Indonesia's reputation as a model of democratic religious pluralism and tolerance for the Muslim world is well deserved. The country has the world's largest population of Muslims — who constitute 86 per cent of its 240 million people. Efforts over the decades to create a national identity drawn from its diverse religious and ethnic heritage have largely paid off. The Indonesian Constitution enshrines the state's belief in “the one and only God” but also guarantees freedom of worship according to a person's religion. There is none of the confusion that has beset Pakistan since its founding day about the role and place of Islam in the state. Unfortunately, some recent developments in Indonesia seem to parallel those in Pakistan. In an incident ominously reminiscent of the attacks on Ahmadiyah mosques in Lahore in May 2010, activists of the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FDI) gathered outside an Ahmadiyah mosque in Makkasar in South Sulawesi in late January, threatening to storm it. The police evacuated the congregation to safety but the mob was able to inflict some damage on the mosque. Since 2005, when the Indonesian Council of Ulemas declared Ahmadiyah as “deviant” from Islam, the community has repeatedly come under intimidation. The sect was founded in Qadian, near Gurdaspur in Punjab, in the late 19th century. Its adherents consider themselves Muslim but do not accept the finality of Prophet Mohammed. In India, they are Muslim by personal law. The attacks against Ahmadis in Indonesia increased after a 2008 government decree prohibited the sect from “spreading its beliefs” and worshipping in public. Last year, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali called for a ban on Ahmadis.
Despite his forward-looking vision for Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has shown disappointing timidity in the matter. As in Pakistan, support for religious political parties is not high but radical Muslim groups wield a disproportionate amount of street influence — and in this way succeed in shaping the responses of politicians and government officials. After all, in Pakistan it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a ‘progressive' leader, who brought in a constitutional amendment to declare the Ahmadis non-Muslim to appease religious lobbies. It is to be hoped that Indonesia, which has moved ahead politically and economically with much speed after getting rid of Suharto, will tackle the intolerance with the same determination it has shown in dealing with the Islamist terror group Jemaah Islmiyah.