Burning temples, organised violence: Will Indonesia ever be tolerant?

Photo: Facebook/Jusuf Kalla

By Fawnia

Inter-community tensions in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra have been raised due to hate messages on social media platforms which saw temples destroyed and one woman’s house nearly burnt to the ground.

The incident began with messages circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp that encouraged local Muslims to riot against a Chinese-Indonesian woman that had complained about the loudness of the adzan (call to prayer) at a nearby mosque. According to reports she asked the mosque’s caretaker to lower the volume at around 6pm, two hours later her house was then surrounded by worshippers.

The confrontation between the two sides was then taken to the nearest police station to avoid further commotion. Unfortunately, the news about Meliana’s complaint had spread among the local residents. Provocative posts had made their way to social networking sites and ignited rage among members of Muslim communities. The hate messages caused the mob to grow even bigger, with some attempting to torch Meliana’s house.

Growing violence

With one avenue of violence closed, the mob started to throw stones and burn nearby temples. Although no casualties were reported, 10 Buddhist temples were destroyed; amounting to billions in Rupiah in damage. Another 12 Buddhist and Confucian temples and pagodas were damaged, along with several cars and motorbikes.

Ahmad Taufik documented the riot on Facebook, posting pictures of a burnt temple saying, “Six viharas (temples) were torched. My Muslim brothers, let’s gather. Make the ’98 tragedy happen again.” He is apparently referring to an anti-Chinese riot that took place in May 1998, when a mob killed and raped Chinese-Indonesians. The turmoil on that occasion ended with the resignation of then-President Suharto.

In the aftermath of the mosque incident the police have arrested 11 suspects; most of which are teenagers. One local resident, Zulham Efendi, testified that he has never seen some of the suspects before, implying they were students that didn’t reside there. The youngest suspect was only 16 years of age, one of several underage suspects. Meliana, is now also charged with blasphemy. Even though she had released an official apology to all Indonesian citizens, especially the people of Tanjung Balai for her ignorance, legal process against her will continue.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla has since urged mosques to be considerate of others by lowering the volume of the speakers used at religious buildings. Though he himself follows Islam, and serves as chairman of the Indonesian Mosque Council, he asks all mosques to be reasonable when sounding adzan.

Religious intolerance or economic gap?

Although this appears on the surface to be a religious issue, more and more people suspect the riot was caused by ethnic sentiment or wealth inequality. This is not surprising since Medan, the closest city to the incident, is dominated by Chinese-Indonesians.

However, Syafrizal, the chairman of the local chapter of the Indonesian Young Entrepreneurs Association denied the claim that racial hatred fueled the riot. He says that there has been no problem between the native Indonesians and the Chinese-Indonesians, and that they have always lived in harmony.

The Chinese population of Tanjung Balai, who often employ indigenous people in their business admit that the riot may have been caused by the prevalent economic gap. A Chinese businessman revealed in one report that it is in fact true that the Chinese living locally are better-off compared to the native families. Some, who live lavishly, tend to behave arrogantly and trigger the rage of locals, he said.

Interfaith harmony in Indonesia has once again suffered a huge blow after the recent riot. And tackling intolerance, whether it’s ethnic, religious, or social, has always been a huge challenge for every leader of the country. Ironically, Indonesia’s motto, “Bhineka Tunggal Ika” literally means “unity in diversity.” This quotation, taken from old Javanese poem, is increasingly having its validity questioned as Indonesian citizens become more and more intolerant as time goes by.

In this difficult climate is there a route to tackling this intolerance? Frankly, it’s hard to tell. No religion encourages its believers to be violent, but it seems surprisingly difficult to live peacefully with people of other faiths. However, when every religion actively condemns violence and promotes love, peace, and unity, it’s certainly too early to lose hope of a more peaceful Indonesia.