Jakarta. Indonesia’s long tradition of peaceful coexistence among diverse religious and ethnic groups is starting to serve as a model for other countries struggling with the challenges of multiculturalism.
Nearly 85 percent of Indonesia’s population of 250 million people are Muslims, but the country is notably tolerant of other religions compared to others with similar demographics.
And despite occasional conflicts, exacerbated by religious hardliners, Indonesia still promotes a peaceful understanding of Islam.
Yenny Wahid, chairwoman of the Wahid Institute, cited the growing trend of religious extremism around the globe, and explained that Indonesia has so far been largely unaffected by it.
Based on recent information Yenny gleaned during an interreligious dialogue in Denmark – facilitated by the country’s embassy in Indonesia – the daughter of former Indonesian President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid said the number of Europeans traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) far exceeds the number of Indonesians who have done the same.
According to National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) chief Comr. Gen. Suhardi Alius, at least 500 Indonesians have joined IS. However, that number differs slightly from that given by the Soufan Group, a United States-based private intelligence analysis firm, which claimed in 2015 that more than 700 Indonesians had already joined the radical group.
However, that number is still small when compared with a recent European Union estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 EU citizens have traveled to Syria to join IS since 2014. Of those, 1,450 are French citizens.
Danish Ambassador Casper Klynge confirmed the EU estimate, saying at least 150 people from Denmark have joined IS since the group emerged in 2014.
“In proportion to our total population, we are the second-largest contributor [in Europe] of foreign fighters to IS, so it goes without saying that it is a major problem for Denmark and a major concern from a threat point of view,” Klynge told the Jakarta Globe on April 6.
“Of course, we need to find ways of preventing people from joining IS or any other terrorist organization,” he said.
Yenny added that her participation in the Danish event, as well as through other visits to France and Germany for similar events, was aimed at helping Europeans implement a model of deradicalization that incorporates Islam and shows deference to Muslims in those countries.
“There definitely is Islamophobia, but at the same time, there’s evident radicalism among some Muslim communities throughout Europe,” Yenny told the Jakarta Globe last week.
“[The Europeans] wanted to see how Islam, as it is practiced in Indonesia, can help deradicalize European Muslims,” she said. “We are the largest Muslim-majority society in the world and our practice of Islam is very tolerant compared to other countries.”
Yenny said the Indonesian interpretation of Islam is notably more civilized and welcoming of other religions or ways of life when compared to some other Muslim-majority countries.
“Islam in Indonesia has certain characteristics, buffered by our civil law, which protects the rights of minority groups, provides room for women to contribute to society, is inherently tolerant and is respectful of differing cultural traditions,” she said.
“I explained to my European colleagues that Indonesia practices a distinct kind of Islam.”
Combating Islamophobia and Extremism
In Europe, Islamophobia is markedly on the rise, but so too is the radicalization of certain segments of the continent’s numerous Muslim communities.
Yenny said this vicious cycle of distrust and animosity has created challenges for Muslims in Europe to freely express their identities without the fear of reprisal.
She said wearing the hijab or a burkini – a modest swimming attire for Muslim women – is considered an excessive show of religious zeal in some European countries, though the wearing of a Christian cross or a Jewish kippah in public raises no eyebrows.
Yenny said recent opposition to the hijab is propelled by rising Islamophobia on the continent, prejudice she believes governments must address to become more inclusive societies.
“In Indonesia, we have certain rights, which are already guaranteed […] We may not approve of how someone dresses, but we respect their right to do so, as long as they are in line with public decency and ethics,” she said.
In terms of fighting extremism, Denmark has created a so-called “deradicalization unit” that combines school administrators, local police and social workers to work together to identify unusual behavior among young people who might be on the brink of joining radical groups.
Should school teachers notice such behavior, they are advised to call a special telephone hotline. Then, local police officers and social workers approach suspects and invite them for a brief talk to identify any issues.
“It’s a soft but preventive approach, instead of catching the bad guy after it’s too late,” Elsebeth Søndergaard Krone, deputy head of mission at the Danish Embassy, told the Jakarta Globe.
Backlash Against Indonesia’s Tolerance?
The Indonesian delegation to the Danish event included prominent religious representatives of Indonesia – mostly Muslims – such as Nasaruddin Umar, grand imam of the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta; Nadhlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Cholil Staquf; Muhammadiyah secretary general Abdul Mu’ti; and Jesuit priest Frans Magnis Suseno.
Stand-up comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, who chooses to combat radicalism by making fun of it, was also present at the event.
Members of the delegation met with government officials, Danish religious leaders of various denominations and school teachers campaigning for a more peaceful variant of Islam in the country.
However, the Ahmadiyya society in Denmark – a branch of the international Islamic organization based in the United Kingdom – refused to accept the implementation of a variant of the Indonesian form of Islam to be implemented in that country.
During a recent public lecture at the University of Copenhagen, Ahmadiyya representatives said hardline Muslims in Indonesia discriminate against them and even label them as blasphemers.
“We were berated at the [University of Copenhagen forum] about how Indonesia has treated members of the Ahmadiyya,” Yenny said. “I told them that Indonesia may allow religious freedom, but we still face challenges, including how we treat minority groups.”
Yenny added that Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah leaders often advocate for Ahmadiyya members who face violent discrimination in Indonesia.
She also pointed out that prejudice is often triggered by political interests and that it was Shia Muslims, and not members of Ahmadiyya, who are forced to cope with rising levels of discrimination in Indonesia.
“Unfortunately, it is the effect of geopolitical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Indonesian Shia community is very small and for years we didn’t have problems,” Yenny said. “But then it appeared out of the blue because campaign contributions to Indonesian politicians are disproportionately distributed by Saudi Wahhabist groups.”
Wahhabism is an Islamic doctrine founded by 18th century religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and it promotes an extreme interpretation of the Koran.
Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims have coexisted for decades in Indonesia, but recent political tensions in the Middle East have soured relations between the two groups.
“For Sunni Muslims, Shia and Ahmadiyya are different in terms of aqidah [basic tenets of Islam], but there was never a need for intimidation. Clerics must keep their respective constituents on the right track. There’s too much aggression now because of unnecessary provocation,” Yenny said.
The disruption at the university lecture led some Indonesian figures to question whether the delegation was justified in promoting the country’s unique variant of Islam to Danish leaders, but Klynge said there was no cause for concern.
“The way [the Indonesian religious leaders] responded to the criticism [by the Ahmadiyya] completely demobilized the critique against Indonesia because there was an acknowledgement that nothing is perfect. Indeed, nothing is black and white,” he said.
Indonesia still has work to do to guarantee minority groups full protection under the law. Besides the Ahmadiyya’s grievances, Muslim hardliners in the country tend to show animosity or even hatred towards non-Muslims who seek lawful permits for houses of worship, or who pray in public.
Klynge said although Indonesian society is not completely tolerant, the country has an impressive track record of sustaining peaceful coexistence between members of various ethnicities and religions.
“Of course, one can give many examples of intolerance, or instances where people are either verbally or even physically hurt because of their perceived differences, whether it’s religion or ethnicity,” Klynge said.
“And of course, the ongoing case has influenced the overall reputation of Indonesia, but it has not changed the fact that Indonesia still has a lot to offer in terms of having people live peacefully, side by side,” he added.
Yenny said all the different religious and ethnic groups in the country need to make concerted efforts to coexist and reach out to one another.
“If we want Indonesia to stay united, then we must protect the rights of minorities anywhere. Muslims in Java must protect the rights of non-Muslims. Hindus in Bali must protect the rights of non-Hindus. Christians in Papua must protect the rights of non-Christians. That’s the key for a solid, united Indonesia,” she said.
Image by Cyprianus Rowaleta