Mobs screaming “God is great” as they stone people to death; mobs calling for death to blasphemers and burning churches; mobs beating liberals in the capital’s thoroughfares: These are not scenes from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, but Indonesia, a so-called model of pluralism.
US President Barack Obama adopted the obligatory tone of visiting Western politicians when he lauded mainly Muslim Indonesia’s “spirit of religious tolerance” during a visit to Jakarta in November.
However, three months later US Ambassador Scot Marciel was forced this week to issue a statement deploring religious violence and encouraging Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to uphold the rule of law in the ostensibly secular state.
Indonesia’s cherished image as a “moderate” Muslim-majority nation has taken a battering at the hands of mobs of angry -Muslims who -slaughtered three members of a minority sect on Sunday and set fire to two churches on Tuesday.
The attack on the Ahmadiyah sect was particularly heinous. Captured on film that was too graphic even for Indonesian TV to broadcast in full, the lynchers clubbed and stoned their victims to death in front of police, then laughed at their limp, shattered bodies.
Police admit they knew the attack was coming, but said they could do nothing to stop it, an explanation dismissed as absurd by human rights groups.
“It’s always the same pattern. They knew there was a potential religious conflict, but they let it happen,” said Rumadi Ahmad from the Wahid Institute, a lobby group for pluralism.
“If they let such situations happen repeatedly, and if the religious figures and officials give statements to justify the violence, it’s not impossible that intolerance will -increase alarmingly in the future,” he added.
Human rights activists say the latest attacks provide stark new evidence that Yudhoyono’s administration is allowing extremism to fester in the archipelago of 240 million people, 80 percent of whom are Muslims.
The appearance of sectarian violence on the main island of Java, rather than the outlying islands of the Malukus where Christian--Muslim clashes claimed thousands of lives from 1999 to 2002, has only fueled such concerns.
And there are fears of more to come — possibly as soon as today, when radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged spiritual leader of regional jihadist movement Jemaah Islamiyah, faces trial on terrorism charges.
Yudhoyono has condemned Sunday’s violence and ordered police to track down the perpetrators, but activists and minority leaders say they have heard it all before.
“How many Ahmadiyah have to die at the hands of mobs before the police step in?” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson asked.
Indonesia is in the grip of a “wave of hate crimes,” she added.
Activists say a 2008 decree banning Ahmadiyah from spreading their version of Islam — namely that their founder Mirza Ghulam -Ahmad, not Mohammed, was the final prophet of Islam — gave cover for extremists to act out their hatred.
Local rights groups have also demanded the resignation of Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who says the Ahmadiyah would be safe if they simply renounced Islam. Last year, he called for the sect to be banned outright.
Amnesty International Asia--Pacific deputy director Donna Guest said Indonesia’s respect for freedom of religion and tolerance had “clearly deteriorated in recent years.”