Religious tolerance – Costly or necessary?

Updated On: Jan 26, 2007

In an admission on the scale of problems that Indonesia faces, Chairman Hasyim Muzadiof Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the biggest Muslim group in Indonesia, said that religious tolerance is “easier said than done in this pluralist country”, especially in the midst of the different problems that Indonesia faces – from diseases to natural disasters.

A reflection of the scale of problems that Hasyin mentioned could be seen in the following data – already 5 Indonesians dead from bird flu this year – bringing the total number of human deaths (highest in the world) from bird flu in Indonesia to 62.  And, it is not the only disease that kills.  Dengue fever has killed at least 35 people in Indonesia this month, and nearly 3000 people have been infected according to a senior Indonesian Health Ministry official.

It was no wonder that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) had to cut short his recent trip to Cebu to attend the 12th ASEAN Summit. He left after the ASEAN Summit and skipped the East Asian meeting, citing the need to attend to more urgent matters at home.

Indeed, besides the infectious diseases and the various transportation disasters at the beginning of the new year, President SBY has also to deal with the more entrenched issue of religious tensions in a pluralistic society and potential “jihadism” in Poso in Central Sulawesi.  Poso was the scene of bloody battles between Muslim and Christian gangs six years ago.

In a recent operations, the Indonesian police conducted two major raids in Poso in an attempt to arrest a group of men belonging to the terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), wanted for a range of bombings, beheadings and drive-by shootings. The operations on 22 January saw a bloody clash in which 13 militants and one policeman were killed, and several other militants injured.   But more than 50 other alleged militants are believed to have escaped the crackdown. 

The International Crisis Group has issued a warning that while the police operations appeared to be justified, Poso may be on the edge as a jihad directed against local Christians “could now be focused on the police as a thogout (anti-Islamic force) and give a boost to Indonesia’s weakened jihadi movement.  There were already indications that sympathizers in an effort to enlist mujahidin from outside their own group, were portraying police operations as an attack on Muslims.

And true enough, Muslim leaders led by Abu Bakar Bashir, accused by Australia and the US of being a key figure in JI, and responsible for the Bali bombings, have threatened holy war against the Indonesian police for the crackdown on the Muslim militants.  “If Muslims are being killed, then we must fight back… If necessary, we must organize a jihad”, Abu Bakar Bashir told 100 hardliners outside the National Human Rights Commission in the capital, Jakarta, protesting the police operations that killed several of the militants.

Despite the protests, Indonesian president and vice-president have both promised to continue the crackdown on militancy in Indonesia, and most of the country’s media appeared to have supported the latest operations.


International Crisis Group Asia Report, No 127 “Jihadism in Indonesia: Poso on the Edge” (24 January 2007)

Hardliner threaten holy war against Indonesian policy for killing Muslim militants (Jakarta Post, 25 January 2007)

Islamic demonstrators plan protest against police for killing Muslim militants (Jakarta Post, 25 January 2007)

Religious tolerance costly? (Antara News Agency, 25 January 2007)

Poso tense as hunt continues for militants (Jakarta Post, 24 January 2007)

Indon president calls for greater efforts to fight bird flu (Straits Times Interactive, 25 January 2007)

Dengue fever kills at least 35 in Indonesia in Jan (Straits Times Interactive, 25 January 2007)