Islam and Intolerance in Indonesia

It is very sad to see what is happening in Indonesia right now. The Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama,  was recently sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. Setting aside the absurd fact that blasphemy laws are still a thing in this ostensibly non-theocratic country, Ahok’s alleged blasphemy is tame, almost non-existent to the ears of someone who spent his formative years in Catholic school.

Certain Muslim groups in Jakarta opposed Ahok’s candidacy in the 2017 governor’s race on the grounds that it violates chapter 5, verse 51 of the Quran, which states:

O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.

In a speech last September Ahok referred to this line of attack against him, and acknowledged that some people would not vote for him because they have been “threatened and deceived” by this appeal to the Quran.

That’s it. That fairly mild statement, which opposition groups portrayed as a desecration of the Quran, was Ahok’s ticket to a two-year prison sentence.

As upsetting as this incident is on its own, it is just the latest and most high profile manifestation of a larger trend that has seen ultra-conservative Muslim groups exert increasing influence over Indonesian civic affairs.

Indonesia has been held up in the west as a role model of tolerance. Despite being the world’s largest Muslim nation it is not a theocratic one, at least compared to its peers in the Middle Eastern. The national doctrine of Pancailsa does not encourage widespread religious pluralism the way the US (notionally) does. Instead, it states a national preference in favor of monotheism, bans most indigenous religions, and limits national recognition to only six religions (alongside Islam is Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism). But within those six it does not place one above the other, at least in theory.

But, in fact, a number of well-organized and well-funded efforts are working diligently to elevate an extreme form of Islam to a privileged position in Indonesian law. A 2014 report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide titled “Pluralism in Peril” lists out five factors driving increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia:

  1. The spread of extremist ideology, fueled and funded by sources outside Indonesia (notably Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East, and Pakistan) as well as domestic organisations, through education, preaching and the dissemination of literature through publishing pamphlets and books, DVDs and CDs, and via the internet;
  2. The inaction and at times complicity of the local, provincial and national authorities, including active complicity by senior government ministers who have made statements which contribute to intolerance;
  3. The implementation of discriminatory laws and regulations;
  4. Weakness in terms of law enforcement on the part of the police and the judiciary, in cases where religious minorities are victims in need of protection and justice;
  5. The unwillingness on the part of the majority of Indonesian Muslims, who make up over 86% of the population,13 to speak out against intolerance.

Numbers two through five are, in their own way, second order derivatives of Indonesia’s lethargic, highly corrupt civic institutions and its deeply cynical political and military elite. The first factor, however, the outside influence from Middle Eastern petro-states, is worth dwelling on.

Krithika Varagur has an excellent piece on The Atlantic’s website from this past March describing Saudi Arabia’s nearly 50-year effort to build a “deep network of Saudi influence” within Indonesia by sponsoring mosques and schools that practice their ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam called Salafism.

The primary Saudi-Salafist beachhead in Indonesia is the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (aka LIPIA), which is a kind of Liberty University of Salafism, funded entirely by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Rizieq Shihab,  the founder and leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, which was one of the primary agitators behind Ahok’s blasphemy charges, received his education at LIPIA. It is not a stretch to say that the persecution of Jakarta’s Christian governor on trumped-up blasphemy charges can be traced, at least in part, to Saudi-funded Salafist groups.

Saudi Arabia’s effort to spread conservative Islam is not just limited to Indonesia; it is just the largest and most high-profile front in the Kingdom’s campaign to push the more conservative Saudi flavor of Islam in the Muslim world. Iran, the world’s dominant Shia Muslim power, is waging a similar campaign to proselytize Shia ideology worldwide (they are even in Indonesia, though not to the degree the Saudis are). Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are actively competing for converts throughout the globe in places as far flung as Senegal and Tajikistan.

This Saudi-Iranian race to pull the Muslim world into either the Sunni or Shia orbit has been described, appropriately, as a new cold war. And just as the US-Soviet cold war flared up into hot wars in Korea and Southeast Asia, there are some half dozen Saudi-Iran proxy wars taking place throughout the Middle East at the moment, many of which involve the US. In a sense, Ahok was just another victim of the aggressive evangelism of ultra-conservative Islam coming from the theocratic petro-states of the Middle East.


But there’s another element of Ahok’s story which is also worth highlighting. Ahok was the first governor of Jakarta to have Chinese ancestry.

Chinese people have been living and working in Indonesia for centuries. There is a persistent belief among non-Chinese Indonesians that the Chinese population profited off of “regular” Indonesians and hoarded their wealth. The result is a perpetual low level sense of resentment among non-Chinese Indonesians that occasionally boils over when provoked by irresponsible politicians who see the Chinese as a convenient scapegoat for the failings of the public sector. These resentments have occasionally boiled over into street violence.  The Guardian had a good piece this past November about the history of riots in Jakarta’s Chinatown neighborhood, Glodok.

Just the other day, Bachtiar Nasir, leader of the Islamist Ar-Rahman Qur’anic Learning Islamic Center, and another one of the leading voices in the anti-Ahok movement, implied in a recent interview that he is now looking to target the wealth of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population, saying that as they become wealthier “It seems they do not become more generous, more fair”. This is about as transparent an effort as you can get to push a button that has historically resulted in hatred, bloodshed, and death.

It is sad to see these strains of religious fundamentalism and ethno-nationalism gain strength in Indonesia just as we in the US are struggling with similar iterations of the same evils.  Hopefully forces of opposition and resistance in both countries can find support in each other.


Back in September of 2010 my wife and I visited Indonesia. It was my second time in the country, and it was fascinating to see how much things had changed in the six or so years since I had last visited, particularly in Jakarta. For instance, there was now a bus rapid transit (BRT) system serving downtown Jakarta that was pretty fast and efficient (Jakarta traffic is some of the worst in the world).

One evening we were taking the BRT to the Kota Tua, the core of the old city, to walk the Chicken Market bridge and get dessert at Cafe Batavia. The bus was full of very serious-looking people with signs. At Merdeka Square, home of the national monument, we saw a large mass of people flowing into the square, clearly very agitated. Our bus emptied out and the riders were absorbed into the crowd, leaving only my wife and me and maybe one or two other people on the bus. We had no idea what was going on but at no point did we, two obvious white non-Muslim westerners, feel the least bit threatened. A few minutes later we got off in the Kota, strolled across the famous bridge, and ate mousse.


(A picture I took of the Chicken Market Bridge that night, 9/4/2010)

It was only when we got home a few days later did I realize that the crowds in Merdeka Square were part of a nation-wide protest of Florida Pastor Terry Jones’s planned Quran-burning event to commemorate the September 11, 2001, attacks. I was pretty pissed. The crowd of people in that bus, and every Muslim in the entire country for that matter, had cause to hate America and Americans, all because some xenophobic hick from the most deviant state in the union managed to get global publicity for a hateful stunt.

It’s the kind of thing that, if the tables were turned and someone in, say, Bhutan had insulted Americans, it would be very hard to convince most Americans that there was anything redeeming about the Bhutanese people writ large. There would probably even be a congressman or two (probably from Florida) talking about dropping bombs on them. Any Bhutanese person who rode the subway, stopped to get gas, or stand in line at McDonald’s was liable to be on the receiving end of an ugly confrontation.

But when one American insulted nearly every Muslim on the planet, two obviously American tourists who bumbled into the middle of a public demonstration of that insult were left alone. It was almost as if Indonesians, who live in a country with state-sanctioned religions and blasphemy laws, are better able to disassociate the personal from the political in a way that the country with constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state just cannot get a handle on.

I’ve thought about that a lot in the years since that incident, wondering if Indonesians are just better at pluralism than Americans are. It’s unfortunate to see that maybe they aren’t.