Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Intolerance across Asia threans Democracy

photo: People from Indonesian Muslim hardline groups hold a banner and placards during aprotest near the Burma Embassy in Jakarta
on May 3, 2013. Reuters/Beawiharta

Alexander Aan, a 32-year-old Indonesian data analyst, was released on parole after 19 months in jail. His crime? He does not believe in God. Mr Aan was arrested in west Sumatra in 2012 after a mob surrounded his office, demanding that he stop using his Facebook account to question the existence of a supreme being. Instead of protecting him under a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression, police charged him with blasphemy and inciting others to atheism. A court dismissed those charges, but convicted him instead to two-and-a-half years in prison for seeking to incite religious hatred. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Aan said his case was both a religious and human rights issue in a country still making an uncertain transition to democracy.

Indonesia has earned a reputation for relative tolerance. The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, 90 per cent of whose 240m people are Sunni Muslims, is a pin-up for those seeking examples of moderation. Barack Obama, the US president, in his 2010 speech in Jakarta cited “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics”.

But in Indonesia, and other ostensibly moderate Asian nations, there are signs such tolerance is eroding. In Indonesia, Christians have been widely targeted, with some 430 churches attacked, burnt or closed in the past decade. In 2005 the Ulama Council ruled that the Ahmadiyah Muslim sect had deviated from Koranic teachings. The government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono responded by banning Ahmadiyah from spreading its faith. Predictably, attacks intensified, most notoriously when a mob of 1,500 beat three Ahmadi men to death in western Java in 2011. The atrocity was captured on video, but the perpetrators got light sentences. Save for pious calls for restraint, the government stood resolutely on the sidelines. Benedict Rodgers, author of the report “Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril”, says Mr Yudhoyono, a supposed force of religious moderation, has “been neither a force nor particularly moderate”. Thankfully, three candidates running to replace him as president have pledged to protect religious minorities.

Malaysia, where Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism have long coexisted reasonably peacefully, is another example of hardening ideology. Although Islam is the state religion, Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious thought. That did not prevent a court in October from ruling that non-Muslims were forbidden from using the word “Allah” to refer to God. Many bibles, using the borrowed Malay word, write “Allah” to refer to the Christian deity. Even Japanese superheroes are not safe. In March a translation of the Ultraman comic was banned for referring to the cartoon character as Allah, a use that the home ministry said could “confuse Muslim youth and damage their faith”. Malaysian civil rights activists see this as part of a creeping Islamicisation deliberately egged on by politicians seeking to shore up their electoral base.

Intolerance spares no faith. Muslims themselves are under threat in Myanmar, where sectarian violence has driven tens of thousands of Rohingya from their homes. Some of the attacks have been led by Buddhist monks.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, once said his greatest challenge was “creating a secular state in a religious country”. The majority Hindu nation, with its large Muslim minority, is of course no stranger to communal violence. But the organs of state have, by and large, sought to uphold a religiously blind civil code. Even under the supposedly staunchly secular Congress party, however, there has been a worrying intrusion on people’s beliefs. In December India’s Supreme Court issued a judgment criminalising homosexuality. This year Penguin withdrew a book on Hinduism after its contents were challenged in court by Dina Nath Batra, an 81-year-old retired headmaster and member of a far-right Hindu group. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Wendy Doniger, the author, blamed a law that merely required the plaintiff to prove her book had “outraged religious feelings”. She recalled that in 1999 the Bharatiya Janata party, then in government, put Mr Batra in charge of a project to “saffronize” school textbooks by removing offending passages dealing with the caste system and the eating of beef. The BJP may well return to power after elections conclude on May 12.

Of course, there are worse examples of intolerance in Asia. In Pakistan anti-blasphemy laws have been used to terrorise religious minorities, particularly Christians. Salman Taseer, former governor of Punjab, was assassinated for opposing such laws, a crime that made his murderer a hero in some quarters. China’s Communist party does not tolerate organised religion outside its control.

That is why it is so pressing that more open states with a history of moderation defend openness and tolerance. The evidence is that they are not doing a good enough job. In a region as religiously and ethnically complex as Asia, that spells disaster. Financial Times


No comments:

Post a Comment