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Monday, February 13, 2017

Indonesia's ominous rising religious intolerance

JAKARTA (AFP) - Jakarta goes to the polls on Wednesday to elect a leader, but a blasphemy case against the Indonesian capital's Christian governor has transformed the election into a test of religious tolerance.

Accusations that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the first non-Muslim to lead Jakarta in 50 years, insulted the Koran has led to hardline Islamic protests and his trial for blasphemy.

Faith-based tension has been mounting in recent years in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, undermining its pluralist reputation.

Here are some questions and answers on the topic:

- Signs of increasing intolerance? -

Indonesia has often been praised for its moderate inclusive brand of Islam, and the constitution guarantees freedom of worship for six religions.

However, the diverse archipelago's sizeable religious minorities -- mainly Christians and Muslim minority Shiites and Ahmadis -- have been increasingly targeted in recent years.

Christian churches and mosques where Muslim minorities pray have been closed due to pressure from hardliners. Shiites and Ahmadis -- regarded as heretics by some Sunnis -- have been forced from their homes in mob attacks and on occasion even killed.

In one of the most high-profile cases in recent years, a mob clubbed, hacked and stoned three defenceless Ahmadis to death in front of police in 2011 in western Java, sparking international outrage.

Intolerance has risen as more conservative forms of Islam have become popular across the country.

Aceh, a western province that is the only part of Indonesia allowed to impose sharia law, has introduced increasingly harsh Islamic laws.

Public canings are now commonplace for offences ranging from gay sex to being caught associating with unmarried members of the opposite sex.

Last year scenes of a woman screaming in agony while being flogged for spending time in close proximity with a man who was not her husband prompted criticism abroad.

The country's image has also been tarnished by reports of girls screaming and thrashing during traditional female circumcision ceremonies, which the government denies involve genital mutilation.

- Why is intolerance on the rise? -

During the three-decade rule of dictator Suharto, authorities sought to run the country along secular lines, largely keeping religion out of public life and limiting the influence of hardline groups.

Following Suharto's downfall in 1998 and Indonesia's transition to democracy, more conservative forms of Islam -- often influenced by harsher brands of Middle Eastern Islam -- have had space to flourish.

The new freedoms have allowed the growth of hardline groups, such as the Islamic Defenders Front, and successive governments have been criticised for failing to tackle the radicals for fear of being accused of attacking Islam.

"Post-Suharto, there has been quite a significant 'Islamisation' of society," said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy head of the Setara Institute.

"As long at it is to enhance people's and society's obedience to God, that's okay, but we are now seeing a different phenomenon -- the rise of radicalism."

- Intolerance in the Jakarta election? -

The election has been a dirty race, with Purnama's opponents repeatedly urging people not to vote for him as he is not a Muslim. Social media have been flooded with memes attacking Purnama over his alleged insult of the Koran.

A series of protests against the governor have drawn hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims onto the streets in the biggest rallies seen in Jakarta for years.

- What will the vote mean for Indonesia? -

If Purnama loses the election and is jailed for blasphemy, it will be a setback for Indonesia's efforts to promote harmony in an ethnically diverse society and will bolster hardliners, critics warn.

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