Attempt to stoke unrest ahead of Indonesia polls

Officials say political forces behind bid to fuel fear that Islam is under siege in a Jokowi govt

BANDUNG • A spate of mysterious attacks on Islamic clerics, schools and mosques in Indonesia in recent weeks has ramped up tensions in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country as it heads into provincial polls this year and a presidential election next year.

Intelligence and Islamic officials believe that political forces are behind what they describe as a shadowy "black campaign" designed to whip up fear that Islam itself is under siege under the leadership of President Joko Widodo.

In one town near the capital, Jakarta, a mosque manager was stabbed and a religious scholar received an anonymous letter warning that 10 clerics would be killed.

Videos of what police say are fake attacks on Muslim clerics and schools have been distributed on social media, heightening unease.

The attacks on the heavily populated island of Java have come as hardline Muslim groups press for a more conservative society and decry moderate politicians, posing a threat to Indonesia's reputation for tolerance and the democracy it won with the downfall of authoritarian president Suharto in 1998.

Indeed, there are echoes today of the panic stirred up by Suharto, which typically involved attacks on religious figures and institutions.

Elections are due in June for dozens of governors, district heads and mayors. Analysts see those polls as an opening skirmish before 2019's battle for the presidency.

National police chief Tito Karnavian says the wave of violence has not been "massive or systematic", and he blames online activists for "spicing up" anxiety among Muslims. There have been only three actual assaults, while about 42 fake attacks were promoted online, he said.

Mr Ridwan Kamil, mayor of the city of Bandung and front runner to become governor of West Java province, says he has been hounded for months by hoax stories online that questioned the strength of his Islamic faith. "If you are not a Muslim, they will label you an infidel. If you are Muslim, they will label you not Islamic enough," Mr Kamil said of his opponents in an interview with Reuters, declining to identify them.

"They're trying to send a message... that the country is not safe... that we need to replace the government. Who gets the benefit? Whoever challenges Jokowi," Mr Kamil said, referring to President Joko, whom he supports for re-election, by his nickname.

The potency of religion as a swing factor in elections was graphically illustrated last year when the popular governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian and close ally of Mr Joko, lost his bid for re-election after being accused of insulting the Quran. An online video of him speaking had been edited to make it seem that he was criticising the Quran when in fact he was sniping at people who used a passage of Islam's holy book to warn Muslims against voting for non-Muslims.

Basuki's ouster was spearheaded by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group that organised huge protests against him. He was later jailed for blasphemy.

Reuters investigations into the recent attacks in Java showed that the FPI has been involved in stoking the tensions.

National police chief Tito Karnavian says the wave of violence has not been "massive or systematic", and he blames online activists for "spicing up" anxiety among Muslims. There have been only three actual assaults, while about 42 fake attacks were promoted online, he said.

Even so, intelligence officials, Islamic leaders and politicians say there is a concerted effort to sow discord through vandalism and threats to Islamic leaders, schools and mosques, reinforced through social media.

Intelligence agency chief Budi Gunawan describes it as a "rampant black campaign".

Mr Mahmud Syaltout, deputy secretary general of the youth wing of Indonesia's largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, said its schools and mosques have been targeted. A man caught vandalising a mosque in Java appeared to be healthy and feigning madness, he said.

Mr Joko's chief of staff, retired military chief Moeldoko, told local media that deploying mentally ill people to create unrest was a tactic from the Suharto era.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2018, with the headline 'Attempt to stoke unrest ahead of Indonesia polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe