Religious intolerance

Vicious trend sweeps Indonesia

One of Indonesia's most popular clerics recently told a Muslim audience that there are demons in Christian crosses. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) subsequently cleared him of blasphemy, thereby adding fuel to the fire of an already tense and alarming situation. By Marco Stahlhut in Jakarta

A video featuring Ustadz Abdul Somad, probably Indonesia's most popular Islamic preacher, has gone viral in the country. In the video, the cleric is asked by a female member of the audience why she always has to shudder every time she sees a Christian cross. He replies that the reason is that Christian crosses are inhabited by evil spirits. In other words: crosses are the work of the devil. Somad is a prominent member of Nahdlatul Ulama, the "more moderate" of the two "moderate" major Muslim organisations in Indonesia.

He was head of its regional branch in Riau for five years. Before being blocked for a period of time this year, his Instagram account had more followers than the social media pages of any other religious leader in the country. In defence of the video, which surfaced recently, Somad said that he was speaking in an Islamic establishment to an exclusively Muslim audience. Because no Christians were present, he argued, he could not have insulted any Christians. What's more, he said, he had only been answering a question.

Indonesian Christians sought to bring blasphemy charges against Somad. Officially, the paragraph on blasphemy in Indonesian law protects all religions recognised by the state. Islamists reacted immediately with a countersuit: the very insinuation that the revered preacher could have committed blasphemy was an insult, they argued. In late August, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) discussed the case. It not only repeated almost word for word what Somad had said in his own defence, it also explicitly called on his critics to pipe down.

Worrying development

This decision by what is more or less the most senior religious body in Indonesia, not only shows without a shadow of a doubt just how far the fundamentalisation of the country had already advanced, it is also likely to have fatal consequences for the co-existence of religions in the state that is home to the largest Muslim population in the world.

Islamist suicide bomb attack on churches in the Indonesian city of Surabaya on 13 May 2018 (photo: Reuters)
An established climate of fear: "the rise of intolerance in the country was plain for all to see," writes Marco Stahlhut. "It is evident in the results of multiple surveys – and most appallingly in the attack on three churches in Surabaya in May 2018, when two Muslim suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing at least 15 people in the process. But it is also evident in everyday intolerance"

Both truly moderate Muslims and people who belong to minorities have again pointed to the fact that there is a lot of hate speech against Christians and other minorities in Indonesia – both online and in mosques.

Much of this hate speech can still be seen online – albeit expressed in slightly less drastic terms. There is no other explanation for the rapid increase in intolerance in recent years. By absolving the Islamic preacher, who has quite literally demonised Christianity, this intolerance appears to have reached a new level. After all, Somad's exoneration by the MUI means that the spreading of hate speech against Christians – at least when it takes place inside mosques and Muslim establishments – would appear to have the official blessing of the MUI.

But even before the Council's ruling, the rise of intolerance in the country was plain for all to see. It is evident in the results of multiple surveys and most appallingly in the attack on three churches in Surabaya in May 2018, when two Muslim suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing at least 15 people in the process. But it is also evident in everyday intolerance.

"Religious apartheid"

In July, a Catholic painter and his family were told after they had moved to Karet in Central Java that they would have to move out again, because only Muslims were allowed to buy or rent houses in the village.

In December, residents of another village in Java sawed down the cross on a grave of a Christian man and told his widow that the graveyard was for Muslims only. And in August, some crosses in another graveyard in central Java were pulled out of the ground, damaged or burned, just one of a series of acts of vandalism on Christian burial sites in this year.

Islamist protests at the end of December 2016 in Jakarta against the cityʹs former governor and ethnic Chinese Christian ʹAhokʹ Tjahaja Purnama (photo: Reuters)
A defamation campaign with far-reaching consequences: the former Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, an ally of President Widodo, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2017 in a much criticised trial for alleged blasphemy. He lost his re-election

In the long term, however, there is an even greater threat to the cohesion of this multi-religious country: right across Indonesia, housing complexes that are based on Sharia law and are not open to non-Muslims are being built. This is religious apartheid.

Double standards

And now, in the biggest Muslim country on Earth – which was lauded up until recently for being a model of moderate Islam – it is possible to say with impunity that Christians are the work of the devil.

By way of comparison: just this May, the Supreme Court of Indonesia rejected an appeal of the sentencing of an Indonesian Buddhist woman to 18 months in prison. Her crime was to have told a neighbour in a private conversation that the call to prayer from the loudspeaker of the local mosque had got quite loud.

Jakarta’s former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, once the best known Christian politician in the country, was sentenced to two years in prison for saying in a campaign speech that voters should not be rattled by a verse in the Koran that apparently forbids Muslims to vote for non-Muslims.

In both these cases – and in many others – the Indonesian Ulema Council at both regional and national level adopted a tough stance that was demonstrably missing from its judgement of the devastating anti-Christian statement made by preacher Ustadz Abdul Somad.

Marco Stahlhut

© FAZ / 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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