Mobs Rule

US President Barack Obama spoke widely of tolerance, interfaith harmony and respect in Indonesia when he was here in November. He praised Indonesia, where he once lived, for its openness and its diversity, a basic element that the constitution is rooted in. Yet since then we have continued to see the exact opposite in this country.

It is alarming in the extreme that authorities routinely turn a blind eye as Muslim groups carry out acts of vandalism and launch direct attacks on people of other faiths in this country. Indeed all major beliefs are recognised under Indonesia’s founding charter, which explicitly provides for freedom to worship. But hardline Muslim groups have been working against that doctrine in recent years, in one direction resulting in a law that has banned an Islamic offshoot because it is an apparent abomination.

That piece of legalisation is now soaked in the blood of the departed: Three members of the Ahmadiyah were murdered on Sunday when more than 1,000 Muslims attacked the outlawed group as they were worshipping; police were nowhere to be seen. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, distressingly, said the event was merely “regrettable,” although he later instructed the authorities to find those responsible and bring them to justice.

We are not hopeful that will happen. Too often extremist groups act with impunity, largely because of the unspoken view that they are battling for what is regarded as the one true religion above all others. The newly installed national police chief is a supporter of the vigilante Islamic Defenders Front, a radical organisation that does exactly what its name says, frequently targeting foreigners and Indonesians whose entertainment habits, such as drinking and dancing, it deems immoral.

More ghastly news for moderate Islam occurred later in the week, when throngs of Muslims rioted in Central Java, burning two churches and ransacking another, because they disagreed with a local court’s jailing of a man for five years for distributing leaflets that insulted their religion (another victim of the above-mentioned law). That wasn’t enough for the more than 1,500 enraged Muslims. They wanted the man dead.

Activists and overseas groups are now urging President Yudhoyono to take real action to eradicate extremism in this country, but so far nothing has been done at official level, allowing hardliners greater brazen currency in planning and carrying out their heinous acts.

Indonesia is a victim of homegrown Islamic extremism. People have died in their hundreds, from Bali to Jakarta to Sulawesi. The government has commendably expended enormous energy and resources, with assistance from Australia and the US, in stamping out terrorism. It needs to do the same with the Muslim mobs who shred the nation’s basic beliefs and Indonesians’ rights.

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