A policemen keeps watch as activists of the hardline Front Persatuan Islam (United Islamic Front) demonstrate against regulations on mosques to limit the volume broadcasting the call for prayer, outside the Baiturrahman grand mosque in Banda Aceh on 7 March 2022. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

Tackling the Problem of Identity Violence Against Pluralists

Published

A recent attack on an academic who has promoted pluralism in Indonesia highlights the need for the government to adopt new strategies to tackle Islamist violence against such individuals.

On 11 April 2022, academic and social influencer Ade Armando was attacked during a student demonstration outside the Indonesian Legislative Assembly (DPR). The students were protesting against a proposal to extend President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) two presidential terms into a third. The irony here is that Armando, whose views align with the protestors, was violently targeted by a group of conservative Muslims. The incident raises questions about whether Indonesia remains a haven for activists promoting pluralism, in line with the country’s ‘unity in diversity’ (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) ideology. 

Apparently, Armando’s attackers singled him out for his past sermons. Conservative Muslims consider Armando to be anti-Islam, even though he was only promoting pluralism and religious tolerance. Armando is not the first to be regarded as such; in the past Indonesian intellectuals such as Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid have been criticised for promoting pluralism. 

The crux of the controversy lies in opposing views between Islamists and pluralists. For Islamists, a less contentious definition of pluralism is that Muslims and non-Muslims can coexist in a polity, though Muslims must be in charge, and non-Muslims must obey Muslim rules. Islamists reject the pluralist concept that all religions are pathways to salvation. There was no discussion about Armando’s pluralism, but nonetheless, he became a target after being associated with it. 

To be sure, large scale identity-based violence in Indonesia has decreased significantly in the last decade. Since Jokowi became president in 2014, the country had not witnessed a major incident like the one in 2008, when the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) launched a violent attack on the Alliance for Religious and Belief Freedom during a peaceful assembly at the capital. The alliance had campaigned for Pancasila to be upheld in the midst of tensions surrounding the rights of the minority Ahmadiyya sect. 

But Islamist groups have continued to target followers of Ahmadiyya, Shi’a and other local beliefs, many of whom adhere to pluralist beliefs. Some of these tensions have resulted in violence. For example, a mosque in Sintang, West Kalimantan frequented by the Ahmadiyya community was attacked by Sunni hardliners recently.

But a more recent development is the targeting of individual activists, like in the Armando case. In 2011, a parcel containing dynamite was delivered to the office of Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL), targeting Ulil Abshar Abdalla. This was clearly meant to coerce and intimidate.

By targeting progressive activists, Islamist groups seek to deter the public from promoting critical views about Islam. The true objective, however, is to assert the right to interpret Islam and be the gatekeepers of the religion.

In Armando’s case, the police arrested the perpetrators soon after the incident. To its credit, the Jokowi government has been quick to intervene, particularly in cases committed in Jakarta and other urban centres. In a classic whack-a-mole, however, the violence has shifted to the regional and sub-regional levels. The concern here is that police follow-up in such areas is not as swift as in urban centres. Often, they prefer to single out individual perpetrators of violence rather than punishing the organisations that back them. And unlike the president, who was quick to nip the problem in the bud by banning Islamist organisations such as Hitzbur Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and FPI, police at the regional level prefer to engage in dialogues or musyawarah as a form of conflict resolution. These softer approaches can halt the violence temporarily, but do not get at the root of the problems; meanwhile, affected parties cannot return to their places of worship.

In addition to using violent means to weaken pluralist and progressive activists, Islamists also adopt savvy propaganda to discredit them. For example, Islamists depict progressive views as being ‘insensitive’ to Islam, and argue that contentious theological viewpoints should not be discussed in the public domain. Islamist hardliners have also found new legal tools against their foes. Nowadays, they sue individuals who promote pluralism and religious tolerance using defamation and blasphemy laws. Such legal means impose a burden on progressive activists, as they are costly, time-consuming, and affects one’s emotions. 

By targeting progressive activists, Islamist groups seek to deter the public from promoting critical views about Islam. The true objective, however, is to assert the right to interpret Islam and be the gatekeepers of the religion. The subtext here is that pluralist activists will suffer the same fate as Armando. A former FPI activist, Novel Bamukmin, has issued a public warning that Yaqut Cholil Qaumas, the Minister of Religious Affairs, would be facing similar consequences as Armando. Already, the Minister has received legal threats from the Islamists, who associate him with policies that ‘denigrate’ Islam.

Given that Islamists have evolved to use a range of tactics against pluralists, the government must quickly adapt its strategies to tackle it. Regional governments must take a leaf from the central government’s swift handling of violent acts targeting activists. They must ensure that law enforcement agencies remain neutral and root out any violent clandestine operations using the banner of Islam.

Applying hard power does not mean ignoring the use of soft power through dialogue. Both the central government and dominant pro-government groups seek to spread Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam), which underscores the significance of appreciating local and cultural conditions in the application of Islamic teachings. Islam Nusantara should percolate down to regional governments, and the central government (especially the Ministry of Religious Affairs) must ensure that religious elites are sufficiently trained and given enough resources. It must also ensure that Islamic religious schools are well funded and have streamlined curricula. Their academics should be trained to tackle any form of radical ideology. 

But tackling violence should go beyond the religious domain. Studies have shown that secular schools, rather than religious institutions, are the source of conservatism. At the village level, perceptions of economic and political marginalisation remain the main factor that pushes people toward violent ideology. Although not all those who engage in violence are poor — and studies have proven that the middle class is also attracted to it — any solutions must not ignore the fact that underdevelopment contributes to identity politics. 

Finally, government agencies and civil society must continue to protect activists in their efforts to promote pluralism. Prominent activists such as Musdah Mulia, Najib Burhani, Yenny Wahid, Ahmad Sueady and Armando should be heralded as national icons in their bid to preserve the inherent strength and virtue of Indonesia’s pluralism. Without them, there will be no unity in diversity, as Indonesians often proclaim. 

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Syafiq Hasyim is a Lecturer of UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.