Indonesians went to the polls yesterday to elect a new president as concerns grow over rising religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim state.
Although the elections could strengthen the country’s young democracy, its tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance has come under increasing threat from sectarian groups in recent years.
A report published earlier this year by Christian Solidarity Worldwide found that all of Indonesia’s different religious communities are affected by rising religious intolerance. These comprise Ahmadiyah, Shi’a and Sufi Muslims, Christians – both Protestant and Catholic – as well as Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Baha’is, adherents of traditional indigenous beliefs, and those of no religion.
The country’s tradition of religious pluralism is enshrined in the nation’s motto, ‘Unity in diversity’ and its guiding philosophy neither mentions Islam or any specific religion.
The CSW report said five factors are contributing to the growing intolerance: the spread of extremist ideology, inaction and complicity of ruling elites, new discriminatory laws, poor law enforcement, and unwillingness of Indonesia’s Muslim majority to speak out against intolerance.
Of the country’s 203 million people, 86 percent are Muslim, making it the largest Muslim population than any other country in the world.
Among its recommendations, CSW proposed stronger promotion of Indonesia’s tradition of religious pluralism, full investigations into violations of religious freedom and violence, and steps taken to ensure the rule of law is upheld. It also urged the authorities to “act immediately” to protect all the country’s religious groups and those who are unaffiliated, and called on the European Union and the United Nations to take action.
Indonesia’s presidential election has been a closely fought race between Joko Widodo, 53, a onetime furniture entrepreneur who is popular for his down-to-earth demeanour, and Prabowo Subianto, 62, a former military general who was once married to the daughter of Indonesia’s erstwhile dictator, Suharto.
The country’s current President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is stepping down having served a maximum of two terms.