Thursday, June 19, 2008


Date: Thursday 19 June 2008
Subj: Papua (Indonesia): Muslim-Christian tensions on a knife edge.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

International Crisis Group (ICG) has just released an informative and significant report on the escalating ethnic and religious tensions in Papua (eastern Indonesia).

Indonesia: Communal Tensions in Papua
ICG Asia Report No. 154, 16 June 2008

As the report notes: "Indonesian Papua has seen periodic clashes between pro-independence supporters and government forces, but conflict between Muslim and Christian communities could also erupt unless rising tensions are effectively managed."

According to ICG, the key factors behind escalating sectarian tensions are "continuing Muslim migration from elsewhere in Indonesia; the emergence of new, exclusivist groups in both religious communities that have hardened the perception of the other as enemy; the lasting impact of the Maluku conflict; and the impact of developments outside Papua."

WEA RLC News & Analysis has regularly raised the issue of Muslim migration and demographics in Papua, most recently in a 20 December 2007 posting entitled: "Papua (Indonesia): Genocide by Demographics". (Link 1)

The ICG report gives detailed accounts of how changing ethnic and religious demographics in various towns have produced localised but threatening culture clashes. Violence has been only barely contained and tensions simmer just under the surface.

Concerning the "new, exclusivist groups in both religious communities", IGC says that the arrival in Papua over the last ten years of new "militant strands of both religions" is contributing to tensions. "On the Muslim side", they note, "Hizb ut-Tahrir and salafi Muslims are giving a harder edge to an Islam that until recently was . . . reasonably moderate." Then, "On the Christian side, neo-pentecostals and charismatics are promoting their own brand of exclusivist truth and see the expansion of Muslim daawa (religious outreach, dakwah in Indonesian spelling) as their greatest challenge." (Page 1)

ICG is no doubt attempting to be fair, non-judgmental and politically correct by presenting these "exclusivist" and "militant" groups as moral equivalents. But this is unfair and unreasonable.

There is however a good deal of interesting information in the ICG report. While Salfists are mainly winning over the Javanese, the Hizb ut Tahrir (which preaches Islamic-Marxist revolution) and the Pentecostal God-wants-you-to-have-prosperity-and-power sects are winning over many poor, marginalised, disempowered indigenous Papuans, thus deepening the fractures within Papuan society which is largely mainline Protestant.

The ICG report also details the degree to which the conflict in Maluku spread to Papua.


One very disturbing element of the ICG report is the regular reference to the "new history" that has recently been "rediscovered by Muslim commentators". As ICG reports, "the subtext to the new popular history is that foreign missionaries were responsible for Christianisation of a Muslim land; that Christian colonialism proceeded to obliterate all traces of Islam; and that not just Papua Muslims but Indonesian Muslims more generally must redouble efforts to regain lost ground and exert the control that is rightfully theirs." (page 21)

ICG does not challenge the Muslim commentators' "new popular history" or denounce it as revisionism. Rather ICG accepts it, describing Muslim acceptance of it as a "new awareness" (p4) or a "new understanding" (p11) of history. Clearly, if Muslim commentators say it, it must be true!

The same benefit-of-the-doubt courtesy is not, however, extended to Christians. For example: "Toward the end of the year, rumours began circulating in the Christian community that Laskar Jihad, the salafi militia that wreaked havoc in Maluku from 2000 to 2002, was conducting military training in a trans-migrant area known as Satuan Pemukiman (SP) 7 in Masmi, outside Manokwari, with the aim of fighting Christians who had opposed the mosque. The fears were calmed after it turned out that the young men involved, almost all of them migrants, were not Laskar Jihad at all but members of a non-political, non-religious martial arts organisation." (Page 5) This reporting would be fine except that the footnote reference cites as the source: "Crisis Group telephone interview, Muslim activist, Manokwari, May 2008."

ICG seems to have an anti-Christian bias which causes it to undermine and minimise Christian concerns and thereby de-legitimise Christian requests. It seems to accept as inevitable that Papua will become Muslim and regard as unreasonable that Christians would want to prevent that.

Despite these problems, the ICG report is both informative and important. Religious liberty advocates will understand just how incredibly serious the situations described are.

ICG forecasts that if Muslim v Christian clashes do erupt, they will remain localised. I do not agree with that assessment. The jihadist groups, the pro-Indonesia militias and in particular the Indonesian military (TNI) are looking for an excuse to unleash violent repression and ethnic-religious cleansing. Any violent local clash therefore has incendiary potential to convert simmering tension into burning terror across the region.


The most disappointing (and shameful) thing about the ICG report is that while ICG offers several recommendations for managing the situation, implementation of the Special Autonomy Law is not one of them! De-militarisation and the opening up of the region to visitors, journalists and human rights monitors are not amongst ICG's recommendations either.

ICG's recommendations include things such as ". . .ensure that Papua develops its own indigenous [Muslim] scholars and teachers able to interpret universal Islamic values in ways that are in harmony rather than conflict with customary traditions".

But it is naive to think there is such a thing as "universal Islamic values", and even more naive to think that Javanese Salafis would accept having indigenous Papuans "interpret" or customise orthodox, Qur'anic Islamic values so that they no longer conflict with customary (Melanesian, tribal, animist, Christian) traditions.

What Papua needs is openness and internationally-monitored full implementation of the Special Autonomy Law. And it needs it very soon, before it is simply too late and the momentum behind the genocide of Papua's Melanesian Christians is irreversible.

By Elizabeth Kendal