Indonesia: Still the Coverboy for Pluralism?

By Dioputra Ilham | 18 Jul 2017
Issue of the Month | 0 Responses | 947 Views

By: Ramadinan Saptara / Editor: Rizkina Aliya

The trial and eventual imprisonment of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for allegations of blasphemy appears to mark a decline in  Indonesia’s long celebrated moderation. Now more than ever, issues of social disharmony between the nation’s various ethnic and religious groups prove to be a growing concern for Indonesians. The case, however, is apparently not the start. It is the climax of the collapsing fragile fabric of Indonesian society. Diversity, pluralism, and a “record of tolerance” has long been the pride of many Indonesians. A melting pot of religions, traditions, and local and foreign cultures have rendered a perception of Indonesia as a champion of unity in diversity. However, after a complex turn of events driven by the rise of identitarian issues, Indonesia’s tolerance has also been placed on trial.

Before an Indonesian court releases a landmark indictment imprisoning Ahok, a media darling of pluralism in Indonesian politics, the country has experienced a gradual regression of tolerance and increasing hostility between religious and ethnic communities. In 2015, several churches were burned in the Indonesian province of Aceh which implements Islamic sharia. About 8,000 Christians in the province were displaced after hostile confrontations with hard-line Islamic groups. Previously, a mosque in the Christian-majority region of Papua was burned.  These hostilities had not only risen over the past few years, but they had patched Indonesia’s history: independence movements in Aceh and Papua that accused the central government of suppression and modern colonialism; the Muslim-Christian conflict in Poso in 2000; ethnic conflicts between the indigenous Dayak tribes and Malays with emigrant Madurese communities in Kalimantan. These examples come to show that despite the celebration of national solidarity and tolerance, the fabric of Indonesian society is naturally vulnerable.

The recent dramatic rise in the appalling condition in Indonesia can be explained by several factors. The justice system, politics, and social institutions of Indonesia are some of the many sources of the problematic situation. Some opinions blame Indonesia’s blasphemy law and contend that Indonesia’s justice system is held ransom by radicals. On the surface, Ahok’s trial shows that the blasphemy laws are a source of injustice and have been used for political purposes. This comment, however, needs to be further examined. Article 156a of the Indonesian criminal code, the primary source of blasphemy laws in Indonesia, was added to criminalize hate against religion and secure unity among different religions. Its intended purpose was to protect Indonesia’s integrity and not a weapon of divisiveness. The possible underlying political theatrics and pressure from hard-line groups may have given the image that Article 156a was used for political reasons instead of pure justice.

Political and social institutions in Indonesia are decisive factors to the growth of radical Islamic groups that present themselves as the ‘purest Islamic institution,’ challenging moderate Islam. There is an assumption that Indonesian politicians provide a medium for radical Islamic groups to thrive. Is this opinion justified? The matter of fact is that religion plays a central role in Indonesian politics as a valuable tool to canvass mass support and perhaps even to divide and conquer. Social media also seems to act as the perfect platform for hardline campaigns to spew hatred and pit communities against each other. The prevalence of such speech, and the ease of how it can spread may regretfully teach the Indonesian public to grow accustomed to such hateful campaigns.

Indonesia’s unity has always been balanced precariously on the line. It seems almost impossible for a nation of more than hundreds of distinct ethnicities, beliefs, and languages that spans over seventeen thousand islands to completely eliminate prejudice and hostility between communities. Let’s face it: conflict is inevitable. Since its conception, Indonesia has always been riddled with ailments that target its integrity; yet till today, it is still able to stand as a unified state. Granted, it is far from flawless as the escalations that have occurred in the judicial and political spheres illustrate, but those problems are not insurmountable. The government and its people must answer some tough questions: Should blasphemy laws be erased from Indonesia’s justice system? Or should it be applied differently to serve its real purpose? Should religion remain in Indonesia’s political landscape? How can strict ethnic and religious lines transcend? How can laws be used to protect diversity instead of catering to a privileged majority and leaving vulnerable minorities to fend for themselves? Answering these questions is vital, not merely for Indonesia’s reputation as the coverboy of tolerance and diversity, but also if Indonesia still wishes to exist as a harmonious unified state.



Christians facing “Indonesian jihad” as churches burned on imams’ orders: report  (

Thousands leave Aceh after church burning (

Jokowi on Mosque Burning in Papua: We Must Maintain Tolerance and Unity (

Lessons Learned from Indonesia’s Conflicts: Aceh, Poso, Papua (

Race & Politics: Indonesia's Ethnic Conflicts:


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