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.
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.”
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.”
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.”