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Reader riposte: SBY on religious liberty

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COMMENTS

27 September 2011 12:47

Aaron Connelly, who has previously blogged a series of posts on Aceh for The Interpreter, writes:

In his post, Peter McCawley praises Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) for his swift response to the bombing of a church in Solo on Sunday, writing: 'The rapid response from the President is significant. There has been much criticism in Indonesia in recent months about the apparent reticence of the President to speak out on issues of national importance. On this occasion, the response to a difficult issue has been delivered quickly and effectively.'

Peter's experience in Indonesia and knowledge of the issues the country faces far surpass than my own, but he appears to misunderstand recent criticism of SBY when he suggests that the president has turned a corner here. The former general has never been reluctant to take a stand on issues of 'national importance' as he defines them — broadly those which concern the unity of the republic, and particularly national security issues like terrorism. SBY has, however, repeatedly declined opportunities to take a stand in favor of individual liberties when he believes a strident defense of them will endanger rather than encourage social and political harmony.

Most notably, he has shown a reluctance to defend religious minorities when they have been attacked by religious extremists. In July 2008, he declared the Ahmadiyah sect to be 'heretical', and demanded adherents quit proselytizing. Though the declaration's legal force was unclear, in many conservative areas activists have used the decree to harass Ahmadis into taking down signs outside their mosques, closing their mosques, and ultimately abandoning their form of Islam.

In February, in Banten province on the west end of Java, tensions between conservatives and and a local Ahmadi congregation erupted in violence that left three Ahmadis dead. Just two days later, an angry crowd burned two churches in Central Java. In a press conference the following day, SBY condemned violence but neglected to defend the victims' rights to peacefully practice their religion. In the week that followed, his ministers variously blamed the Ahmadis for inciting the violence by refusing to abandon the village, met with the leaders of violent radical groups to discuss solutions to the 'Ahmadiyah problem,' and chose not to challenge provincial regulations banning the group outright. SBY remained silent.

So when SBY urges Indonesian communities like Ambon — which has recently experienced violence that is at least partly sectarian in nature — to 'work together to overcome local disagreements because there are limits to what the national government can do,' it is important to understand that those efforts will likely involve greater concessions on the part of religious minorities in those communities than the religious majority, and that the limits to what the national government can do are mostly self-imposed. The president views religious liberty as an obstacle to — rather than a medium for — the facilitation of religious harmony.

SBY's response was indeed swift, but it was also routine and falls short of what must be done to prevent further violence.

(Eds. note — There seem to have been a few technical issues with this post when first published. Apologies.)