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Church bomb shows Indonesian extremism

Asia Times - September 28, 2011

Gary LaMoshi, Bali Indonesia was shocked and shamed on Sunday when a suicide bomber struck a Christian church in Solo, killing at least one congregant and injuring at least 27 others. But the reaction from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been even more shameful.

On Sunday morning, a still unidentified bomber detonated explosives at the entrance of Gereja Bethel Injil Sepenuh (Bethel Whole Gospel Church, GBIS) at the conclusion of the church's second service. Police say it was a low explosive device spiked with nails and bolts that aimed to harm people rather than destroy property.

Solo, also known as Surakarta, is considered a wellspring of Javanese culture and more recently a hub for Islamic extremism. Militant preacher Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the jailed spiritual leader of the terrorist Jemaah Islamiyah movement, and his Ngruki Islamic boarding school, a hub for planning the 2002 Bali bombing, are based in the town. Solo has also served as a hideout for a number of radical Islamist fugitives, including master bomber Noordin Mohammad Top. Several churches were burned in Central Java earlier this year.

In the face of the latest evidence of growing religious intolerance, in his televised speech on Sunday night Yudhoyono used the incident to lobby for passage of controversial amendments to Indonesia's anti-terrorism act. The new provisions would allow police and intelligence authorities to begin surveillance operations against anyone without evidence, measures that critics say hearken back to former General Suharto's authoritarian rule. In the wake of the Solo bombing, legislators reported a breakthrough on the bill late Monday night.

"There are fears that it is excessive, but we have to learn from our past," Yudhoyono said, referring to the legislation. "I hope that in future life can return to normal and people won't be afraid or overly worried, as long as we can pull together in facing down violence."

Not a hate crime

He asserted that the church bombing was linked, not to a wave of sectarian strife that has intensified in recent months, but to a national terrorist network. That network was supposedly behind the April suicide bombing in Cirebon, West Java, of a police station mosque that injured 30, all but two of them police officers. Yudhoyono declared, "Crime is crime and terrorism is terrorism. It does not relate to ethnicity or religion."

Instead of looking away from Indonesia's growing sectarian violence, the once-popular president would have been better advised to meet it head on. Even in the highly unlikely event that the Solo bombings have nothing to do with religious extremism, Yudhoyono nevertheless could have used the occasion to fight it. Within an hour of hearing of the bombing, Yudhoyono could have been on a plane to Solo with leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the country's two largest mainstream mass Muslim organizations, other religious leaders and heads of political parties to visit the victims of the bombing in the hospital.

After commiserating with the victims, comforting their families, and encouraging the police to get to the bottom of the crime, these national leaders could have presented a united front condemning the attack. Moreover, they could have reiterated they stand by Indonesia's constitutional protection of religious freedom and assured the public that the state will take all necessary steps to guarantee it for all Indonesians regardless of their faith. While Yudhoyono seems content to ignore the accelerating erosion of that freedom, Indonesia's recent history shows that religious strife can also serve as a convenient smokescreen for forces that threaten freedom for all.

Democracy breeds contempt

Since the end of former dictator Suharto's New Order regime, democracy has provided an opening for greater Islamization of Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population. An estimated 88% of Indonesia's 233 million people follow Islam. That leaves 28 million Indonesians of other faiths, or as many people as the total populations of Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, or Australia and New Zealand combined. Minorities are being marginalized by a combination of violent extremism and politicians that play the Muslim card to pander to religious hardliners.

As part of the 2005 agreement that ended a decades long civil war in Aceh, Indonesia's easternmost province was permitted to adopt sharia (Islamic) law. Indonesia's parliament approved this exception to the national constitution. However, since 2001, government decentralization measures have led to some 150 local laws and regulations based on religious teachings, according to the national newsweekly Tempo. All but a handful are based on Islamic law, including dress codes, deductions for charitable donations, and Koran proficiency requirements for civil service promotion or marriage.

The magazine also reported research by Northern Illinois University academic Michael Buehler showing that the overwhelming majority of these religion-based ordinances are proposed by politicians from secular parties, rather than the Islamic parties. That suggests the regulations are more about electoral politics than piety.

Church is out

Recently, religious intolerance has been on display in several high-profile incidents. In Bogor, outside Jakarta, Mayor Diani Budiarto revoked the building permit for the Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church and has, since January, defied a Supreme Court order to reinstate it.

Instead, Budiarto ordered the building sealed since April, forcing the congregation to hold services on the sidewalk outside. That's become a weekly circus featuring hundreds of worshippers, members of the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI by its Indonesian acronym) taunting and threatening the Christians, and dozens of police in riot gear with water cannons separating FPI demonstrators and worshippers.

Last week, the case completed the final phase of its legal enforcement process, and the mayor's refusal to comply with the Supreme Court ruling is due to be handed to Yudhoyono for resolution. Budiarto's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has revoked its support for him due to his defiance of the law, but he retains support from two parties in Yudhoyono's ruling coalition, the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and Golkar.

Religious extremism doesn't just threaten violence, and Christians aren't the only victims. When extremism ratchets up in Indonesia, the Ahmadiyah Muslim splinter sect is a favored target. In western Java's Cikeusik district, local Muslim preachers and political leaders spent a year stirring hatred against a community of about two dozen Ahmadis, members of a local family that converted during the 1990s.

On February 6, a mob of thousands from nearby mosques, pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), and the surrounding area descended on the Ahmadis to drive them out of the area. As a token contingent of police and military stood by, the Ahmadis were beaten, their homes ransacked, and three of them killed. Last month, a local court sentenced 12 people to three to six month sentences in the attack, including one Ahmadiyah member.

Blame the victims

Indonesia's National Human Right Commission condemned the police for allowing, if not condoning, the attack. The commission also cited prosecutors for presenting laughably weak cases against the attackers and blaming Ahmadiyah followers for provoking the attack by refusing to leave their homes. Human-rights observers believe the light punishment with time already served in pre-trial detention, the longest sentences amounted to a few days will encourage more religious extremism.

Earlier this month, seven people died in fighting between Muslims and Christians in Ambon in Maluku province, provoked by text messages falsely implicating a Christian in the death of a Muslim in a traffic accident. The incident evoked the extreme sectarian strife that begin in late 1999 in the area once known as the Spice Islands.

Over the next two years, about 10,000 people died in sectarian clashes. Indonesia's military helped fuel the conflict, supplying weapons to both sides and transporting jihadis from Java to join the fighting.

The military stoked the religious conflict in Ambon and similar fighting in Central Sulawesi as part of its effort to undermine then President Abdurrahman Wahid's reformist regime. Wahid sought to curb the power of the military that had been at the center of Suharto's 32 years of iron-fisted rule and operated with impunity. After a dozen years of democracy, the military has moved to the sidelines but still operates largely without meaningful civilian oversight.

With a current presidential leadership vacuum and a successor not due until 2014, sectarian strife presents an opportunity for extremists from all sides to fill the void and manipulate the public. It's up to the champions of freedom and tolerance, and its primary beneficiaries including Yudhoyono and the religious mainstream, to fight back. The alternative is nothing less than chaos and death, as seen most recently in Solo on Sunday.

[Longtime editor of award-winning investor rights advocate eRaider.com, Gary LaMoshihas written for Slate and Salon.com, and works an adviser to Writing Camp (www.writingcamp.net). He first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has tracking its progress ever since.]

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