Rising religious intolerance in Indonesia caused by discriminatory government regulations: Human Rights Watch

Religious intolerance and violations of religious freedom are on the rise in Indonesia, according to a report from human rights watchdog The Setara Institute

The Jakarta-based organization found that violations of religious freedom rose significantly last year, from 134 in 2014 to 208 incidents in 2016. The report also found acts of religious intolerance to be increasing, from 177 in 2014 to 270 last year. 

While it is easy to blame these incidents on the increased prominence of hardliner groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the report found more than half of the incidents of religious intolerance involved government bodies, such as the police and local administrators. 

Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the current climate of religious intolerance is the legacy of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) actions while he was in power. 
“When SBY came to power in 2004, he tolerated these violent and intolerant groups. He also accommodated their demands,” Andreas told Coconuts Media. 

“For instance, in 2005, he opened the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) congress and said the government was going to listen to their fatwas… when making public policies.”

“He also set up the so-called Religious Harmony Forum (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama or FKUB) as an advisory body attached to all regions, mayors, governors and, of course, the president.”

The composition of FKUBs was designed to “mirror the composition of religions” in each area. As a result, the dominant religion in any given area holds the majority of members in each FKUB. 

FKUBs have the power to veto any plans to build a house of worship in their local area, a power which the HRW researcher says leads to discrimination against minority religions. 

Andreas says religious intolerance is also bred by Indonesia’s blasphemy law, which punishes deviations and criticisms of the six officially recognized religions with up to five years in prison. 

When the law was challenged in 2009 by various NGOs and individuals, led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, SBY and his cabinet strongly defended it.

Indonesia’s constitutional court subsequently ruled, in an 8-1 decision in April 2010, that the 1965 blasphemy law was a necessary restriction of minority religious beliefs in order to maintain “religious harmony.”

Even though his former deputy Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama is on trial facing blasphemy charges, current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has made no move to repeal the law.

“Jokowi inherited all of these discriminatory legal infrastructure practices and he has so far not made any substantial move to undo what SBY had installed,” Andreas said.

“If only Jokowi had undone what SBY had done, we wouldn’t be in a situation like this.” 

Andreas argues that these discriminatory regulations are the main cause of rising intolerance. Not only that, they allow discriminatory groups such as the FPI to use popular mobilization to achieve their political ends. 

“Indonesians are becoming more intolerant, obviously. The fact that [the FPI] organized half a million people to rally in December (demanding that Ahok be arrested), shows they are becoming intolerant.”

Government inaction on these regulations will have dire consequences for religious minorities in Indonesia, Andreas believes. 

“First, their ability to practice their faith is decreasing and becoming more restricted, including building churches or temples,” he said. 
“Second, coercion to change their faith into Islam is increasing, at school, at public offices and in marriages.”

“And third, the political role of minorities, especially in terms of becoming elected officials, is also going to be sidelined. There is going to be more and more pressure not to vote [for] non-Muslim minority leaders in Indonesia.”

Human Rights Watch says that, until Jokowi and his government work to repeal the discriminatory laws currently in place, religious freedom will continue to suffer. 

But with political and religious tensions at an all-time high as Ahok’s blasphemy trial rolls on, most observers doubt Jokowi will risk further backlash by challenging Indonesia’s entrenched discriminatory regulations, at least in the short term. 

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