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Indonesian premier tested over religious freedom PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Jakarta, June 09 ( - A small but vocal militant Islamic group is putting Indonesia's president, leader of the world's most populous Muslim country, to the test over religious freedom, potentially hurting his re-election chances in 2009.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a reform-minded former general and Indonesia's first directly elected president, still tops opinion polls and is the favourite to win the 2009 presidential election.

But his failure to crack down on a hardline Muslim group that often resorts to violence could alienate mainly moderate voters and reduce his clear lead against his closest rival, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Some ordinary Indonesians are frustrated by his reluctance to defend religious freedom following several incidents that threaten Indonesia's stability and reputation for tolerance.

On June 1, the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI), known for smashing up bars and clubs during the Muslim fasting month, provoked an outcry when its members beat up women and old people at a peaceful rally held to celebrate Pancasila.

Pancasila, Indonesia's official ideology, stresses religious tolerance and unity.

The rally had also urged tolerance for the Ahmadiyya sect some Indonesians consider heretical because its followers do not recognise the Prophet Mohammad as Islam's final prophet and believe Ahmadiyya's founder is a prophet and messiah.

Yudhoyono, often referred to by his initials SBY, is under pressure from hardline, and even some mainstream, Muslim groups to ban Ahmadiyya.

In the meantime, some of the sect's mosques and buildings have been torched or attacked by militant Muslims, often with little sign of police effort in stopping them.

"It is quite obvious the government has turned a blind eye to extremist attacks," wrote Soeparman from Tangerang, near Jakarta, in a letter to the daily Jakarta Post in response to the FPI's attack on the Pancasila rally.

"The FPI is becoming an organised crime outfit, just like the Yakuza or Mafia. It must be stopped ... do it now, SBY, or you'll lose my vote next year," wrote A. Subiakto from Bogor, West Java.

While former President Suharto crushed dissent during his 32 years in power, his ouster in 1998 paved the way for greater democracy, as well as more fringe and extremist groups.

The militant FPI, a de facto vigilante group, emerged in 1998 with close links to powerful members of the police and military.

Among the political parties to emerge, the Justice and Prosperous Party, or PKS, started as a conservative Islamist movement in university campuses, but now wants to be considered more mainstream, with a stress on fighting corruption.

That's helped it win a couple of key elections for provincial governor this year, and some analysts see it as a rising political force in next year's general elections.


Human rights activists and moderate Muslims slammed the FPI's brutal attack on the June 1 rally in Jakarta in which more than a dozen people were injured.

Police eventually detained some of those suspected of involvement, but critics said Yudhoyono should have acted sooner to curb the FPI, which has long gone unchecked.

While Yudhoyono clamped down on the militant Jemaah Islamiah, which bombed Western targets in Bali and Jakarta between 2002 and 2005, he seems wary of striking at FPI for fear of losing allies.

He won the presidency in 2004 with 61 percent of the vote, beating incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri, but his Democratic Party only won 7 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections, giving it just 57 seats.

So he relies on the support of secular and Muslim parties in parliament. Some of their members sympathise with FPI and want Ahmadiyya outlawed.

"He is being cornered politically. With a drop in support from more moderate political parties, he is forced to find support from the Muslim parties," said Yudi Latif, chairman of the Centre for Islam and State Studies.

"To make sure he gets support from the Islamic parties, he must not show hostility towards (hardline) groups", he said.

While Yudhoyono's popularity has fallen from a high of 80 percent just after the 2004 election, polls show that he would still win if an election were held today.

A recent survey by the Indonesian Research and Development Institute found 57.5 percent of those polled would vote for Yudhoyono. Forty percent would pick Sukarnoputri of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P.

Still, some fear that Yudhoyono's lead over Sukarnoputri could narrow if he appears to condone militant Islam.

Indonesia has a secular constitution and the vast majority of its Muslims follow a moderate form of the faith.

Indeed, despite the rise and high profile of some radical groups, surveys show Indonesian Muslims have become more secular and many disagree with people using violence in the name of Islam, and support for Islamic law and radical groups has declined.

A recent survey by the Setara Institute found 95 percent of young people do not support religious violence.

"With a case like this where hardline groups were involved in violent attacks that doesn't necessarily mean that hardline Islam is on the rise," said Greg Fealy, an expert on Indonesia at the Australian National University.
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