Curbing radical sermons in Indonesia

Indonesia’s national intelligence agency (BIN) revealed in November 2018 that 41 mosques connected to government institutions and state-owned enterprises conduct sermons laced with extremist advocacy.

The discovery was part of a survey by the Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic Boarding School and Community Development Association (P3M NU), which identified as many as 500 mosques suspected of radicalising worshippers.

The advancement of radical messages in formal institutions in Indonesia is not new.

Several studies have uncovered support for subversive Islamist organisations and militant preaching within state university mosques in recent years. The Indonesian government is falling short in addressing the problem on campuses, and the new revelations may further test its willingness and ability to intervene.

Faith-based intolerance in Indonesia has been in the spotlight since the bitter campaign for the April 2017 gubernatorial elections in the special administrative region of Jakarta.

The incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, was accused and later prosecuted for a comment he made during a campaign speech that was deemed blasphemous.

When anger began to swirl following the widespread circulation of the offending speech, fiery rhetoric increasingly imbued mosque sermons throughout the country. Once Ahok received a prison sentence for his words, the fanaticism did not appear to simmer down.

In an attempt to counter this wave of toxic discourse, the Ministry of Religious Affairs released a list of 200 preachers in May 2018 who they accredit with having deep knowledge of Islam and adhering to the founding values of the Indonesian Republic.

Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin stressed that the initial list was merely a first step toward a larger database of endorsements, and that the ministry will work together with the Indonesia Ulama Council and Islamic community organisations to perfect the system.

The ministry also re-emphasised the obligation for preachers to read government-issued sermon guidebooks, especially the sections on love for one’s country and national identity. The general public was also encouraged to report any subversive or intolerant messages being spread in local mosques.

Criticism of the state-sanctioned preacher list was swift.

A number of lawmakers and religious scholars asked if the directory meant that anyone who didn’t make the cut was either incompetent or extremist.

Among the sceptics was Indonesian Vice-President and Chair of the Indonesian Mosque Council (DMI) Jusuf Kalla, who recently convened a meeting with the DMI board to draw up plans for devising a new set of guidelines for preachers.

For their part, the Indonesian National Police (Polri) followed up on the P3M NU report by mapping and profiling the identified mosques, and by committing to cooperation with relevant agencies such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs and local governments.

The Polri are also conducting a campaign to raise awareness among communities about the dangers of extremism and the possibility of legal action being taken against preachers who are proven to deliver sermons with radical messages.

Yet some politicians question the report’s veracity.

Members from the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) argue that BIN has overestimated the problem and blown it out of proportion.

Members of the House of Representatives and the Expert Council of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals suggest that because the information submitted by BIN was a PBNU finding, it could harbour political intentions aimed at cornering certain parties — particularly in the lead up to general elections in April 2019.

This politicisation of BIN’s revelations is unfortunate and potentially dangerous.

Indonesia has been experiencing a notable rise in levels of publicly expressed intolerance in recent years — from ostracism of religious minorities and violence toward LGBT communities to strict interpretations of correct religious practice and intense scrutiny on adherence.

The nation has also witnessed an upsurge in violence from those who support foreign terrorist organisations and seek to establish a caliphate in South-east Asia.

Downplaying the sobering discovery that several hundred mosques may be proliferating extremist arguments is most likely itself a political move to appeal to the religiously conservative bases of PAN and PKS.

It may even represent a broader strategy to adapt existing norms toward greater accommodation of hard-line religious views and exclusivism.

Government officials at both central and regional levels should keep in mind the principles of Indonesia’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity) when considering how societal values may be evolving.

As a pluralistic country with a diverse array of ethnic groups and six official religions, state institutions need to ensure harmony by ironing out threats to national unity while maintaining freedom of speech.

Recent initiatives suggest that some government officials and agencies may be serious about reining in those who preach bigotry and contempt. Time will tell whether such efforts can weather the resistance. EAST ASIA FORUM



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