Touting Islam to Draw Votes in Indonesia
By Joe Cochrane
June 17, 2013
With its tree-lined streets, Dutch colonial buildings and soothing botanical gardens, the quaint West Java mountain town of Bogor hardly appears a hotbed of religious intolerance. Yet Bogor is on the front line of a national debate in Indonesia about religious freedom, amid an increase in discrimination and violent attacks against minority Christians and Islamic sects.
The battle of Bogor centers on its mayor, Diani Budiarto, who for two years has ignored a Supreme Court order to reinstate a building permit he revoked in 2008 for a local Christian congregation, known as GKI Yasmin, and sealed off its church construction site.
The Yasmin case has drawn international attention, including from the Vatican, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department. However, Mr. Diani, who is Muslim, insists he is not discriminating against Christians, but only following national regulations on houses of worship. He said 8 of the 60 required signatures from local residents supporting the new church were forged.
“This is an issue of regulations,” Mr. Diani said in an interview. “It’s not a religious issue.”
But many analysts, Christian groups, and religious and human rights advocates say the issue is very much about religion, not just in Bogor but across Indonesia. They link it to the implementation of regional autonomy in 1999 as part of the country’s transition toward democracy after the late President Suharto’s three decades of highly centralized, authoritarian rule.
They cite the advent of direct elections of provincial district chiefs and mayors beginning in 2005, which has resulted in local governments increasingly touting Islam to curry favor among voters in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
“Religion is a popular election issue locally,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a prominent political analyst and adviser to Vice President Boediono. “Voters are attracted to conservative religious issues.”
Although Indonesia has a secular Constitution and influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, 282 of its 491 provincial districts have bylaws inspired by Shariah, or Islamic law, a 55 percent increase since 2009, according to the independent National Commission on Violence Against Women. Although most of these bylaws focus on Muslim women, such as requiring them to wear Islamic headdress and separating them from men in public places, 31 apply to religious minorities, including restrictions on religious practices by the Ahmadiyah and Shiite Islamic sects.
In drawing up these bylaws, analysts say, local district chiefs have often tried to appeal to hard-line Islamic groups, including some known for using violence, or shared their ideology.
“This is all about local elections,” said Andy Yentriyani, deputy chairwoman of the National Commission. “They know they can get votes from Shariah bylaws as well as bylaws that are religious discrimination.” The shift in power to the local authorities has been accompanied by a surge in religious violence. The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, a nongovernmental organization, counted 264 violent attacks on religious minorities last year, up from 244 in 2011 and 216 in 2010.
The violence has continued this year, with the firebombing of four churches on Sulawesi Island, the demolition of another in West Java by a local district government, attacks and protests against Ahmadiyah and Shiite followers, and the jailing of a Christian pastor for holding a religious service without a permit.
Throughout this, the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who took office in 2004, has steadfastly avoided involvement in local religious disputes.
“The central government, from the minister of home affairs to President Yudhoyono, does not have the political will to force those district chiefs and mayors to respect the 1945 Constitution and other laws and regulations” regarding religious freedom and secularism, said Azyumardi Azra, a prominent Muslim scholar and director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.
He said that under the Constitution, the national government is obligated to oversee religious affairs, but that it has ignored appeals from the Yasmin congregation in Bogor to enforce the Supreme Court order allowing its construction permit, as well as a separate court ruling backing a building permit for a Protestant church in Bekasi, West Java, and the right to hold Sunday services on its land after it was sealed off by the local government.
As for why the president has not intervened, Mr. Yudhoyono’s advisers have said that the president wants local governments to take on greater responsibility and to resolve disputes through negotiation. However, analysts say this has only emboldened local leaders to pass discriminatory regulations and hard-line Islamic groups to resort to violence, because “the state does not come down on them,” said Ms. Dewi.
In February, Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said in a report on religious freedom in Indonesia that more than 400 churches had been forcibly closed between 2005 and 2010. In May, a U.S. State Department report expressed concern about Indonesia, saying “the government sometimes failed to protect the rights of religious minority groups.”
Indonesian analysts said Mr. Yudhoyono himself had played the religion card to shore up political support from conservative Muslim groups and Islamic-based political parties, and as a result, they say, both religious attacks and discrimination have mushroomed under his administration.
“I think the president has a commitment to plurality, but that’s politics. He needs political support,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice chairman of the Setara Institute’s executive board. “Since he entered politics, he has calculated that Islam is one of the sources of political power, even in a democracy. You need support from the Islamic side.”
Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said important members of Mr. Yudhoyono’s inner circle — including Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who has publicly denounced the Ahmadiyah as deviant and blamed the sect itself for the violent and sometimes deadly attacks against it — are Islamic conservatives who heavily influence religious policy.
Mr. Yudhoyono’s stance attracted new attention last month when the interfaith Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York presented him with its World Statesman Award for religious tolerance, despite protests by an alliance of Indonesian Christian and moderate Muslim religious leaders.
Teuku Faizasyah, a presidential spokesman, said Mr. Yudhoyono deserved the award for his diplomatic efforts on behalf of international interfaith dialogue. He denied that the president had ignored religious conflict at home.
He said radical groups were “a fact of life” within the country’s democratic framework but said “we must empower all moderate elements in Indonesia and encourage the moderates to speak louder. We can see religious harmony in many parts of Indonesia.”
Ms. Dewi said that while there had been “government weakness” in dealing with religious issues, Mr. Yudhoyono did not deserve all the blame. She noted that he had repeatedly asked senior ministers from his governing coalition, including those from Islamic-based parties like Mr. Suryadharma, to resolve religious disputes and legal battles over churches but had been rebuffed.
“It seems to me there is a conflict of interest in these government institutions,” Ms. Dewi said. “How do we balance the Constitution and law with personal views?”
Said Mr. Bonar of the Setara Institute: “The problem is that the president doesn’t go back to his cabinet and say, ‘Do it.’ His character is to find a compromise and a safe way. He doesn’t want to make his coalition angry.”
Theophilus Bela, secretary general of the Indonesian Committee of Religions for Peace, spends his days documenting discriminatory acts by local governments against Christian churches, which he said had reached 27 through May this year.
“There could be 100 cases this year because there will be an election in Indonesia next year,” Mr. Bela said. “If local authorities are involved, it’s mostly due to politics. Local leaders, in our era of autonomy, feel they can do what they want.”