he said.

“This is a tunnel, a dark tunnel that they have to enter, but it will not be an endless tunnel.”

This democratic process, the rights activist added, will only be strengthened by the willingness of world leaders and global institutions, such as the ACF, to accept Indonesia’s struggle for religious freedom at face value and to stop “lying to the international world.”

  • 22roles

    Agree with US ambassador. How about helping out with freedom of speech n expression that others in lots worst position at the moment than Indonesia , that includes freedom to practise religions.

    • Mbro

      please tell me you are not an Indonesian bro

    • MadWorld

      Have you taken your medicine?

  • Tatanka

    Agreed wholeheartedly with the writer. Democracy is a shared responsibility and there cannot be any democracy without societal responsibility. Indonesia is still a long way from calling itself a democratic country or democratic society. Most people do not even understand what democracy means. Some cannot even tell the difference between democracy and anarchy.

    In my humble opinion, intolerance (and violence associated therewith) will continue to plague Indonesia so long there is no clear separation between government and religion. Let’s face it, Indonesia implements Pancasila as its state ideology and the constitution whereby both embraces freedom of religion. Yet there is a Ministry of Religion (which is an oxymoron). Granted inside the ministry ‘some religions’ are represented however, in reality it is a sham as it is hijacked by Islam. The government through the ministry of religion spends hard-earned tax money to print Qurans. I wonder if any funds are also available for printing the Bibles. Inter-faith marriages must go through the ministry of religion meaning the government through the Court of Religion (again a violation of Pancasila and the constitution) and the government has conveniently closes its eyes when tax-funded schools are forcing their students to wear Islamic garbs. Further, the ministry of education, another tax-funded institution, is promoting Islam in its curriculum (another violation of Pancasila and the constitution).

    As to the implementation of Pancasila and the Constitution, most government officials under SBY are either ignorant or simply ignoring these basic tenets. The Aceh government is requiring its representatives to be able to read and recite Quranic verses (most of them failed anyway), decisions from the supreme courts are conveniently ignored as evidenced by the closure of some Christian churches although the ruling from the supreme court has been in favor of those churches. Local government officials apparently cajoled hard-liners to garner votes while ignoring the facts that their utmost duty is to uphold the laws and to defend the constitution. Then there is Council of Ulama (supposedly a nonb-profit, religion-based organization) that work together with the ministry of religion, ministry of health, etc. to sell ‘halal stamps’. In reality, they are strong-arm eating and drinking establishments and F&B (Food and Beverage) companies to put the ‘halal’ logo on their products and thereby paying the MUI for such a stamp. Clearly, this is a business by hiding behind the ministries and the religion. Even if the ‘halal’ stamp is to be implemented based on free-will it is still a farce since the council has no laboratory to determine whether or not the products are actually halal. It is a complete sham and mafia-style pressure on the economy.

    Should outsiders be involved? I wonder who would be considered outsiders? What about Indonesian Diaspora members? Would they be considered outsiders? What about former Indonesian citizens or even the citizens of Indonesia residing abroad who have better understanding of what democracy means. Would they also be considered outsiders? Robert Kennedy once asked his brother, John, prior to the latter running for president. “If not now, WHEN? If not you, WHO? It is obvious SBY has been silent and mute in regard to the religious intolerance (and violence) in Indonesia. Thus, ALL who cares about Indonesia and democracy in Indonesia must speak out. Otherwise, some day we will regret for not doing anything. Edmund Burke once said ‘Evil can only triumph when good people see evil and decide to do nothing’ while Pastor Niemoller once said ‘we do not speak out when injustices fall on others … and one day there is no one left to speak out for us). So, there is no outsider! No man is an island and borrowing the phrase from Hillary Clinton, we are all members of the Global Village. As such, we must care about each other, regardless of the geo-political designations, the skin colors, religions or other attributes. After all, free countries throughout the world, including Indonesia, are so inter-dependent and interwoven.

    Back to the notion that Democracy is a shared responsibility, I aspire that members of the so-called Indonesia democracy, should join hands and reject anything deemed undemocratic. Sadly, only a few has done so. While many are expressing their criticism, only a few is willing to challenge the establishment. Democracy is not a top-down ideology and the strongest democracy is the one rooting deeply in the society. Yet, democracy has a price. Those aspiring democracy must be willing to pay that price. Martin Luther King, Jr. paid with his life. Mahatma Gandhi paid his due. Would the champions of democracy from Indonesia please step forward! All it takes is some people who truly care about democracy to do so and I am sure the (currently shy) support will come forward in droves. The time is now before Indonesia falls further into the dark ages and darkness. Regardless of what other countries think and say, democracy is a shared responsibility and the brunt is on the shoulders of the Indonesians who care.

    • MadWorld

      Nicely said.

      We live in a liberal democratic society, if, every citizen is subjected to the very same law. In Indonesia , pancasila, but it was not, it is an uncomfortable truth, Indonesia is heading toward a theocratic state.

      In a corrupt state are the most oxymoronic law.

    • MikeOfAston

      Indonesian democracy is for greater number of people to get rich at the public expense.

    • TalkingEid

      Thank you Tatanka – I think you have summed up superbly the way that many of us feel.

    • Valkyrie1604

      A very well written post. Thank you! I enjoyed reading it.

  • Dirk

    Other countries’ governments have the same goal as the Indonesian government: facilitate the exploitation of Indonesia’s national resources for profit. As long as local intolerance doesn’t interfere with that process, they see no benefit in interfering on social issues.

    • udangdibalikbatu

      this is it. until inter-faith conflicts start messing with the money nothing will change.

      • Dirk

        Or until the natural resources are all gone, and a purposely uneducated populace of “tenaga kerja” is all that remains. Then things will really change for the worse.

        • Valkyrie1604

          When millions of its citizenry have to go to foreign countries to work as servants, it shows.

        • udangdibalikbatu

          natural resources will be around for a long time. indonesia will just lose a bigger cut each time an international country has to go to a more difficult place to get them(resources)

  • Larry Tan

    Something is amiss when world leaders don’t know what they are talking about.

    • 22roles

      And you seem to know more than world leaders. So you can call yourself universal inter galaxy leader?

      • Larry Tan

        kanniabuchaocheebye! Tiuleilomohumkachan!

  • Singaperbangsa

    Good question.Should Outsiders Be Meddling In Germany’s Racial Affairs in the 1940′s?

    • MadWorld

      Germany 1940,was in great economical depression.Indonesia 2013 is coming to age of progress & prosperity, member of the trillion dollar world economy. Germany 1940 was a member of the trillion dollar impoverish nation. That’s when nationalism grew & populism exploited by Hitler’s rhetoric that started the second W.War. The German government tolerated Neo Nazi because this is a democratic country, but, is limited by a stringent law. Don’t try to incite hatred,to kill,german of turkish origin. It happened but the perpetrators will be in jail.
      Look in Indonesia.
      Look at Germany in 2013.

      • Singaperbangsa

        Sorry I don’t get it. It is my form of humor to pretend to ask a question, the answer to it being obvious, at least to me. The rest of the world should have tried to stop the Shoah in the 1940′s (by the way, Germany was not in economic depression at that time, but was occupying a big chunk of Europe and waging war against the UK and the Soviet Union). So the rest of the world must warn Indonesia for letting Muslim radicals treat badly people who think differently, as it must warn any country were there is complacency towards discrimation,

        • mauriceg

          Hi singaperbangsa. I’m interested in where you got the word ‘Shoah’, which is the Hebrew term for ‘The Holocaust’. They don’t have Yom Ha’Shoah here in Indonesia, being mainly Muslim, remote, and somehow less than concerned.

          • Singaperbangsa

            Hello @disqus_T4crEug5Xb:disqus, I live in Paris, France, a country were knowledge matters. Indonesia has been deprived – amongst others – from knowledge during the 32 years of Soeharto regime (“Schindler’s List” was banned) so I’m not surprised people there don’t know a word like “shoah”… :-)

        • GypsyMacaque

          Oeps you are a great pretender . Meant no harm.
          I meant that the 1940 Germany’s invasion to the low countries was preceded by a long economic depression. Caused by world war 1 compensation to France

  • doni

    describing indonesia easily,,, what comes in my mind?? only one ” full of emptiness inside”

  • Good,Bad and Ugly

    The concern and debate is about human rights – HUMAN rights, ALL HUMANS, Therefore there are NO lines of sovereignty to cross. We all have a duty and responsibility to uphold freedom and liberty for ALL peoples against the tyranny of religion.

  • Haji Rafiq

    Anyone stating that in Indonesia religious freedom is practiced is simply not correctly informed. The way Christians, Shiahs, Ahmadiyya Muslims are treated is clearly wrong. The response of the authorities is totally insufficient. Governments need to treat all citizens with equal respect. If foreigners are commenting they should inform themselves properly or not comment.

  • Singaperbangsa

    If for example Muslims were badly treated in France or the United States, should we abstain from meddling? :-)

    • Tatanka

      I agree with Hai Rafiq that should be properly informed prior but I think he forgot that freedom of the press means a lot more in some other countries as compared to in Indonesia.

    • TGIF

      The truth in the matter that Muslims treat badly among themselves. Muslims live in harmony in the US or in France. When Muslims live in the Middle East, or in some predominantly Muslim population, intolerance reigns.

  • TalkingEid

    Perhaps if some ‘outsiders’ from the Middle East stopped ‘meddling’ there wouldn’t be such a problem to begin with?

  • Muffinman

    Ouch !

  • Good,Bad and Ugly

    US Ambassador to Indonesia Scot Marciel is not naïve. But to make such a shallow statement, which spreads the ‘intolerance’ blame so thinly, is being a professional apologist.

    All, and I do mean all, of the blame for the incidents and occasions of intolerance against the Muslim sects and Christians can be justifiably laid on the President’s desk.

    He not only has not tried, in any way shape or form, to alleviate or mitigate the crimes, but has actually aggravated and accelerated these crimes through his Minister of Religion.

    Ambassador Marciel: you are being political and deceitful. Duplicitous, in fact.

    • TalkingEid

      Scot Marciel is a diplomat GBU – it’s not his job to tell the truth.

      • Valkyrie1604

        Like politicians, they deliberately ‘lie’ occasionally.

        • GypsyMacaque

          When they start telling the truth, it is not diplomacy anymore.They are educated not to say “yes” nor “no”.

  • Roland


  • Tatanka

    Apparently my earlier post was badly edited. So, here it goes:
    I agree with Hai Rafiq that foreigners should be properly informed prior to making comments but I think he forgot that freedom of the press means a lot more in some other countries as compared to in Indonesia

  • Diederik

    When so few “insiders” are willing to do anything about the problem then “outsiders” will be more compelled to step in to help citizens of Indonesia obtain freedom from religion.

  • DrMccoy


    its humor but not as we know it jim

  • deptdrivesmiddleclas

    owned again 22

  • TGIF

    Refresh your memory on this article on JG: Irshad Manji Undeterred by Hard-Liners, Warns of Saudi ‘Foreign Imperialism’
    By webadmin on 6:43 pm May 7, 2012.
    Category Archive

    The truth in the mater that this country may be heading toward a similar country like Pakistan. Indonesia cannot afford to lose its identity and as a nation who should be proud of their cultural heritage, The younger generation has been brainwashed and are confusing Islam, Arabic culture and their way of life. Some politicians aren’t doing better either. The Indonesians need to stand up and safeguard their belief and not be dictated by other foreign religious Islamic movement. The Indonesians can make a difference for their future and to tell those who defy their culture and way of life as previously tolerant will not be fooled this time. Ignorance, lack of education and the inability to think logically because of peer pressure have caused so many people to fall into a trap. It is time to let go off the mask, stop playing god and judging each other. The people need to think rationally instead of stepping backward into the Middle Ages.