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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Jakarta Election: Diversity Challenged

Feb. 16, 2017

Vote counting continues in the election to choose the governor of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. A runoff between a Christian and a Muslim candidate is likely amid concerns that hardliners may stir religious tensions.

The world's largest Muslim-majority country is facing a test of whether it can maintain its proud tradition of tolerance.

After a long and busy day of voting yesterday, people are trying to digest what comes next. The counting continues and the official results are expected early next month. But, local media are projecting that, according to exit polls, the voting has produced no clear majority.

A runoff is expected in April between the incumbent Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok, and a former education minister Anies Baswedan.

The election campaign was full of narratives of religion and ethnicity. Ahok is a Christian, a religious minority in this Muslim dominated country. He is also ethnically Chinese, another minority.

Muslim hardliners have been raising religious tensions by saying that the capital should be governed by a Muslim. Their agitation grew larger after Ahok was alleged to have insulted Islam in a speech. Ahok denied any intention to insult the religion at his trial.

Now that it is likely that the runoff will be a direct race between Ahok and his Muslim rival Anies, there are concerns that religion and ethnicity will be even more in the spotlight. Some experts say that things could become nastier.

But how can this be in a country that is known as a model of tolerance and pluralism? The country’s motto is “unity in diversity,” an ideal that the country has been rigorously pursuing since its independence in order to unite its multilingual, multi-religious and multiethnic population.


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During the Christmas season, shop workers in Jakarta dress like Santa Claus, giving the city an air of celebration. But a national umbrella organization for Muslim groups has banned Muslims from wearing Christmas-related outfits, including Santa Claus hoods.

"It's because we hear some Muslim workers at shopping malls and hotels were forced to dress like Santa Claus," says Maruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council.

Religious edicts of this kind are not legally binding. But in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, Muslim hardliners flocked to a shopping mall and demanded that shop workers take off their Santa hoods.

In Jakarta malls, the number of shop workers wearing Santa Claus outfits visibly dropped. Many people feel confused.

"I don't think dressing like Santa Claus is harmful to your beliefs," says one 27-year-old woman.

"We should respect Christians in the Christmas season," says a 45-year-old man.

Muslim hardliners are ratcheting up pressure on other religions in many cities, such as the old city of Bandung that's situated about 140 kilometers from Jakarta.

Last year, a Christmas service was held at a university in Bandung and about 1,800 students and others participated. The city and police had given them permission.

Theo Tambunan organized the event, and says that around 70 men stormed the site during the service.

"They forced their way in and shouted, 'Stop the service! God is great,'" Tambunan recalls.

They were members of a hardline Islamic group who insisted that the service should take place in a church, not a public facility. Tambunan and others had to shut down the service halfway through.

"That was our fifth Christmas service but we had never had that kind of disturbance before," Tambunan says.

Tambunan is worried that Indonesian society is changing.

"Intolerance has caused a lot of problems. People in Indonesia should smooth over their differences to live in harmony," he says.

Indonesia has seen rising pressure on minority groups, and growing intolerance is casting a shadow over the country's future.


What is behind this change, and how is Indonesia not immune from the growing trend of intolerance in the US, Europe and other parts of Asia? To find out, NHK World anchor Sho Beppu sat down with Yenny Wahid, one of Indonesia’s leading experts on the issue of religion and democracy.

Beppu:Some say that this election did not become really an opportunity to choose who’s the best person to run the city, but also it turned out to be an event that stroked fear, that something new is spreading in Indonesia, which is religious intolerance. What is your view?

Wahid: I actually believe that every society has an undercurrent tension that sort of exists under the surface. And from time to time, they would resurface when there’s a trigger for that. And in the United States for example, the racial tension is quite obvious, you know, during elections, during cases that would trigger this kind of sentiment. In Europe, the issues of immigration and religions as well -- I mean Indonesia is not excluded from that kind of dynamic. So when politicians then use these issues to sort of build paranoia, and build sort of fear within the society, then you’ve got a combination that is quite fragile. And it’s what’s happening here now.

Beppu: Having said that, do you think that the society is changing in Indonesia? Some might argue that, look, as the country gets more developed economically, usually the people, the society loses its traditional values, including religious values. But what we’re seeing in Indonesia is not really that, there’s more like a growing influence, or the growing role of religion in the society. Do you observe that here?

Wahid: When it comes to economic progress versus traditional values, I think it’s not just a linear, a sort of track, right? If you got economic progress, then it means that traditional values get pushed down. What we’re seeing here is, there’s a factor that contains the whole equation which is economic imbalance.

That’s the key issue. The key issue is economic disparity. So the income disparity explains why people then feel that they need to cling onto something. You know, they need to hold onto something that will make sense to them. And sometimes religion will find that kind of simple solution because when you are frustrated, when you feel alienated and you feel the solution, and you feel there’s a sense of injustice around you, you need an easy answer.

Beppu: Ironically, what you are explaining sounds not limited to Indonesia, but we seem to observe that happening in quite a lot of parts of this world -- the United States, Europe, other parts of Asia. In that sense, do you think that Indonesia unfortunately in this sense, is riding the trend of what’s happening in other parts of the world?

Wahid: I think Indonesia is not immune to the dynamics of intolerance. That’s growing in the world now. You know, a sense of intolerance that’s growing and I think a few research centers suggest that as well, there’s a growing intolerance in the world, especially in the issue of religion.

But we do have our own immune system in a way because Indonesia, we practice our, our tradition of tolerance for quite some time. And it’s embedded in our society. So no matter how, no matter how hard a time is, of course there are politicians who will exploit this kind of volatile situation to create tensions in the society for their own benefit. But I believe that we’ve got enough strength to overcome this.

Beppu: We all know that there is this danger of infiltration, of influence from very radical Islamic, radical groups in the Middle East -- namely the Islamic State militant group, for example. How can Indonesia deal with these threats?

Wahid: Indonesia is lucky because we’ve got civil society with a very robust tradition of moderate Islamic values. Indonesia is very lucky also because we’ve got a tradition in which women are quite active in the society. And this has been going on for quite some time, so hundreds of years -- we’ve got those kinds of traditions. So despite the radical values that are trying to infiltrate our society, I still have a very strong belief in our own resilience and strength to overcome that kind of influence.

Beppu: And finally, how much do you think the wisdom that your country’s founding fathers have proposed, which is unity and diversity, should resonate not only in Indonesia, but also in other Asian countries, in the world, especially these days?

Wahid: We realized that diversity is just a natural aspect of human life. And so what do you do with it, that kind of reality. So our founding fathers actually, they’re very genius in stating this and using it as a conscious effort to unite the diverse ethnic groups in Indonesia. And, not only that, but also the fact that we speak one language -- despite hundreds of dialects and languages that we speak in this country, we’ve got so many elements that, that are designed to bring unity in this country, and not something that would divide us.