Radical Islamists during a rally in Jakarta in 2006 (photo: dpa)
The Islamization of Indonesian Media

Hostage to the Tyranny of the Majority

Indonesia enjoys a democratically elected government, yet social pressure on the country's media to adopt conservative Islamic positions is steadily growing. Observations and an assessment by Andy Budiman

In recent years, we have witnessed a global resurgence in religion. This renaissance of faith came suddenly and took us by surprise. In April 1966, Time Magazine published a title story with the headline "Is God Dead?" At the start of this millennium, The Economist wrote an obituary for God.

Yet the events of 11 September changed everything. We are witnesses to an epochal transformation. Nowadays, religion plays an ever greater role in people's lives. Religion strikes back!

Take, for example, the case of Nigeria. The country is divided into an Islamic north and a predominantly Christian south. South Korea and Brazil have experienced the rapid growth of the Pentecostal movement. The former Yugoslavia is fragmented into the mainly Muslim countries of Bosnia and Kosovo, the Orthodox Christian Serbia, and Catholic Croatia. In secular Turkey, the conservative Islamic AK party currently holds power. In Thailand, monks are demanding that the government institute Buddhism as the official state religion.

Tendencies in Indonesian society towards greater Islamization

image: nbd
In his work Democracy in America, the French historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) warned against the consequences of a "tyranny of the majority"

​​Even Indonesia isn't free from the influence of this religious renaissance. It is a phenomenon whose roots reach back to the colonial period. The historian Harry Benda has remarked that "the modern history of Indonesia is the history of the growth in the number of zealous Muslim groups."

This is confirmed by a quantitative study carried out by Saiful Mujani in 2002. His study indicated that Indonesian society has become increasingly religious. A total of 97.2 percent of all Indonesians believe in God. And 88 percent of Indonesian Muslims stated that they regularly pray in compliance with their religious duty.

James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that there is a danger in democracy for the majority to suppress the views of the minority. Alexis de Tocqueville also warned of this danger with his concept of the "tyranny of the majority". Richard Dawkins has expressed the need initiate a new "Enlightenment, as the truth, common sense, and science are currently under threat by an attack of organized ignorance that goes under the name of religion."

Religious repercussions in the media

Let us examine these occurrences in the context of the media. Journalists are part of society and they are also not immune from the influence of a resurgence in religion. The media serves as a mirror of society and the editorial room can be seen as a sort of "Indonesia in miniature". When conservative religious views dominate a society, then these will also manifest themselves in the media.

Logo Front Pembela Islam (source: Wikipedia)
A danger for freedom, pluralism, and democracy: The Front Pembela Islam is one of the most radical and active Islamic organizations in Indonesia

​​In this context and as a journalist and the founder of the Indonesian Journalist Association for Diversity (SEJUK), I wish to document a few examples where these tendencies towards Islamization can be clearly observed.

When the tragic riots broke out three years ago at the Indonesian National Monument, the so-called Monas tragedy, a journalist returned from event to show a photo to her editors in which she could be seen posing with Munarman, the commander of the Laskar Islam (Warriors of Islam) commandos.

At the time, Munarman was being held in police custody following violent attacks by his commandos on members of the National Alliance for the Freedom of Belief and Religion (AKKBB). The journalist in question said with pride that Munarman was a hero of Islam.

Wrestling with one's own beliefs

Another journalist compared the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) with the AKKBB. He said, "After all, they are still Muslims and pray according to the precepts of Islam. As for the AKKBB, who knows what they really stand for?"

With respect to the attack a few years ago on the followers of the Ahmadiyyah group in Manis Lor, Kuningan, one journalist commented as follows: "This action would not have taken place if the Ahmadiyyah had founded their own religion." In other words, the Ahmadiyyah are themselves to blame for being attacked, because they follow a false Islamic faith.

Indonesian women at Jakarta Airport (photo: Rebecca Henschmann)
Under pressure: In recent years, women have been increasingly called upon to assume a position of subservience and chastity. At the same time, sexual offences against women have been trivialized, writes Budiman

​​A further example: One could read in various media accounts of the funeral of Dr. Azhari, a noted terrorist, that his corpse exuded a fragrant aroma. Other journalists reported that a white dove flew over his body as it was being carried to his grave. This sort of reporting uncritically adopts the viewpoint of jihadists, who are convinced that the corpse of those who die a martyr's death exudes a fragrance and is followed by a dove.

I believe that it is not easy for a journalist in times of recurrent religiosity to clearly take a critical position. At the personal level, he has to wrestle with his own beliefs as part of a community. On the other hand, he should not shy away from confrontation with his readers or, respectively, his public. Swimming against the flow means to take up a position against the majority, even when this risks offending the feelings of the community.

The role of women

Within the context of the reawakening of religion in the Indonesian media, women are also forced to accept a considerable downgrading of their status. In recent years, women have been increasingly called upon to assume a position of subservience and chastity. At the same time, sexual offences against women have been trivialized or even implicitly justified.

Even in reporting on crime, the mass media very often neglects the perspective of women and victims. In one news report, readers were informed that "the sweet woman with the attractive figure admits to having already once been sexually harassed on the Trans Jakarta bus." The specific description of the woman's body creates the impression that the journalist wanted to stress that the woman herself was at fault in eliciting the "seduction."

In my view, the media has been increasingly serving the cause of Islamic mainstream ideologies instead of assuming the role of critical commentator. This is an extremely alarming development.

Over the past ten years, Indonesians have been able to enjoy the fruits of freedom. Yet, recently, public opinion has increasingly turned conservative. Our democracy is, to an ever greater extent, caught in the grasp of a restrictive society. It is the task of the media, not least of all, to reverse this trend.

Andy Budiman

© Qantara.de 2011

Andy Budiman is the administrator of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia) (AJI) and founder of the Journalist Association for Diversity (SEJUK).

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editors: Arian Fariborz & Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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