Why We Should Support Indonesian Schools


When Australians talk about terrorism in Indonesia, no one springs to mind quicker than the radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. It is no surprise: the extremist makes outrageous statements about Australians and is widely believed to be behind the Bali bombings in 2002, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. 

Bashir angered us when his conspiracy conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court and irked us when, in 2008, he called "infidel" tourists "worms, snakes and maggots", pointing particularly to scantily clothed Australians on the beach in Bali.

Now Bashir is back in Australia’s headlines as his trial began on Monday on fresh terrorism charges. He is accused of planning and financing a militant training camp in Aceh, discovered one year ago, and faces the death penalty if convicted.

Capitalising on the big news, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd blurted out Bashir’s name last week during a debate with the Opposition over its proposal to redirect aid money from Indonesian schools to the flood victims of Brisbane.

"There would have to be one person in the world who would be happy with the new policy adopted by the leader of the Opposition and that’s Abu Bakar Bashir, because he supports militant Islamism continuing in the Indonesian education system," he said.

While Rudd may have reached to the extreme to make a political point, what he’s saying has some substance.

Under the Australia Indonesia Education Partnership, Australia has built more than 2000 schools and plans to build another 2000 over the next five years. The program has achieved high matriculation rates in poverty-stricken areas and assists 1500 Islamic schools, in part to adopt a curriculum broader than religious instruction.

While most Islamic schools are moderate, some have been used in the past by fundamentalists to foster extremism. Bashir’s al-Mukmin boarding school in Solo, Central Java, was home to a number of students who became known terrorists.

There has never been a more crucial time to support religious pluralism through education in Indonesia. The world is looking to the young democracy as a model of moderate Islam for an Egypt in limbo. But the religious diversity that has characterised Indonesia is under threat — the past few weeks have seen gruesome attacks against Christians and followers of the Islamic minority sect Ahmadiyah.

Islamic hardliners, such as the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), are pushing their luck with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, upon whom they have had considerable influence since the beginning of his presidency. In 2008, they were able to pressure the government to both declare the Ahmadiyah faith deviant of Islam and to pass a draconian anti-pornography law. In 2010, a dated blasphemy law was upheld.

Ahmadiyah is seen as heretic as some followers believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last prophet of Islam. Mainstream Islam says that Mohammed was the last prophet. Other Ahmadis argue that their founder is regarded more as a teacher than a prophet.

There are a range of views in circulation in Indonesia about the Ahmadiyah, Enrico Aditjondro of EngageMedia, a media organisation based in Jakarta, told New Matilda. The Ahmadiyah have their supporters and there is a large number of people who would prefer the government to step in to facilitate Ahmadiyah to become a separate religion (not Islam) so that they can continue to practice their beliefs freely. One of the prominent Indonesians who supports this view is former Finance Minister Rizal Ramli who argues that the government has a constitutional obligation to protect its citizens — including Ahmadiyah followers.

Hardliners, such as the FPI, want the Ahmadiyah faith disbanded altogether. Instead, the ministerial decree in 2008 banned Ahmadis from propagating their faith.

But fundamentalists have taken a loose definition of "propagation" and since 2008 have used the decree to justify attacks on the Ahmadis, including a bloody strike last week that left three men dead.

Hundreds of villagers in Banten Province, west of Jakarta, were filmed marching to a house where 20 Ahmadis had met. They hurled sticks and stones, waved machetes and tore the roof off the building.

A graphic video available online here shows three bloody bodies of Ahmadi men who had been stripped and dragged from the house to the ground outside. The mob continued to kick, beat and jump on the seemingly lifeless men, cheering "Allahu akbar".

Just as disturbing as the attack was the inaction of the police. Officers stood by, making no attempt to stop the bestial behaviour. Scores of young men looked on and recorded the travesty with their mobile phones. The police may have been outnumbered, but not one pulled out a gun to stop the killings. A controversial presidential decree made last year allows police to use live ammunition to control violent riots.

"The problem is the police are bound by local politicians and the hardliners," said Haris Azhar, a chairman of the Commissions for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras). "Their action is organised by the politicians themselves."

Although the video of this beating is available online, exposing the plight of the Ahmadiyah can be risky. Journalist and human rights campaigner Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch decided to use his own YouTube account to publish the video showing a mob attacking Ahmadiyah followers. Within minutes, he received numerous death threats and the video was flagged and blocked, New Matilda was told. An anonymous uploader reposted the complete video on YouTube and it’s still running well , even if viewers need to be logged in to see it. According to the Jakarta Post, the person who shot the video is being scrutinised by both the police and the National Commission on Human Rights.

Just days following the incident, three churches were set ablaze in Central Java after a man was sentenced to five years imprisonment for blasphemy. He had distributed literature that described Islam as violent. Despite receiving the maximum sentence, hardliners said the punishment was too lenient.

These attacks are an indication that religious intolerance is on the rise in Indonesia. The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace recorded 50 violations of religious freedom on Ahmadiyah last year, up from 33 in 2009 and 15 in 2008. Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch told New Matilda that last year that more than 150 churches had been closed down under Yudhoyono, the highest number in Indonesia’s history.

Yudhoyono may finally be at breaking point. On Wednesday, following the attacks, he made his strongest statement yet, ordering authorities to disband any "mass organisation that has repeatedly conducted or even suggested violence". The FPI responded with threats to topple the government.

But Yudhoyono is gaining an all-talk reputation. He has made such threats before but has followed with little action. "He wants to accommodate all the powerful groups and he is very cautious," Azhar of Kontras said. "But we don’t need someone to be cautious, we need someone to do the right thing and take precise action."


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.