Bekasi, Indonesia – Muhammad Iqbal peers through a small hole in a padlocked side-door at the al-Misbah Mosque compound in West Java. As leader of the mosque, this is his only channel of communication with the Ahmadi Muslim congregation barricaded inside.
Indonesian authorities “sealed” their house of worship last month with heavy metal fencing, cheered on by a hostile crowd of hardline Sunni Muslims. Eighteen members of the congregation have refused to leave the mosque until it is reopened.
It was the latest in a growing number of incidents of alleged religious persecution usually perpetrated by militant members of Indonesia’s Sunni majority – often with the tacit and sometimes open support of the authorities.
Yet on the other side of the world, amid the lustre of a $25,000-a-head reception at The Pierre hotel in New York, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will receive an award Thursday for his defence of religious freedom from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation – a Jewish organisation promoting interfaith harmony.
It is a decision that has baffled many of Indonesia’s embattled minorities.
“We don’t have a problem with the award itself. If they want to give him an award that’s up to them. Congratulations to you Mr President,” said Iqbar with a dry laugh.
“But we don’t see why he deserves it. Under [former president] Suharto there were other problems, but there weren’t any problems with militants. Under Yudhoyono there has been more and more intolerance.”
Although campaigners say religious intolerance against all minority groups in Indonesia is on the rise, the Ahmadiyah – a sect of Islam distinct from Sunni and Shia – have arguably suffered most.
Since the sealing of the Bekasi mosque on April 4, police have reportedly harassed Ahmadiyah members who have attempted to deliver food to the protesters who remain inside.
“Sometimes our children are bullied at school. People send us text messages telling us to leave Bekasi – we’ve even had people saying they’re going to kill us. All we want to do is pray together,” Iqbar said.
“It’s all good and well for the president to tell the Myanmar government not to allow persecution of the Rohyinga Muslims, but why doesn’t he address the intolerance in his own country?”
Since his election in 2005, Yudhoyono has signed off on a number of controversial new laws, including the 2008 Anti-Ahmadiyah Decree, which bans the Ahmadiyah from “propagating” their faith. The vagueness of the term “propagation” has in effect allowed regional governments to interpret the law as an outright ban on the practice of Ahmadiyah, as has been the case at the mosque in Bekasi.
Visiting Indonesia in November 2010, US President Barack Obama praised “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics”.
More recently foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have billed Indonesia as a model Islamic democracy – but critics say the reality is much different on the ground.
Just three months after Obama made his comments, 1,500 hardline Sunnis attacked members of the Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik, a village in West Java. Armed with clubs and machetes, the mob hacked and bludgeoned three men to death and wounded many more.
|An Indonesian Ahmadi reacts as he checks a vandalised mosque in Tasikmalaya, West Java [AFP]|
It’s not only the Ahmadiya who face persecution. Reports of harassment and intimidation against Christians are commonplace and forced church closures are frequently in the news.
Shia Muslims also say they face discrimination. A Shia cleric was sentenced to two years in prison for promoting what was said to be a heretical interpretation of Islam in East Java last July. The school he founded was burnt to the ground.
According to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, there were 264 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, up from 216 in 2010.
Some 400 people believed to be members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) ransacked a village in Tasikmalaya, West Java on May 5, trashing dozens of homes again belonging to Ahmadi Muslims.
‘Model Islamic democracy’?
In light of the rise of religious persecution many minority groups have protested the award and called on the president to decline the honour.
Appeal of Conscience Foundation founder Rabbi Arthur Shneier declined an interview on the reasoning behind Yudhoyono’s selection.
Bahrul Hayat, Indonesia’s Secretary General for the Minister for Religious Affairs, never responded to repeated attempts for comment.
Yudhoyono has acknowledged the outrage the award has caused but, addressing reporters at Jakarta’s Halim Perdanakusuma airport on Monday, he defended his legitimacy as a recipient.
“I am aware of protests from some figures and groups. I respect their opinion, but you should also know that the award is from a credible international organisation … If the organisation decides to award our nation through its President, we must not see it in a negative light,” Yudhoyono said.
Yudhoyono’s critics accept that Indonesia has moved a long way since the days of Suharto’s military rule, and that balancing the interests of one the world’s most heterogeneous nations is a difficult task.
But rights campaigners are wary of what they consider an erosion of democratic values and say rewarding Yudhoyono’s alleged failure to protect civil liberties sends the wrong message to the world.
“Of course [the West] wants to engage Indonesia, which is of course totally fine,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“The thing is, when engaging Indonesia, please don’t mislead the audience, because [when people] say Indonesia is a model Muslim democracy, they mislead the audience. Indonesia is not moving in the right direction.”
Harsono points to a growing body of legislation backed by the Indonesian Ulema Council – an influential clerical body – that he says threatens Indonesia’s progress as a moderate Islamic state.
In addition to the Anti-Ahmadiyah Decree, Yudhoyono has allowed the perpetuation of an ID card system that only allows citizens to register their belief system under 6 religious categories – discriminating against 250 religious sub-sects across the archipelago.
Those who choose to leave their religion blank risk being accused of “godlessness” – a crime punishable by a five-year jail sentence.
‘Defect of Indonesia’
Perhaps the greatest irony of the president receiving an award from a Jewish organisation promoting interfaith harmony is that Indonesia’s ID card system does not recognise Judaism as a religion.
The government’s 2006 Decree on Houses of Worship has also made it easier for elements of the Sunni majority to block permits for minority houses of worship, and has been instrumental in the slew of mosque and church demolitions that make regular news in West Java.
“Over the last eight years [Yudhoyono] has basically laid down legal infrastructure which discriminates against religious minorities,” said Harsono.
“Based on these regulations, the Islamists take the law into their own hands and the police are kind of saying: ‘Look the laws are there, the laws say this kind of stuff. Whatever you say – if it is discriminating or not – the laws are there.’”
“Democracy is not only about voting. This is the defect of Indonesia under Yudhoyono. Do we have electoral democracy? Yes. Voting? Yes.
“But human rights and civil liberties – they are still hugely problematic,” Harsono said.