Widodo can silence Indonesia's voices of hate

Re-elected president can afford to be brave to tackle religious intolerance in his second term
Widodo can silence Indonesia's voices of hate

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (center) arrives for a press conference after the country's general election in Jakarta on April 17. Widodo has been re-elected as president of the world's third-biggest democracy. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

Outside the Jakarta home of hard-line Muslim cleric Habib Rizieq, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), I sat with his security guard on election day and discussed Indonesia’s polls.

Rizieq himself is in exile in Saudi Arabia after fleeing two years ago following pornography charges, but his home still serves as the headquarters of the FPI, a vigilante movement well known for attacking Christians, Ahmadiyya and other minorities and forcing places of worship to close. I have documented their abuses many times over the past decade, and I have met former members, but this was the first time I had sat down to talk with a serving FPI member — indeed, one who belongs to the associated Islamic Defenders Army.

I asked him about FPI's vision for Indonesia. “Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country. We want Islamic teachings to be implemented in full in every area of life,” he said. “Those who do not implement them, we give them a warning, and then we send in our Islamic Defenders Army.” I asked why FPI was supporting Prabowo Subianto for president. “Because he has promised us he will implement our vision,” he said.

Indonesia has just concluded what many believe was the most divisive election in recent years, in which religion and identity politics played a bigger role than ever. Prabowo built a coalition of hard-line Islamist groups in support of his bid for the presidency, leading incumbent President Joko Widodo — widely regarded as a moderate and a defender of pluralism and minority rights — to choose conservative Muslim cleric Mar’uf Amin as his running mate to neutralize the religion factor. That move may have neutralized his opponents’ ability to call his own Islamic credentials into question, but it did nothing to remove religion from the electoral discourse.

Walking around polling stations in Jakarta yesterday, it was clear from conversations with voters that religion mattered. When asked about her criteria for voting, one elderly woman in a black hijab said: “It is important that the candidate I support has the same religion as me.” And 79-year-old Mohammad Thohir expressed disappointment with Widodo for giving too many jobs to Chinese people. “He only got elected because of the Chinese and the Christians,” he said. “I want that to change now. That’s why I choose Prabowo.”

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It is clear from exit polls and quick count results that Widodo has won re-election. Even though official results will not be declared for several weeks, he has a clear lead of 10 percentage points over Prabowo despite his rival’s protestations.

That being so, he must act fast to reunite a divided nation and to take advantage of the clear rejection of a radical Islamist agenda to strengthen Indonesia’s traditional Pancasila values, based on unity in diversity and equal rights for all religions. The election showed clearly that Indonesians take religion seriously, but religiosity, faith and piety do not have to result in intolerance.

In his second term, Widodo can afford to be brave. Indonesia has a two-term limit for presidents, so he has nothing to lose now by actively confronting the forces of intolerance. He may be constrained by his own coalition partners, the make-up of parliament and government bureaucracy, but within those limits he should invest time and attention to improving law enforcement, countering hate speech, reforming the education system and preventing the worst abuses of Indonesia’s blasphemy laws.

The case of Meliana, a Buddhist woman in North Sumatra jailed for 18 months simply for asking the mosque to reduce the volume on its loudspeakers, must be a priority. Of course the blasphemy laws should be repealed — but if that is too big a step, they must be seriously reformed.

There are signs of hope for interfaith harmony on which a second Widodo administration could build. Last week in Jakarta, an important declaration was signed by religious leaders in support of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, in Abu Dhabi in February. Convened by, among others, the widow and daughter of former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), the conference was attended by prominent Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and other clerics and scholars. As a first step, Widodo could pledge his support.

At a grassroots level, in the past week I have encountered some encouraging examples of interfaith collaboration. In Medan, I met the Abu Thalib Foundation, a joint Sunni-Shia institute promoting dialogue. I learned from the Ahmadiyya, a Muslim sect often severely persecuted by other Muslims, that they have developed good community relations through social initiatives such as street cleaning and blood donation. And in Panongan subdistrict in Tangerang in Banten province, a remarkable Catholic priest, Father Felix Supranto, has developed an extraordinary network of relationships with Muslim clerics, the local government, police and military to promote interreligious harmony and unity in diversity.

Widodo should visit Panongan and consider what lessons could be learned from Father Felix, his Muslim colleagues and the impressive sub-district leader, Ibu Prima, who has been instrumental in promoting the rights of people of all religions.

Indonesia is on a knife edge and has been for some time. The electoral defeat inflicted on Prabowo should give some comfort that the vision articulated by FPI is, it seems, not shared by most Indonesians.

But the tensions stirred by a poisonous election campaign must not be allowed to fester. Indonesia has been spared a return to the past with an authoritarian president accused of grave human rights abuses who gave radical Islamists a visible role on his platform. Had he won, the FPI and others would have held Prabowo to his promises and demanded payback. With a fresh mandate, Widodo has an opportunity now to defeat the voices of hate completely. In his second term, he must prioritize unity in diversity as central to Indonesia’s future. He must be the Pancasila president.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at human rights organization CSW and author of ‘Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril — the rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago’ (2014).

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