Jokowi’s Islamist challenge: curbing terrorism and religious intolerance

In Indonesia, an attempted bomb attack on a church on Sunday has again left religious minorities deeply shaken.

Allegedly linked to Islamic State (Isis), the attack by a lone man may be more symptomatic of historic trends in terrorism against minorities in Indonesia.

In fact, the area near Medan, a city of over two million people, has been the site of recent tensions.

Just last month, an attack was carried out on Confucian temples in Tanjung Balai, not far from Medan.

Last year, a mob burnt down several churches that allegedly did not have a permit in the neighbouring province of Aceh.

These attacks are just the latest in a long line of local terrorism that targets minority groups. Symbolic attacks on places of worship are just one example.

One way to appreciate the sharp escalation of conflict in Indonesia is to compare pre-1998 and post-1998 rates of attacks on places of worship. Prior to the democratic transition in 1998, there were reportedly over 450 attacked or closed during Suharto’s regime (1966-1998).

Since 1998, civil society organisations have documented a sharp rise in attacks against minority groups. In the first 10 years of democratisation, close to 600 churches were attacked, damaged or forced to close. This trend continues.

While tensions between radical Islamists and Christians are well known, in recent years targeted campaigns have been directed against Shia Muslims, Ahmadiyah and Confucians.

There has been an increase in attacks on the places of worship of minority communities. There have also been moves by Islamic leaders to ban minority groups by issuing fatwa (an Islamic legal opinion) or by pressuring local government officials to issue regulations that outlaw its activities. It is this combination of tactics – violence, intimidation campaigns and the use of law – that is most concerning.

The explanation for this is clear. Democratisation has not only created greater freedom of expression, but in the absence of a strong state has amplified the demands of radical Islamic groups.

In addition to democratisation, the shift to decentralisation has politicised religion at the local level. This means that in the competitive political environment, local politicians have become increasingly influenced by vocal Islamic leaders and their demands that the state enforce a certain form of Islamic orthodoxy.

Of course local governments, with the exception of Aceh, do not actually have the power to use law to regulate religious practice. But in the absence of the national government, they do anyway.

Just last week I spoke at a conference in Jakarta on the rise of religious intolerance. The conference organisers had gone to every measure to ensure that radical Islamic groups would not gate crash the event, as they have done in the past.

At the conference we heard from leaders of the Shia and Ahmadiyah minority groups and the serious challenges and fears of their communities. Their concerns are real and ongoing.

Much of this rise in religious intolerance and local terrorism occurred under the leadership of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), who led from 2004 to 2014.

The current populist president Jokowi has inherited a major problem. Jokowi must rise to the challenge of curbing terrorism and addressing religious intolerance.

In doing so, Jokowi would be leaving a legacy that affirms that at the heart of democracy is the protection of minorities, rather than simply the rule of the majority. This would be one way that Jokowi could demonstrate that he is really the people’s president.

This article first appeared in The Guardian, Wednesday 31 August.