Op-Ed Contributor By BENEDICT ROGERS Published: May 21, 2012
New York Times
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JAKARTA — Just a few days after Lady Gaga’s concert in Indonesia was canceled after protests by Islamic groups, I flew 1,370 kilometers from Jakarta to Padang, West Sumatra, and drove a further 130 kilometers, a four-hour journey along rough, winding roads, to Sijunjung, to visit an Indonesian atheist jailed for his beliefs.
Alex Aan, a 30-year-old civil servant, is a gentle, soft-spoken, highly intelligent young man who simply gave up his belief in God when he saw poverty, war, famine and disaster around the world.
He faces the possibility of up to six years in prison, charged with blasphemy, disseminating hatred and spreading atheism. Radical Muslims came to his office, beat him up, and called the police after reading about his views on Facebook.
Alex is the first atheist in Indonesia to be jailed for his belief, but his case is symptomatic of a wider increase in religious intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. The previous Sunday, I joined a small church in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, for a service, but found the street blocked by a noisy, angry mob and a few police.
The church, known as HKBP Filadelfia, was forced to close a few years ago, even though the local courts had given permission to open. The local mayor, under pressure from Islamists, has declared a “zero church” policy in his area. For the past two months, the congregation has been blocked from worshiping in the street outside their building, and the atmosphere has grown increasingly tense.
When I was there, I felt it could have erupted into violence at any moment. The radicals in control of the loudspeaker shouted “Christians, get out,” and “anyone not wearing a jilbab (headscarf), catch them, hunt them down.”
World leaders and commentators like to point to Indonesia as a model of tolerance and pluralism and an example of how Islam and democracy are not incompatible. To a certain extent they are right — Indonesia does have a great tradition of pluralism, a generally tolerant brand of Islam, and has made a remarkable transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
The majority of Indonesian Muslims remain moderate, and are appalled by rising intolerance. But three factors are undermining religious freedom: the silence and passivity of the majority, growing radicalization, and the weakness of the government at every level.
It is not only religious tolerance and freedom that is under threat, but also the rule of law. Another church, GKI Yasmin in Bogor, an hour from Jakarta, has approval from the Supreme Court to open, but the local mayor, again under pressure from Islamists, refuses to allow it. A district mayor is in defiance of the Supreme Court, and no one says a word.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is perhaps the most persecuted. Violent attacks against this group, whose beliefs are considered heretical by many conservative Muslims, have increased significantly. Last year I met victims of one of the worst outbreaks of violence, an attack on Ahmadis in Cikeusik on Feb. 6, 2011, which left three people dead.
One man described how he was stripped naked and beaten severely and a machete was held at his throat. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another man fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting “kill, kill, kill.”
He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim.
Of the 1,500-strong mob that attacked 21 Ahmadis, only 12 people were arrested and prosecuted, according to The New York Times. Their sentences were between three and six months.
These are by no means the only cases. Earlier this month, radicals attacked a lecture by the liberal Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji. In Aceh, 17 churches were forced to close.
I met other church pastors who talked about their churches being closed, and a woman, the Rev. Luspida, who was beaten while one of her congregation was knifed. “We have no religious freedom here anymore,” she told me. “We need to give a message to the president. He cannot say the situation is good here. We need to remind him our situation is very critical, and he should do something for the future of Indonesia. Support from outside is very important to pressure the president.”
As Indonesia faces its Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council — a process applied periodically to every member state — serious questions should be asked about the country’s future. If action is not taken, Indonesia’s accomplishments over the past decade could be jeopardized.
It is not too late. There are some excellent Indonesian Muslim organizations such as the Wahid Institute, founded by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, and the Maarif Institute, whose work should be supported.
If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono acted, he would have the silent majority behind him. His government made progress in tackling terrorism, but it should not shirk its responsibility to fight the ideology that underpins terror. His government should stop giving in to the radicals and start protecting the rights of all Indonesians to choose, change and practice their religion, as provided in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I went to meet Alex Aan because as a Christian, I believe in the freedom of religion, which includes the right not to believe.
Benedict Rogers works for the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide, based in London.