Why is religious intolerance on the rise in Indonesia?

anti-ahokJAKARTA: A guilty verdict and two-year jail sentence for Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama on blasphemy charges have fuelled concerns about the erosion of religious freedoms in Indonesia.

Faith-based tension has been mounting in recent years in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, undermining its pluralist reputation.

Here are three points that explain the issue:

Clubbed, hacked and stoned

Indonesia has often been praised for its moderate, inclusive brand of Islam, and the constitution guarantees freedom of worship for six religions.

However the archipelago’s sizeable religious minorities — mainly Christians and Muslim Shiites and Ahmadis — have been increasingly targeted as more conservative forms of Islam grow in popularity.

Some Christian churches and mosques where Muslim minorities pray have been closed due to pressure from hardliners. Shiites and Ahmadis — regarded as heretics by some Sunnis — have been forced from their homes in mob attacks and on occasion even killed.

In one of the most high-profile cases, a group clubbed, hacked and stoned three defenceless Ahmadis to death in front of police in 2011 in western Java, sparking international outrage.

Radicals on the rise

During the three-decade rule of dictator Suharto, authorities sought to run the country along secular lines, largely keeping religion out of public life and limiting the influence of hardline groups.

Following Suharto’s downfall in 1998 and Indonesia’s transition to democracy, more conservative forms of Islam — often influenced by harsher brands of Middle Eastern Islam — have had space to flourish.

The new freedoms have allowed the growth of hardline groups, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and successive governments have been criticised for failing to tackle the radicals for fear of being accused of attacking Islam.

“Post-Suharto, there has been quite a significant ‘Islamisation’ of society,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy head of Indonesian rights group Setara Institute.

“As long at it is to enhance people’s and society’s obedience to God, that’s okay, but we are now seeing a different phenomenon — the rise of radicalism.”

Indonesia’s image to ‘suffer’

Hardline groups such as the FPI, once considered fringe organisations, played a key role in organising protests against Purnama, and analysts say they will feel emboldened after his jailing and last month’s election loss.

The accusations that Purnama insulted Islam centred on comments he made during a speech in September last year ahead of the vote for the next Jakarta governor.

He lightheartedly accused his opponents of using a Koranic verse to trick people into voting against him.

A video of his comments was posted online, sparking fury across the nation and leading to mass protests in Jakarta.

The saga, which led to Purnama being hauled into court to face trial on blasphemy charges, was seen as having contributed heavily to his loss to a Muslim opponent in a ballot he had been expected to win.

Yohanes Sulaiman, an analyst from the Indonesian Defense University, said the country’s image as a bastion of tolerant Islam would “suffer” following the court decision.