Islamic tiger stalks Indonesia's old guard

Attacks on Christian churches suggest the era of tolerance is ending, reports Richard Lloyd Parry from Surabaya
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"I Was upstairs, changing my clothes," says the Rev Yan Ismail Sinlay, "when I heard my neighbour shouting at me to look outside. There were a lot of people shouting 'Allah Akbar', and 'Smash the church!' and when I looked out of the window, that's what they were doing.

"There was one group on the roof, pulling up the tiles. There was another lot inside, smashing up the pews, and the third group were coming into my house. They were carrying big knives and axes, and my daughter was screaming. I went into my bedroom, but they were already in there, turning it over. So I locked myself in the lavatory. They shook and banged the door, and I was sure they would get me, but they didn't. It was God's work, I'm sure - God and a good strong bolt on the door."

When Mr Sinlay emerged from the lavatory, there were two shocks waiting for him. His Gereja Bethel church, in a poor area of Indonesia's second city, Surabaya, was a roofless wreck. The pastor's house, a simple concrete structure behind the church, had been looted. But the biggest surprise was that 10 other churches in the area had suffered the same treatment at the hands of a mob of Muslims. When they began their rampage at 8am, they numbered around 500; by noon, according to eyewitnesses, their numbers had swelled to several thousand. In four hours, they injured 10 people and caused more than pounds 100,000 damage.

More than two months later, nobody (publicly, at least) can explain who was behind the attacks and why they took place, although there are plenty of theories. There was undoubtedly an element of common theft - apart from smashing up his furniture and terrorising his family, Mr Sinlay had his record player, clothes and his three pairs of shoes stolen. There seem to have been racial undertones too - while the congregations of the victimised churches are largely natives of Java, Indonesia's central and most heavily populated island, witnesses claim that many of the raiders were from Madura, a poor island off Java's north-east coast famous for its fiery inhabitants. But unquestionably the main motive was religious: a systematic attack on Christian churches by members of the Muslim majority.

In the intervening two months, an ominous official silence has surrounded the incident. The police are said to have made arrests, but their investigation is being carried out in characteristic secrecy. In Surabaya itself, the case has gone completely unreported; only one newspaper, a Christian daily in the capital, Jakarta, has made reference to it.

But information compiled by Christian organisations suggests that it is far from being an isolated incident. In the Indonesian-annexed territory of East Timor, one person was shot dead in June during a demonstration by Catholics angry at Muslim desecration of an image of the Virgin. In the fortnight after the Surabaya attacks, two other churches in the nearby town of Kederi were vandalised. According to the Surabaya Christian Communication Forum, 265 such attacks have taken place throughout the country in the past five years.

The news blackout surrounding the incidents, and the shudders they provoke among people of all religious persuasions, are easily explained - to Indonesia's rulers, the prospect of religious conflict fuelled by a militant Islam is the stuff of nightmares. Indonesia has the world's largest Islamic population: 90 per cent of the country's nearly 200 million are professed Muslims. But, for all the ethnic and political tensions, the authoritarian government of President Suharto has prided itself on its religious tolerance. In the 51 years since independence, with isolated violent exceptions, the Muslim majority has lived alongside sizeable populations of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus.

Partly, this is for doctrinal reasons. The Islam introduced into Indonesia by Middle Eastern traders seven centuries ago was mostly of the Sufi school, mild and accommodating compared with the sterner Arab orthodoxies, and easily blended with native religions. Indonesia's modern rulers, moreover, have always recognised the potential dangers of a politicised Muslim church. Both Mr Suharto and the man he deposed, Sukarno, carefully kept their distance from Muslim leaders and fought off all attempts to steer Indonesia in the direction of a Muslim state. But the past few years have seen signs of an Islamic revival in Indonesia and it has been supported, if not led, from the very top.

Most striking is the extent to which Islam has attracted the young. At the next elections in 1997, 20 million Indonesians will be eligible to vote for the first time. As a group, they have the highest levels of education, economic prospects and expectations than any preceding generation. But under the political system created by Mr Suharto, the elections offer them little freedom of expression, and more and more are turning to Islam as a means of expression.

"When I was a student, political activity revolved around the student centre," says the economist Rizal Ramli, "but since the government imposed restrictions on campus politics the student centre has been dead. All activity is now funnelled on the mosque."

Having kept them at arm's length for most of his reign, Mr Suharto has also found it personally useful to cultivate support among Muslims. Although a former general, the ageing president is believed to be shedding much of his backing among the powerful armed forces. He has compensated by moving closer to the country's other great power group - Islam. In the past few years he has relaxed restrictions on Islamic dress, helped establish a Muslim bank and made a widely-publicised family pilgrimage to Mecca. In key positions, including military posts, Christians have been replaced by Muslim sympathisers.

It is a tricky balancing act, and a subtle one - Suharto, as much as anyone in Indonesia, has everything to lose in a full-scale fundamentalist revival which, for the time being, is no more than a troubling nightmare.