Authorities are placating extremists, writes Tom Allard in Indonesia.
Ulil Abshar Abdalla is one of Indonesia’s most perceptive intellectuals, a Harvard-educated Islamic reformer and an adviser to the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
When asked what has happened to Islam in Indonesia since the September 11 attacks, he says: ”I think there has been a trend towards intolerance … there is also a trend towards tolerance.”
It’s an odd response, but it captures succinctly the vexing paradox that lies within Australia’s near neighbour and the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population.
After emerging as the fulcrum of the global jihadist movement in south-east Asia in 2002 when the twin nightclub bombings in Bali killed and maimed hundreds, Indonesia can rightly point to impressive counter-terrorism successes.
Hundreds have been arrested and dozens of plots have been foiled. The radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir has been handed a long prison term while almost every other terrorist leader of note has either been killed or arrested.
A tiny minority remains inspired by al-Qaeda and poses an enduring threat but the campaign to spread the ideology of offensive jihad against Western infidels and their lackeys to achieve an Islamic caliphate has been comprehensively rejected.
”Islam has contributed so much to the democratisation of Indonesia. This must be emphasised,” says Ulil, the founder of the Liberal Islam Network and himself a target of Indonesian terrorists.
”Most Muslims here understand that religion is a system of morality, an ethical system, and that politics is not part of the essential teaching of religion.
”The popularity of this proposal of the adoption of sharia in our national law is withering away, it’s fading.”
Indonesia’s Islamic parties were rebuffed at the polls in 2009, and its most potent Islamist political force, the Prosperous Justice Party, recently formally adopted pluralism as a core principle in its platform.
But while Indonesian authorities remain vigilant in pursuing terrorists, they seem incapable and, worse, unwilling to address another, arguably more pernicious form of religious radicalism.
Rather than explosives, these mobs of militants will use machetes, stones or tins of petrol to attack perceived deviants and destroy houses of worship.
The increase in violence has been particularly pronounced against members of the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect, whose followers believe the Indian religious figure Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a messiah who followed the Prophet Muhammad.
In the western Javanese province of Banten, a frenzied mob attacked an Ahmadiyah house and killed three men in February. The 12 accused, including a teenager caught on film bludgeoning a man to death with a stone, got sentences ranging between three and six months.
The light sentences, some argue, reflected local factors. The verdict was handed down by judges in a district court in one of Indonesia’s traditional hardline Islamic heartlands. About 2000 locals voiced support for the accused and intimidated the judges and prosecutors throughout the trial.
But the argument that the case is an anomaly is hard to square against the increase in communal violence, invariably attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on Ahmadis and Christians.
Recent research by the Pew Research Centre found Indonesia was one of two countries that had recorded significant increases in both religious restrictions and incidents of social hostilities in the past five years.
Harder still to reconcile with the notion that Indonesia remains abidingly tolerant is the tepid response from Indonesia’s political elites to the rise in religious violence and, in particular, the attacks and court proceedings in Banten.
President Yudhoyono failed to condemn the verdicts, citing the need to respect the rule of law.
If Islamists are failing to make any political inroads, and Indonesian Muslims are overwhelmingly moderate, why does Indonesia’s political class refuse to speak clearly and loudly for the country’s secular constitution that recognises freedom of religion? Could it be they have made a political calculation that attacks on minorities are popular?
”It’s because conservatives are very clever in framing the debate in black and white terms,” argues Yenny Wahid, the daughter of Indonesia’s former president and moderate Islamic cleric Abdurrahman Wahid and a rare, uncompromising voice for tolerance.
”For example, if you condemn attacks on Ahmadiyah, then you are not a good follower of the Prophet Muhammad. So politicians are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to appear un-Islamic.”
Wahid says a steady influx of money from the Middle East to fund mosques and schools has had an impact.
The new breed of conservative clerics are not only cashed up, she says, they are passionate, noisy and activist.
When Yudhoyono speaks about maintaining harmony, he sometimes talks about the need to placate militants, rather than defending diversity.
Asked about perceptions by the American interviewer Charlie Rose that the Indonesian state was weak in protecting religious minorities, Yudhoyono replied: ”Of course, I have to maintain the climate of brotherhood here in Indonesia, because the majority of the population are Muslim, so I try to maintain their feelings.”
Wahid counters that ”this policy of appeasement won’t work”. ”In the short-term, it may create a measure of stability that the government needs,” she says. ”But it gives [conservatives] too much power. The greater good is sacrificed. We have to worry about where this will lead us in the future.”