Liberating youngsters from toxic religious fanaticism

Almost one in four students supports jihad to establish an Indonesian caliphate, survey shows

Students were among hardline Muslims who staged a protest against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese decent, on Oct, 14, 2016. (Photo by Ryan Dagur)

A large number of Indonesian secondary and tertiary students have been poisoned by Islamic fundamentalism.

This constitutes a threat to the future pluralism and social fabric of the world’s most populous Islamic nation.

And it is a shame for these students themselves as radicalization often comes at the expense of academic achievement.

Surveys over a decade have shown high levels of religious intolerance among students in Indonesia. Bottom of Form

A 2011 poll conducted in 50 schools pointed to widespread support for attacks on the places of worship of non-Muslims and allegedly deviating Muslim sects.

A recent survey, involving a professional Indonesian company called the Alvara Research Center, showed that more than 23 percent of 4,200 students supported jihad to establish an Indonesian caliphate.

The Indonesian National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), through its own polling, found that 39 percent of students embraced radicalism in fifteen provinces throughout Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java, Maluku and Bali.

These surveys seem to confirm the finding of the Pew Research Center in 2015 that most of the 10-12 million Indonesians supporting the international terrorist organization Islamic State were young.

All the polls reinforce the notion that radicalization efforts have targeted the younger generation, not least on campuses.

It is dangerous when graduating students go on to spread intolerance, including while holding important official positions or as members of parliament

Formalism in religious education

Psychologically, youngsters are in the process of finding their own identities and are hence vulnerable to negative influences.

There is, co-incidentally, an absence of the state instilling tolerant values through education.

Didin Wahidin, director of student affairs at the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, robustly criticizes the poor quality of religious education.

Students from elementary to tertiary levels were taught prayers, fasting and a need for charity. However, there was a lack of emphasis on the importance of understanding religion is a social context.

In other words, radicalism grows because of a closed-door transfer of religious understanding among students.

This cuts them off from the moderate practice of Islam as well as from other religious viewpoints.

This trend is worsened by the influence of a transnational Islamic movement at educational institutions.

Sidney Jones, of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), has said that student intolerance is partly a reflection of activist support for Muslim causes.

Secular ideology

President Joko Widodo, since he took power in 2014, has expressed concern over persistent intolerance among students.

Many had joined large protests organized by radical groups, including a number with terrorist links.

Indonesia has more than 4600 higher learning institutions and there have been efforts to revamp curriculums, including through greater emphasis on citizenship and Indonesia’s secular ideology, Pancasila.

This is an ideology centered on unity and pluralism, which President Widodo believes could counter inclinations among students to become bigoted.

Even the anti-terror agency BNPT is involved in raising awareness among students on the dangers of extremism and the necessity for critical thinking.

According to Agnes Purbasari, an academic and an official at the recently  established presidential task force on Pancasila, revamping curriculums is essential.

Also, some lecturers failed to properly impart community-oriented values.

And extremist attitudes could be inculcated by families and radicals within communities as well

as by elementary and high school teachers, Purbasari cautioned.

Preaching to the millennials

Nusron Wahid, a politician and adviser at the Mata Air Foundation, a group that promotes moderate Islamic values, called for the freeing of mosques from fundamentalist influences.

Wahid said that clerics of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest moderate Islamic organization, needed to reach out to the millennial generation.

Preaching on campuses needed to be done using language that students could understand.

And another large moderate Islamic group – Muhammadiyah – should be more proactive, including through the use of social media, Wahid added.

A substantial number of young people still look up to clerics as role models.

So, the government must be active in the training of preachers, especially those present at tertiary institutions.

After all, combating campus radicalism is a task for government, lecturers, and clerics.

Published in UCA News on 11 December 2017


Corruption and the high cost of politics in Indonesia

Greed plays a part but the financial burden on politicians running for office is one of the main reasons many turn to graft

Indonesia’s former house speaker Setya Novanto sits in the courtroom during his trial in Jakarta on April 24, 2018. Setya Novanto, once among Indonesia’s most influential politicians, was found guilty of taking millions in kickbacks and bribes linked to the issuance of government ID cards to Indonesia’s more than 260 million inhabitants. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

Indonesia has entered a highly volatile political period, beginning with regional elections this year through to national legislative and presidential elections in 2019.

As more than 150 million Indonesians prepared to go to the polls to elect new governors, district heads and mayors on June 27, voters were confronted by that classic thorn in the side of anti-graft crusaders — money politics.

The guardians of society — religious leaders and anti-corruption bodies among others — have often encouraged people to be smart and denounce crooked politicians who offer shortcut deals that endanger democracy.

A few months ago, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission shocked the nation with an announcement that 18 governors and 75 mayors and district chiefs were under investigation for alleged corruption and bribery.

Some were arrested, while probes into others are ongoing.

Governor Zumi Zola of Jambi and Gatot Pujo Nugroho of North Sumatra were detained for alleged bribery related to provincial budgets.

Meanwhile, Nyono Suharli Wihandoko, regent of Jombang, Abubakar, head of West Bandung, and Marianus Sae, head of East Nusa Tenggara’s Ngada district, were also arrested for bribery in exchange for the awarding of local projects.

Indonesia Corruption Watch recorded more than 200 cases from 2010-17 in which regional leaders were suspected of various forms of graft ranging from bribery and budget manipulation, and corruption related to the procurement of goods and services.

This shows that local politicians are highly vulnerable to corruption and it is highly likely some of those those elected in this year’s local election — 17 governors, 39 mayors and 115 district heads — will not go untainted during their terms.

High cost of politics

Observers say officials mainly become involved in corruption to cover campaign costs because most political parties do not provide them with funds for this purpose.

One cannot deny that in order to be a candidate a person must spend a huge amount of money. In many cases, prospective candidates have to make secret deals with business people in order to get funding for campaigns. As payback for their victory, they will grant them projects, regardless of the rules and regulations.

During the recent launch of a crowd-funding program for Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party chairman and presidential candidate Prabowo Subiyanto, he admitted that the high cost of campaigning often meant public officials are held hostage by investors who support them.

As a result, more and more are involved in corruption.

The Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) says expensive mahar or dowry payments for candidacy, campaign funds, political consultation fees and vote buying are the main drivers of such high political costs.

It’s no secret that at each election there is talk of candidates giving out money or gifts to win votes. Some cases even occur early on Election Day, which are known as “attacks at dawn” on unprotected polling stations.

Decentralization of corruption

Three years after Suharto’s regime ended in 1998, an ambitious regional autonomy plan was rolled out to transfer administrative powers from Jakarta to provinces and districts.

However, over time, it has been abused and has become a means to decentralize corruption.

Since regional elections were introduced in 2005, corruption among local leaders has proliferated, unlike in previous years when corruption was associated with central government.

The highest number of cases was probably in 2013, according to Indonesian Corruption Watch, when more than 1,270 local leaders fell under suspicion.

Apart from regional leaders, since direct local elections were implemented more than 3,000 provincial and district legislators have been embroiled in corruption.

President Joko Widodo has tried to prevent corruption in local politics, such as trying to reduce costs incurred during local election campaigns via various means that include cracking down on unnecessary campaign rallies.

He has also stressed raising awareness among the public by highlighting the pitfalls of selling their vote.

There has been a suggestion from politicians and legislators that the state fund all party election activities, however, this has yet to be discussed in detail.

Not all corruption, though, is driven by politics. Many cases involve the personal greed of government officials or legislators.

One recent high profile case involved former House of Representatives speaker, Setya Novanto, who was jailed for 15 years in April for his role in one of the country’s biggest ever graft scandals. He was convicted for skimming off $7.3 million from a biometric identity card project.

Corruption eradication however, should start with law enforcement. Unfortunately, Indonesia suffers from the weak application of its laws. In many cases, punishments are minimum, and many corrupt officials are still allowed to run in elections.

Great expectations for KPK

The Corruption Eradication Commission was established in 2003, just as regional autonomy started to kick in.

Since its foundation the commission has brought thousands of people — government officials, legislators, business people — to justice, including former minister of youth and sports Andi Mallarangeng and religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali, who is still in jail for the misappropriation of a hajj pilgrimage fund.

However, as the commission grows stronger and narrows the space for corruption, pressure against it is inevitably growing stronger too.

Former KPK chairman Abraham Samad (2011-15) was forced to quit soon after the agency announced a corruption case involving Police Commissioner General Budi Gunawan.

In April last year, KPK investigator Novel Baswedan lost an eye after an acid attack, allegedly instigated by corrupt officials unhappy with the commission’s all-out war against people like them.

Indonesia’s parliament is also in the process of revising the criminal code, which if approved will hamper the anti-corruption fight.

However, despite the threats, attacks and plotting by politicians, the anti-graft agency stands fast and has the support of the vast majority of people who have seen how corruption has impoverished many.

This commentary by Siktus Harson was published in UCAN News on July 2, 2018


Catholics seek bigger impact in Indonesian politics

Applying church values in the service of all society will see changes for the better, Catholic politicians told

A woman votes in Jakarta’s governor election in this Feb. 15, 2017 file photo. This month, voters in 17 provinces and more than 150 districts and municipals go to the polls to elect new leaders and legislators. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/

Many years in politics has taught Stefanus Asat Gusma to take failure on the chin and to look upon it as coming with the territory.

Four years ago Gusma, who hails from Bondowoso in Central Java, failed in his bid to be elected to Indonesia’s national parliament.

However, adopting the philosophy “If you don’t at first succeed…” he hopes things will soon be different with the country going back to the polls for a general election in April next year.

“It won’t be long before the race begins,” Gusma told, adding he was currently waiting for his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) to assign him an electoral district to run in.

For him, involvement in politics is a manifestation of his Catholic faith and the social teachings of the church.

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His interest in politics began in high school and blossomed during his university years in Jakarta, which saw him serve as president of the Indonesian Catholic Students Association (PMKRI) from 2009 to 2011.

Gusma said moving to Jakarta widened his political horizons, and enabled him to immerse himself further into the political world by engaging with more influential people and political parties.

“After I finished up at the PMKRI, several political parties approached me, but I chose the PDIP, because its political mission was closest to mine,” he said.

Now the ruling party, the PDIP was founded in 1999 by Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. The PDIP is known as the party of the wong cilik — marginalized people.

The party currently forms part of the ruling coalition after winning 109 seats in the 560-seat national parliament four years ago.

Aside from Gusma, many other Christian politicians are members of the party, but the majority of its 340,000 members are Muslims.

“But it does not matter what party Catholics or Christians are in, they must fight for the interests of the Indonesian people, and must live a dignified political life at both national and local level,” he said.

About 10 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million population are Christian, of which 16.4 million are Protestant and 7 million Catholic, according to the latest census.

Most are concentrated in East Nusa Tenggara, North Sumatra, Papua, North Sulawesi, West and East Kalimantan, West and Central Java and Jakarta.

Some of these provinces are among 17 that will elect new governors on June 27, and local legislators in 154 districts and municipalities.

Indonesian bishops are encouraging Catholics to participate actively in this month’s elections. Politics has noble values such as service, dedication, sacrifice, justice, honesty, solidarity, freedom, and responsibility, they said.

“If those values are lived and followed, politics will become a noble feature of life,” Archbishop Vincentius Sensi Potokota, chairman of the Commission for the Laity said recently in a statement.

Catholics are called upon to be the salt and light of the world. In the context of an election, this is achieved by being good voters, participating as organizers, and becoming candidates, the bishops said.

For those running as candidates, the bishops said they should avoid sectarian campaigning and must offer better solutions to people’s problems, and be brave in facing threats such as the emergence of radical groups in their areas.

Beyond church walls

Paulus Krissantono, a former Golkar Party parliamentarian during the Suharto era, welcomes the call, believing it will give more people a positive mindset about politics, which is often seen as a minefield of dirty tricks.

That’s because politicians set bad examples through graft, manipulation and thirst for power, he said.

“Catholic politicians must be different from others, particularly in making sacrifices for the common good. They need to witness the truth, uphold justice and care for the welfare of all,” he said.

They must support this with a spirit of service and if necessary make sacrifices in pursuing these values, not merely seek power or pander to sectarian demands, he added.

He said his party once threatened to expel him for standing against the eviction of local people for a Central Java dam project and pressing for the teaching of various religions in schools, but backed down when Suharto supported him.

“Catholic politicians running for office must break free from the church’s comfort zone,” he said.

“Leave your church compound and reach out to non-Catholics, be they laborers, taxi drivers, women’s groups, Muslim clerics,” he said.

He also asked Catholics to learn from Ignatius Joseph Kasimo Hendrowahyono, a cabinet member during the Sukarno era, and the founder of the Indonesian Catholic Party and Catholic University of Atma Jaya.

He was declared a national hero for his service to the country and promoting honesty, professionalism, intellectuality and religious truth.

Father Antonius Suyadi, director of Jakarta Archdiocese’ Commission for Interreligious Dialogue said every Catholic has the responsibility to participate in nation building.

“Catholics are encouraged to participate in politics to ensure that no-individual, group or political party establish a country based on one certain religion,” he said.

Interfaith dialogue

According to Berthy B Rahawarin, newly elected general secretary of Harmoni Indonesia — the Catholic arm of the United Indonesia Party (Perindo) founded by Christian business tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibijo — the greatest challenge for Catholics in a multi-ethnic and religious society is fostering ties with non-Catholics.

“[Many] non-Christians equate Christianity with colonialism,” he said.

“Those [Catholics going] into politics should be aware of this, and don’t be over confident in the way they think, act and communicate,” he told

“If necessary, they should be able to explain how the church is different from colonialism,” he added.

He also said that with President Joko Widodo providing a wider space for democracy and public participation in recent years, there is now “a good opportunity for society as a whole, not just the church, to participate more efficiently, measurably, and make changes for the better.”

Published in UCAN on June 12, 2018


No fury like Indonesia’s blasphemy law

Human rights groups want law repealed as they say it is too open to interpretation and subject to abuse

Protesters hold up a lighted candles to show solidarity in Bandung, West Java province in this May 13, 2017 file photo as they called for the release of Jakarta’s now ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok”, who was jailed for allegedly insulting the Quran. (Photo by Timur Matahari/AFP)

Human rights groups have appealed to Indonesian authorities to revise or abolish the country’s blasphemy laws, stepping up calls they have made repeatedly over the past decade.

Amnesty International Indonesia made the latest such demand in April after the Supreme Court rejected on March 26 a case review petition by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former Christian governor of Jakarta.

Also known as Ahok, the jailed ex-governor was seeking to get his blasphemy conviction overturned and cut short his two-year prison sentence. He was convicted for commenting on a Quranic verse that he claimed his political rivals had used to discredit him during his 2017 re-election campaign.

Indonesia enacted its first blasphemy law in 1965 but defamation of religion is also regulated in Article 156a of the Criminal Code.

The main concern of human rights and other groups is that the latter is applied on a seemingly arbitrary basis. They decry this a threat to democracy that has resulted in numerous people being incarcerated unjustly. Top of Form

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The article has often been used to serve political interests while bowing to pressure from majority groups.

In many cases blasphemy accusations are accompanied by mass protests and, sadly, investigations and court rulings are steered by the strongest and loudest supporters.

In October 2009 an examination of the blasphemy law was submitted to the Constitutional Court. Over 30 people testified, including moderate Muslim cleric Hasyim Muzadi of Nahdlatul Ulama, Jesuit Father Franz Magnis Suseno and writer Arswendo Atmowiloto.

Atmowiloto conducted a poll of people’s favorite celebrities that was published in The Monitor, a newspaper he managed over a quarter of a century ago.

According to the results of the poll, he ranked No.10 on the list one slot above the Prophet Muhammad. This sparked a public outcry and the writer found himself jailed for five years.

However, the court turned down his request to review the law. In handing down its ruling it provided no justification for the decision, merely saying that all blasphemy charges are handled according to legal principles.

Amnesty International claims that more than 100 people have been prosecuted and convicted for religious defamation over the last 12 years, including 12 in 2017 alone.

Meanwhile, police are now investigating accusations of blasphemy against Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, the third daughter of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, and against Amien Rais, the former chairman of the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly and the founder of the Islamic-based National Mandate Party.

Sukmawati was accused of insulting Islam through a poem, while Rais was held to account for a political statement he made that dichotomized “Satanic parties and divine parties.”

Despite the ongoing probe, some observers have expressed concern they will escape punishment as they enjoy the backing of powerful lobby groups

Sukmawati has since met with many Muslim clerics to apologize while Rais appears unconcerned because he is supported by a number of influential Islamic organizations.

A modern-day anachronism

The request to revoke the law was based on the argument that it was created during an emergency situation over 50 years ago and is no longer relevant given that Indonesia is a modern democracy.

The law, particularly Article 156a, has been criticized as a form of state encroachment on religious life, which belong to the private sphere.

It also stands accused of protecting the six major religions of Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism while neglecting minority religions and traditional beliefs, which are therefore more vulnerable and susceptible to harassment.

Rights activists are concerned by what they claim is a willful neglect of the due process of law when accusations of blasphemy are filed and processed.

Instead, they say, the accused are immediately held as being guilty.

The nation’s blasphemy law is too elastic, making it subject to abuse. In most cases, religious sentiment or bias becomes the dominant factor in determining whether the suspects were really at fault, as opposed to the objective consideration of their actions.

As such, the law effectively shuts out rational argument and tramples on what most would consider sound legal principles. In other words, the application of Article 156a has derailed the law from its legal context.

In many cases, investigations and court decisions focus exclusively on defamation and ignore whether the accused intended to influence people by encouraging them to abandon their religion.

However, any blasphemy charge should always include due consideration of this.

Due to the unclear definition of the law, judges are given too free rein to make subjective decisions that may well be influenced by their own religious beliefs. In other rulings, they have been seen as bowing to public pressure, often manifested in the form of mass protests.

Rights activists say Indonesia’s religious defamation law goes against the spirit if not the letter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the government ratified in 2005 with a law to protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Powerful silencing tool

The inclusion in the Criminal Code of a law designed to crack down on defamation of religion came in response to political events in January 1965 that threatened to spiral out of control.

Its birth is inseparable from a decree aimed at curbing the desecration of holy places and religious slights or insults issued by former president Sukarno on Jan. 20 of that year. It was later extracted into article 156a.

The decree was promulgated only a few weeks after the Indonesian Communist Party massacred hundreds of Muslim clerics and students in Madiun, East Java while they were engaged in dawn prayers. The Quran and other symbols of Islam were also trampled on.

It was also published to accommodate requests from Islamic organizations that were loath to give traditional religious beliefs room to grow. Such beliefs were seen as tarnishing established religions.

According to a Human Rights Watch report published in February 2013 titled, “In the Name of Religion,” conservative Muslim communities requested back in the early 1960s that Sukarno’s government take action to stamp out mysticism, the teachings of which were seen as a threat to and stain on Islam.

Many followers of traditional beliefs at the time were perceived to be violating the law, undermining national unity, and desecrating religion. Pressing Sukarno to issue his presidential decree — the basis of the current blasphemy law — was seen a long-term solution.

During Suharto’s subsequent New Order, a term he used to distinguish his regime from that of Sukarno’s after he rose to power in 1966, it became a powerful political tool, one Suharto used to maintain public order and silence troublemakers.

Tightening the grip

Islamic organizations remain firm in their belief that calls or petitions to abolish the law must be firmly opposed.

Last year they even challenged the United Nations, demanding it not intervene after it appealed to the government to abolish the law.

They argued that if the law was removed it would open the door for people to insult other people’s religions at will without fear of punishment or reprisal, thus threatening the fabric of society as conflicts escalated.

They said the law helps regulate social harmony making it crucial in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation.

Islamists say it guarantees people’s freedom to choose their own religions and practice it freely without fear of being harmed by others.

And their calls rarely fall on deaf ears, it seems, with the government and parliament now gearing up to expand rather than reduce the scope of this contentious law.

Recent media reports claim legislators have widened the compass of articles 156 and 156a in their latest draft of the Criminal Code, which is now being deliberated by the nation’s parliament. If so, more “innocent” people could face time behind bars if the amendments are approved.

Judging by the ease with which defamation of religion cases can bypass the legal framework, fears are mounting that the revised law will serve as a “magic wand” that majority groups can wield at will to heap pressure on minority groups or their political rivals.

Maybe now would be an appropriate time to break the spell.

Published in UCA News on May 4, 2018 Siktus Harson is head of operations at’s Jakarta bureau.