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Jakarta Post

Why has policing of religious intolerance failed?

  • Testriono

    Pursuing a PhD at the Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University

Dekalb, Illinois   /   Thu, January 12, 2017   /   10:47 am
Why has policing of religious intolerance failed? For the sake of unity – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (front, right) calls on all Indonesian people to maintain unity in his remarks to commemorate the birth of Prophet Muhammad, or Maulid Nabi, in Pekalongan, Central Java, on Jan.8. Indonesian Military commander Gen.Gatot Nurmantyo and National Police Gen.Tito Karnavian attended the event, which was hosted by Habib Muhammad Luthfi (front, left), a notable ulema from Pekalongan. (JP/Suherdjoko)

With religious intolerance on the rise, we have been confronted with a question as to why the police fail to act against hard-line groups and individuals that have continued to promote intolerance and spread hatred.

It seems rather clumsy because, in fact, the police have been really forceful in dealing with other crimes, including terrorism. For instance, in collaboration with the military, the police launched Operation Tinombala to hunt down members of the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT) terrorist group last year. The operation, involving thousands of troops and a substantial budget, managed to kill the most-wanted terrorist suspect, Santoso.

It is also undeniable that the police have been capable in uncovering criminal cases from burglary to drug trafficking, such as the recent case of robbery with murder in Pulo Mas, East Jakarta. In short, the police in numerous cases have proven their merit.

However, when dealing with acts of intolerance perpetrated by hardline groups, such competence vanishes and the police look powerless. Why has it happened?

The answer lies in the ramified devotion of the police. On one hand, the police are devoted to the Constitution and law as they should be, but on the other hand, they rest on public support.

As acknowledged by National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian, the police need two things to take firm measures against intolerant groups: legal-constitutional legitimacy and public legitimacy (cnnindonesia. com, Nov. 25, 2016).

Such a statement shows that the constitutional authority is not legitimate enough for the police to enforce the law against acts of intolerance. For them, public support is another vital element they need.

Two reasons might underline that attitude. First, the police apparently worry that taking harsh measures against conservative Islamic groups would make them appear to be defying Islam. They fear being regarded as hostile toward the Muslim community as the vigilante groups always act under an Islamic banner, such as their upholding of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar (enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong).

Second, a too careful response to the intolerant acts uncovers the tendency of the police to avoid confrontation with the masses, in the form of either a physical clash or discourse in mass media. If their actions spark anger in religious leaders and their followers, the police fear it will adversely affect political stability and their duties include maintaining order and security.

The problem is that such halfhearted measures in tackling intolerance surely endanger civil liberties and thus threaten democracy.

As a matter of fact, Indonesia’s democracy has been consolidated as most political actors and majority citizens have preferred democracy as being the “only game in town” — a concept introduced by political scientists Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan in 1996. Nonetheless, since 2014 the Freedom House has categorized Indonesia as a partly free country, a decrease from the status of being a free country that Indonesia enjoyed from 2007 to 2013. The continued intolerance, discrimination and violence against minority religious groups have contributed to the decline noted by the democracy watchdog.

Furthermore, the country’s freedom status confirms that even though political liberties have improved, our civil liberties have worsened. There are still some civil organizations that do not help deepen democratic consolidation such as by monitoring government, but instead perpetrate intolerant acts and lower the quality of Indonesian democracy.

The failure of the police in policing the intolerant groups is a sign that the police have not really been professional and are easily subjugated by mass pressure. Argentine political scientist Guillermo A. O’Donnell reminded us in 2004 that the rule of law is among the essential pillars upon which a high quality democracy relies, which ensures not only political rights, but also civil liberties from potential constraints. It may derive from either state power or vigilante groups.

According to a survey by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in October 2016, the police gained 63.5 percent public trust, a percentage lower than that of the military, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Improving public support, however, is obviously not done by tolerating intolerant groups and succumbing to public pressure.

Firm measures will somehow trigger disagreements or even opposition from some religious leaders who support intolerant actions. Yet the police should know that the Muslim community is not a single entity that speaks with one voice and has one leader.

Muslims are divided along different currents and socio-political attachments. For example, despite the presence of the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, with which the majority of Muslims are affiliated, there are a lot of smaller Islamic groups that have grown in this country. That includes those that have gained influence through Middle Eastern Islamism, which promotes an intolerant mindset.

Such different but moderate manifestations of Indonesian Islam imply two things. First, intolerant groups are small in number. Second, the intolerant acts of some Muslim leaders and groups do not reflect the will or opinions of the majority of Muslims, although they are outspoken in expressing their agendas and hence the police should not hesitate to police them.

Finally, research conducted by a team from the Paramadina Foundation, Policing Religious Conflicts in Indonesia (2015), discloses that intolerance and religious conflicts can be diminished when the police behave professionally. When the police are lenient toward such vigilante groups, conflicts and intolerance increase and lead to violence. The police should be aware of such a snowball effect.


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