The death of tolerance in Indonesia

The two largest Muslim organisations in the country were deafeningly silent about last week’s protests, at a time when the voice of moderation was sorely needed.

AHOK (whose real name is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama) has only himself to blame for what happened. He should have stayed clear from even remotely questioning his political opponent for what he believed was misusing one of the verses from the Quran to undermine his bid for re-election as the Governor of Jakarta.

The capital saw one of the largest demonstrations since the Reformasi movement that ousted President Suharto two decades ago. Whatever happened went beyond politics. The “Muslim anger” – perhaps whipped to the maximum effect – was manifested last Friday.

The way I see it, it is a wake-up call for Indonesians on the whole. Are they waking up to new realities that will change the nation forever? Is the world’s third largest democracy being redefined by religious intolerance? Is the beacon of true freedom in the region now under threat? Will Indonesia be the same again?

No, it is not just about Ahok, the hugely popular 17th governor of Jakarta. He carved his name as a straight-talking, no-nonsense administrator, well liked by the people.

Like the current President, Joko Widodo or Jokowi, Ahok is portrayed as the people’s choice. He is in fact part of the new brand of political brothers that encompasses new-style politics and achieving celebrity status. Serving as Governor since November 2014, Ahok is seen as another great Indonesian hope.

He is a contrarian, a man of his own and never pandering to the political warlords or feeling indebted to anyone. Ahok is probably slated for bigger things in the future. But two years is a long time in politics. His big mouth has now proven to be his own enemy.

The post-Suharto era has seen many demonstrations. People demonstrate for the slightest excuse. But the Friday rally was different.

Indonesia has always been the poster boy for tolerance and moderation in race relations and religion. It has portrayed itself as a nation of many islands and as many cultures, race and faiths.

Indonesia is a classic example of a plural society. The motto adopted, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity) has always been the rallying cry for the proud nation. Nation building has always been Indonesia’s strength.

I was in Jakarta in July 2010, witnessing a low-key but significant landmark for one of the two biggest Muslim organisations in Indonesia – Muhammadiyah celebrating its 100th year of existence (using the Hijrah calendar). The other Muslim group is Nahdlatul Ulama.

Muhammadiyah was established in Jogjakarta in 1912. It was created as a religious ormas (organisasi massa) or mass organisation rooted in religion, as a means to achieve a civil society with the principle of wasatiyyah (the middle path).

Education has always been the hallmark of the organisation. In fact, the founder of the movement, Ahmad Dhalan, saw the necessity of education not only to release Muslims from the tyranny of ignorance but to unshackle them from the yoke of poverty.

The position taken by Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama has always been responsible for the brand of Indonesia’s Islam. Yes, Indonesia has its fair share of religious bigotry. But the calming and rational voices from the leaders of the two Muslim organisations helped save the day.

Politics is not their cup of tea. Members are allowed to follow their heart in politics. While Amien Rais, the leader of Muhammadiyah, was a vociferous critic of President Suharto and very much part of the Reformasi movement, officially the organisation was not involved.

The anti-Ahok demonstration brought to the fore the issue of where both Muslim organisations stand. People wanted to hear what the standard-bearers of Islam have to say on the subject. The silence, some argued, was deafening.

The mass protest, believed to be initiated by a little known movement, Islamic Defenders Front (IDF), was taking on a life of its own. What was planned to be a peaceful demonstration turned ugly in the evening.

As always, the herd mentality, even tribalism, rule in times like that. Rational thinking was thrown to the wind. The agitated few hijacked the cause. For some who attended, the anti-Ahok protest became a “holy war” against infidels.

There will be many more of such movements in Muslim countries today and in the future. They will be the voice to be reckoned with, suppressing that of the majority.

The noisy few will set new standards in intolerance and bigotry, while the majority will be cowed into collective silence. This is part of the dilemma of the Muslim society.

We need collective will to crush extremism. That is easier said than done.

In Muslim countries where poverty reigns and discontent rules, finding fault with “Others” is the easiest way out. The road to resentment is littered with frustration and anger.

Ahmad Dhalan of Muha­mmadiyah famously wanted the organisation he founded to be the pencerah (the guiding light) for fellow Muslims. He believed Islam is about good deeds and exemplary followers.

Again, under current circumstances, such hopes can easily be dashed by those with sinister motives using the name of Islam.

If only people like Ahok could be more careful in future.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Opinion , Johan Jaaffar , columnist


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