Situation Vacant: PR Officer for the Islamic Religion

By Novar Caine

In the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country there have been further exhibitions this year of an intolerance of those of other faiths and a manifestation of militants’ obsession with death.

A Christian man jailed in Central Java for insulting Islam was the target of hardliners’ rage when they mobbed the court and demanded he instead be sentenced to death, even though the legal process, outside of appeals, had concluded and the thronging masses were certainly not judges.

Enraged locals descended on a courtroom in Lombok and screamed they would kill nine men on trial for murder. They reportedly said: “The defendants have to die. Sentence them to death or we will murder them.”

These extraordinary scenes are being repeated at courts across Indonesia, including last week, when dozens of women attempted to assault a murder suspect at a court in Gowa, South Sulawesi, after he was jailed for six and a half years instead of the 20 they had hoped for.

Certainly the courts are at fault for their continual failure to properly administer justice. The judicial system in Indonesia, according to international watchdogs, is among the country’s most corrupt institutions, thereby leading to a lack of confidence amongst the people, who view the judiciary as pandering to the highest bidder. It stems from what President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono calls the “judicial mafia” – shady agents who stalk courtrooms and arrange verdicts for payment and who are supposedly the focus of an ongoing eradication campaign.

But beyond that there is the wider issue of the cancer of militancy that keeps Islam in the headlines. Worldwide, there is no escape from it. Aspects of Indonesian society are being torn apart by Islamist hardliners, who wish to have the country run under Islamic law, even if most of the country’s people do not. Amid carnage enacted by terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam, one of the world’s main, and finest, religions, and the frenzied bigotry of followers who launch vicious and fatal attacks on Christians and members of an Islamic sect who choose to believe there was another prophet after Muhammad, and those fixated with the way women dress and what people get up to in the bedroom – in all of this there is a vacuum: a lack of a clear, reasoned voice that rejects the malignancy and assures us that, really, Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.

Because, as much as people want to believe this is true, it is not supported by evidence or statements from Islamic leaders. Mecca and Medina are the central places of prayer, but Islam does not have a focal point from which to speak, the way Catholics look to the Vatican in Rome for clarity and positions and Anglicans are represented by the archbishop of Canterbury in England.

A collective public-relations role, therefore, is essential to defuse the tensions between the Islamic world and the West that have been rising since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and that show no sign of easing as various European countries move to restrict Islamic practices such as banning the headscarf in France and the construction of new minarets in Switzerland.

Indonesia can play a pivotal role in this newly created office. Its two main Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which form a crucial part of the social infrastructure for Muslim Indonesians – over 200 million of them – should create a representative office in Jakarta and urge other Muslim countries, and those with sizeable Muslim populations, such as Britain where there are almost 3 million or close to 5 percent, to establish their own offices that together are linked into an association that will comment, separately or collectively, on current events in which Islam is featured.

Almost 10 years have gone by since the attacks in the US by Islamic fundamentalists linked to the Al-Qaeda terror group. Not only is there no end in sight to the fomenting anxiety on both sides – one that has every possibility to result in more spectacular attacks – but by not continually and in an effective manner condemning the acts of hardliners, Islam does itself no favours whatsoever.  

Those who claim to defend the integrity of Islam need to start doing just that, in a voice that everyone understands: that of reason, concord and goodwill towards all. 

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