What makes the Riau incident worse is that it happened during the holy month of Ramadan, a time of peace and devotion recognized by Muslims around the world.
The attack also served to keep other similar events in the front of Indonesians’ minds. It was only about a week ago when the people who led the mob that attacked and killed members of the Ahmadiyah sect in Cikeusik were sentenced to just a few months in prison. One of the Ahmadiyah followers, meanwhile, was given a nine-month prison sentence. It also recalled the Temanggung rampage, when a Catholic church there suffered damage from a mob inflamed by religious intolerance.
Another lingering indication that intolerance is become the norm in Indonesia is the GKI Yasmin Church in Bogor. There is still no agreement on where the GKI members may conduct their services, since the local authorities have barred them from their church. They have been forced to pray on the side of the road, making them an easy target for passers-by, who shout in protest, objecting to the public display of a minority religion.
While church members are harassed for standing up for their beliefs, hard-line Islamic groups in Jakarta easily conducted protests and marches in advance of Ramadan, causing traffic chaos. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) met no resistance with their protest several days ago, where they demanded that the government ban Ahmadiyah. Indeed, the FPI seems to be able to do whatever it wants, wherever and whenever it wants, with no intervention by police or authorities. How is this justified?
What is at stake in all these incidents is Indonesia’s reputation for tolerance, which is often praised but in reality is no longer deserved. If we are a tolerant country, what, exactly, are we tolerating?
It appears that tolerance in Indonesia has come to mean tolerance based upon loyalty among people who share the same values. Or taking it further, tolerance is only for those who have power and dominate a given area or region.
This fact is clearly seen in the case of the FPI. Do the police “tolerate” the FPI simply because it has a large following and powerful leaders? Looking at it the other way, should Indonesia “tolerate” those who attacked and killed Ahmadiyah followers simply because the Ahmadiyah are a tiny minority? Does that justify the lenient court verdicts?
This is the paradox when it comes to discussing tolerance. On the one hand, tolerance is easily applied to members of the majority, even in cases where the law has been broken. On the other hand, people from religious minorities consistently bear the brunt of intolerance.
Real tolerance for minorities cannot come about just by listening to the words of our leaders. It has to take root in reality. Only talking about tolerance is nonsense, as can be seen from so many recent cases. Sadly, there is often simply no room for minorities.
This is also part of the paradox of a democratic country: the majority can easily control the law, and minorities, who are supposedly equal, are often repressed. This is a paradox that goes back as far as Socrates and is not easily resolved. In a democracy, what should be right can be made wrong, simply because enough people demand it. Those with the power and the numbers can enforce their will.
As a diverse country with a large Muslim majority, we must have the courage to not allow our many minorities to be dominated by the majority. Religious tolerance should not be based on power. But this seems hard to achieve given the existence of extremists who undoubtedly also play an important role in our democratic society. As a result, the Indonesian government fails to protect minorities and develop and promote the values of real tolerance. At a time when these values are most needed, the virtues of tolerance are being neglected.
Two things are lacking here. One is communication. As the philosopher Jurgen Habermas has noted, in a diverse democratic community, effective communication is vital because without it consensus cannot be reached.
But a consensus must be reached in Indonesia free of coercion and domination. The nature of the extremist groups in our society shows that they cannot share their ideology and thoughts in a peaceful manner; they will not engage in reasoned debate and discussion. Their manner is rigid and cagey — they feel they are always right. If they are opposed by anyone, they resort to intimidation.
We need to change our perception of the limits of freedom. Our social contract with one another imposes limits on our absolute freedom and those limits are what allow society to function. What one group believes is absolutely correct may not be consistent with the rights of others, especially religious minorities.
This is why people need to practice tolerance through communication in their daily lives. We need to build not simple relativism but a real appreciation of differing views.
This is the great homework that has to be done immediately by the Indonesian government and its people. If intolerance cannot be stopped, diversity in Indonesia will be lost.