The vast Indonesian archipelago shows all the signs of possibly becoming the next ‘Asian miracle’.
A large population (260 million) that is slowly but surely developing culturally and opening up to global commitments; immense resources to be administered despite the difficulty of maintaining a balance between exploitation and protecting the environment; its geographic position and its dimensions (1,904,569 square kilometres of territory covering three time zones); a stable economy (the strongest in South-East Asia) in a dynamic and strategic area of the planet; investment in growth; gradual withdrawal from elitist control and corruption.
However, its insecurity is often heightened by conflicting interests, the legacy of previous generations; the difficulty of a non-self-referential political class tied to traditional powers in keeping control of the country; centralisation still prominent; the threat of radical Islam and militant influences in a country that is prevalently Moslem but where large religious minorities participate in the life of the country protected by the constitution but always under pressure.It is beyond doubt that political and social debate in this time of transition is focused on identity, development and the management of tensions.
Islam, the religion followed by 85% of Indonesians, is generally moderate with a strong social content and consisting of movements with tens of millions of followers, sometimes with their own political affiliations. In recent years, however, the radical wings have been seeking political power and, even through violent action, have forced the authorities to intervene by suppressing religious minorities, media expressions they consider to be contrary to their ideology and also artistic and cultural manifestations The recent presidential decree outlawing all groups considered a danger to the country is a step in the right direction though it raises the likelihood of organised demonstrations or of driving the groups underground. For some time now, Jakarta has identified the present danger with the activities of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Isis or Daesh) and more ancient forms of already active Jihadism. The latter, partly connected to Al Qaeda, showed how devastating they can be in Bali in October 2002 (with over 200 deaths) and also since then. However, while the security services identify and strike at militants returning from conflict areas of the Middle East, Islamic extremism has still been able to strike at important targets.
A series of events has increased the fears of the Christians who number 10% of Indonesians including the Catholic community with eight million members. The trial and sentencing for blasphemy on 9 May of one of the best known Christian exponents and, more importantly, one of the best loved politicians in the country: the previous governor of the capital Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. The 50-year-old governor, an ethnic Chinese and known as ‘Ahok’, was formerly second in command to the present President of the Indonesian Republic Joko Widodo, when he headed the capital city from 2012 to his becoming President in October 2014. It is clear that his fall into disgrace is meant to strike a serious blow to the reformist policy of Widodo.
Last summer, Ahok became the target of radical religious groups opposed to allowing the capital of the most populated Moslem country in the world to be led by a Christian. His ‘sin’, according to the extremists, was to have quoted the verse of the Koran quoted by an adversary to show that a non-Moslem can have no power over Moslems. This resulted in the governor being tried on 13 December 2016, but the accusations that led to him being remanded for sentencing were seen by many as motivated by the approaching elections of 15 February, 2017 (won by Ahok and lost in the elections of 19 April), when Indonesians were called to elect their local representatives. If he were to be found guilty – he was later condemned to two years in prison and refused to appeal – this would have practically excluded Ahok from re-election in favour of opponents supported by Islamist politics and groups hostile to the President.
The case of the governor is striking but not unique. Another ‘case’ is that of the Catholic Yulius Suharto, head of the sub-district of Pajangan in the province of Yogyakarta, who was removed from office under pressure from extremists. The decision to transfer Suharto was made on 9 January during a campaign of defamation against him. The matter was defended by the authorities who said that, since the majority of the local population are Moslem, it was not permissible to give an important public role to a non-Moslem.
However, political manoeuvres and extremist ideologies are not the only threat to the Christian minority. In Sumatra, as elsewhere, attacks have become violent and blood has been shed. Beyond the local connections with international Jihadism and the ideas and reactions that derive from it, there are two geographical areas where minorities are under great pressure: the province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra, the sole province that has adopted Koranic Sharia which the extremists would like to impose on non-Moslems; areas of the Island of Java with the growth of radical groups that look to the monarchies of the Gulf for finance and ideology. Significantly, for the second consecutive Christmas, 2016 saw the areas of churches and places of worship surrounded by the forces of order for fear of attacks.
All these events and situations confirm what has emerged from the latest report of the national Committee for Human Rights. The 59-page report describes 97 cases of religious rights violations recorded in 2016 as compared with 87 in the previous year. The main fact that emerges from the report is the idea of the existence of pressures upon minorities (including the application of the law) in the form of insurmountable obstacles to the construction of places of worship and religious activities. The second fact is that of religion-based discrimination verified especially in the provinces of Western Java, in the capital Jakarta and in the province of North Sulawesi (Celebes). As reported to the Catholic pan-Asian agency UcaNews, by the Indonesian priest Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, secretary of the national council of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, intolerance has been increasing in the country for a decade. “At present, the moderate groups tend to remain silent, but by ignoring intolerance and allowing it to be openly practised, they run the risk of intolerant elements taking advantage of the situation”. Father Susetyo added: “The government authorities are the ones responsible for this tendency that shows how Moslems are being increasingly radicalised, but the role of the religious groups must not be forgotten”. President Joko Widodo, for the most part, has avoided taking a stand in defence of his vice-governor when he was governor of Jakarta, his political collaborator and friend Ahok, but in recent months he has decidedly turned against radical groups suspected of connivance with terrorism.
In all this he may gain the support in parliament of those who oppose him but back him because of the risk of radicalisation of Isis/Daesh in the archipelago. One of these is former general Wiranto, now a member of his ministerial cabinet. An obvious target is Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, formed from Hizb ut-Tahir, created in Palestine in the fifties and illegal in sixteen countries, fourteen of them Moslem. Present in Indonesia since the eighties, it is said to have failed to gain its three institutional objectives: an active role in reaching national unity, adherence to the national and constitutional principles and participation in the security of the country. The suspected organiser of the terrorist attack on central Jakarta on 14 January, 2016, is said to have come from its ranks.
In a speech on 8 May, Wiranto stated in no uncertain terms that the aim of the group is to promote the establishment of the Caliphate in the archipelago. Clearly a national threat, its legal abolition is therefore necessary. Let us take this one example – an example that involves almost daily reports of the identification and arrest of extremists, anti-terrorist actions, exercises by special forces filmed by the media – of how the now open conflict between moderate and radical Islam is finally changing into the active defence of the foundational values of the Indonesian state and against destabilising and violent ideologies foreign to local tradition but hitherto tolerated, at least to a degree and fuelled in part by economic interests, partly by political aims.
The news published on 5 June at the end of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the major Asia-Pacific Security Summit, that there are 1,200 militants associated with the self-proclaimed Caliphate present in the Philippines alongside groups who share their ideology and action, produced shock waves in the entire region. This was due both to the fact that tens of foreign combatants were already involved with hundreds of local guerrillas in the Filipino city of Marawi in a battle lasting many weeks, and to the fact that we may now speak of exact numbers, of certainties and not just of the possibility of contagion motivated by the return of Malaysian, Indonesian and other Jihadists from Iraq and Syria.
The governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have issued an appeal for greater collective commitment. The first concrete step has been the start of joint anti-terrorist patrols of shared sea areas. (S.V.)