Indonesia: “Unity in Diversity”?

08 Mar, 2013    ·   3838

Aparupa Bhattacharjee analyses the current status of ethnic and religious minorities in Indonesia in context of the Indonesian national motto

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

The Indonesian Chinese, along with Chinese all over the world, welcomed the year of snake with great solemnity. The liberty to celebrate such festivals is seen as a big change by this minority community.  The only hurdle in the celebration was the religious angle given to it by the Council of Ulema (MUI) who declared the celebration as haram and prohibited Muslim Indonesians from participating in the celebrations. While this is not a new occurrence, it does raise questions about the freedom of the minorities in Indonesia to uphold their cultural and religious liberty.
Ethnic & Religious Minorities: A Trajectory of Discrimination 
The anti-communist purge under the Suharto government greatly affected the Chinese population in Indonesia. For more than three decades, Chinese language and symbols were banned; they were forced to change their names and no religious and cultural freedom was given to them.  President Abdurrahman Wahid lifted the ban on Chinese cultural practices in 2000. The declaration of the Chinese New Year as a public holiday, then, is seen as a symbol of cultural liberty for the Indonesian Chinese. Nevertheless, the discrimination in comparison to the pribhumi (the native Indonesians) is quite evident, especially in regard to citizenship certificates, civil registration system and the education system. This  discrimination  is  faced  not  only  by  ethnic  Chinese  groups  in  Indonesia  but  also  by  religious  minority  communities. Indeed, the plight of the Ahmadiyas and the Shiites in Indonesia is very similar to that of the ethnic Chinese. For example, there  have  been  attempts  to  ban  the  Ahmadiyas  in  Indonesia  in  the  1980s  by  the  MUI. Although the government rejected such a plea, their situation has not improved. In 2011, an attack in a village in central Java killed about twenty four Ahmadiyas. To compound their problems, they are often harassed and threatened by the Islamist militant groups. Unlike the Ahmadiyas, Shiites are not declared deviants from the Islamic norms. But in 1984, MUI warned the Sunni Muslims (the majority of Muslims in Indonesia) to stay away from Shiite influence. Moreover, the Shiite community faced attacks on their schools and mosques along with other violent activities. The Baha’ites, Confucians, and Christians face similar insecurities in Indonesia.

Increasing Conversions to Islam 
The most evident outcome of such treatment is the increasing rate of conversions to Islam in Indonesia. The majority of the Ahmadiyas, for instance, have already converted to Sunni Islam. Although governmental sources claim such conversions are voluntary, most conversions happen due to social and political insecurities. It  is,  therefore,  not  surprising  to  find  Ahmadiya-dominated  villages  embracing  Sunni  Islam. Interestingly, these converts are given incentives that include financial support, training in animal husbandry, fisheries and agriculture. The same story may be told in the case of the Shiites, who convert to Sunni Islam in order to save their lives. Sometimes this is the only way for the minority groups, driven away to temporary shelters, to return to their houses.

The conversion in case of ethnic minorities, like the Indonesian Chinese group, is somewhat different. Though they may not be physically threatened to convert to Islam, however the social stigma associated with the exclusion and segregation of the minorities forces them to convert to Islam. In some cases marriage with pribhumi is also a reason for conversion. The religious conversion of Indonesian nationals of Chinese ethnicity is more for gaining social prestige and acceptance in the main stream than the fear of facing existential crisis.

The Limits of Government Measures
One  needs  to  re-assess  the  national motto  of  Indonesia ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ or ‘unity in diversity’, which  is  so  often  raised  by  the  Indonesian  government. In numerous cases, forceful conversions have been passively facilitated by the government officials themselves. In fact, in some cases of violence and harassment by the Islamist militant groups, the support has come from government officials and security forces. In incidents of violence and attacks, the police hardly takes a strong stand against the belligerents. The perpetrators are emboldened by the support of local authorities and weak law enforcement. Most of the cases of such intimidation and violence are not reported; if a complaint is lodged, the  accused  are  let  off  with  light  sentences  even  if  the  charges  are  proven  in  a  court  of  law. Therefore, they hardly serve as deterrent for the militant groups.

The legal structure in Indonesia that purports to maintain religious synchronization in reality undermines the religious and cultural freedom of the minority groups. There are legislations present that render the religious and ethnic minorities vulnerable to discrimination. Although, government has tried to promote racial and religious harmony through advertisements and dialogues, such initiatives have only been undertaken half-heartedly. In order to upheld the national motto of Unity in Diversity definite initiative has to be taken on behalf of Indonesian Government. More serious steps have to be taken toward consolidating the rights of the minority communities. Unless this happens, the slogan will remain only in name.