A night before Ramzan in 2017, as part of the celebrations, children in the suburbs of Jakarta were marching with torches. But there was something unusual about the procession that night. The children were chanting: “Kill Ahok! Kill Ahok!” Ahok was the nickname of Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, the Jakarta governor. He had become the governor when his predecessor, Joko Widodo, was elected Indonesia’s president in 2014. Basuki’s family had Chinese and Christian connections. When he sought a second term, his opponents attacked him on racial grounds and launched a communal campaign against him. Not only did he lose the election, he was also sent to prison on charges of blasphemy. The children were celebrating the coming of the holy month by shouting death threats against him!
Violence in the name of God is surely not new. But in this case, the mob included commoners and children. It is not just terrorist groups and trained militias who would call for brutal acts in the name of religion, anybody could. Indonesia may seek to present itself as a friendly and tolerant country, but it has had its share of religious extremism. Borobudur, a 19th-century Buddhist temple, was bombed by a group of jihadis in 1985. In 2000, Christmas celebrations ended with the bombing of churches in several cities. One year, one month, and one day after 9/11, a group of terrorists killed more than 200 people in Kuta, Bali, a predominantly Hindu province.
The list is endless. The attacks on non-Muslims are carried out in the name of God (in this case, Allah), but in many circumstances the victims are Muslims. These events would appear briefly as headlines in newspapers and on television. People would talk about it for a few days, and then go back to their places of worship, shopping centres and other crowded places — until the next terrorist act. Terrorism existed, but it was a faraway, unpredictable event. Police, journalists and politicians carried on and engaged in the same conversation. But for most people, terrorism was nothing but another piece of news. They argued briefly to the extent that, eventually, it felt like an event that happened in India, Palestine or Germany.
Terrorism may never succeed in overthrowing the government, or in controlling large territories. But one thing has become very clear: The terrorists have managed to implant the idea of violence and hatred in everyone. Innocent children marching to the slogan, “Kill Ahok! Kill Ahok!”, is just one example of this phenomenon.
By all means, embracing the idea of violence and hatred does not make a person a terrorist or perpetrator of violence. But continuous expressions of hostility and contempt would have created something worse than terrorism itself. Fear would no longer be a sporadic sentiment with a cyclical life, but a real and permanent feeling.
The biggest question is: Why is there so much bloodshed in the name of God? In Indonesia, Muslims are arguably the main actors. In other places, terrorism could involve people who follow other religions. In every corner of the world, “us” versus “them” has become the main discourse. It is not the argument in a niche segment of the society, it has became the discourse at the grass roots as well.
The idea of religion as a peaceful path has been shattered. The idea that humanism will promote equality and union also lies in ruins. We are at a crossroads, where broader human values are being replaced by exclusive group values. Justice, equality, fairness, and peace only apply to groups. It is only about “us”, and never concerns “others”.
This is a paradox. It has happened at a time when boundaries are collapsing due to automation and scientific discoveries, as people get to go instantly from one place to another. Modern technology has been accelerating rapidly since the turn of the millennium, but it has not made people citizens of the world. Instead, people tend to fortify themselves in a group that distinguishes itself from another.
In Indonesia, freedom arrived at the end of the last century with the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. Though it is far from its ideal form, democracy has truly started taking shape. Freedom of the press and free speech are now respected and honoured. There are achievements in the economic, political and cultural spheres.
At the same time, in the name of freedom and democracy, radical ideas such as enforcement of the Islamic law in daily life and the establishment of an Islamic State, are being talked about. These radicals do not recognise that their ideas are anti-democratic and do not value freedom. In many cases, their attempts to force these ideas have ended in disturbance and assault. The campaign against “non-Muslim leaders” influenced the voters in the Jakarta governor’s election. In some areas, Islamic law eventually became the official law, as in the province of Aceh, where caning as a punishment has been reinstated.
This sectarian attitude may seem ironic in the age of freedom. However, in my opinion, this turn of events is inevitable, even predictable. The collapse of the dictatorship facilitated the growth of technology in Indonesia and removed all the barriers to access the world. For some people, the opening up led to a flood of aspirations. For many others, it meant a threat.
It’s like an encounter with extraterrestrials, as in science-fiction movies. A meeting with unfamiliar beings holds a host of possibilities. It could lead to new knowledge, wisdom, prosperity, power, and even the making of new civilisations. It could also mean new disease, tyranny and war.
The history of Columbus on a new continent and European trading ships looking for spices revealed both these aspects. In modern times, the collapse of a dictatorial regime in the time of the internet and digital revolution could lead to contradictory outcomes. It could trigger aspirations in one set of people, whereas a larger number of people could feel threatened. Those who feel threatened could act in self-defence.
When people fortify themselves inside religion, they also embrace the idea of hatred spread by terrorist groups and action. This is when the “us” versus “them” discourse and the struggle in the name of God become one and the same.
The world, of course, will continue to move forward. Many scientific innovations may trouble people, make them feel threatened. The same problems will repeat, and terror too may reappear in the name of country, God, power, or some other term. Either we resist or humanity will crumble.
Illustration by CR Sasikumar26/11 Stories of Strength: An evening of memoriesTrade vs Terror