Indonesian National Police officers & protesters in Jakarta. November 2016. CREDIT: <a href="">AWG97 (CC)</a>
Indonesian National Police officers & protesters in Jakarta. November 2016. CREDIT: AWG97 (CC)

Normalizing Intolerance in Indonesia, with Sandra Hamid

Mar 29, 2018

"Indonesian civil societies and academics are very good at collecting cases of discrimination," says Sandra Hamid, author of "Normalizing Intolerance." "But what we don't have is the ethnography of the everyday life of discrimination, things that are not necessarily discrimination with a capital D; this is like your daily experience." Today we see myriad examples of the gradual normalization of belittling and isolating non-Muslims.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council, and today I'm sitting down and speaking with Sandra Hamid. She is The Asia Foundation's country representative to Indonesia in Jakarta.

Sandra, great to have you here today.

SANDRA HAMID: Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get into your study "Normalizing Intolerance," can you just give me a brief overview? What is the politics like right now in Indonesia? What's the big picture?

SANDRA HAMID: We are heading to a presidential election next year. Currently we have 170-some local elections ahead of us that everybody is saying, and rightfully so, will be the precursor to what is going to happen in 2019.

The current president is in a strong position. He ran in 2014 with a very strong reform agenda, with a very strong anti-corruption agenda, with a very strong human rights agenda, and building infrastructure, cleaning [up] the bureaucracy, and so on and so forth. Some of these he has managed to achieve, and some are still a struggle. That is really currently where he is starting, and he is trying to gain support from different political parties, widening the support for him to actually be secure in 2019. As an incumbent he is actually enjoying quite a strong approval rate.

However, the very important elections in the capital just happened last year. Analysts are saying, and I agree, that it was a very important one, kind of setting the tone for what the 2019 campaign is going to be. In fact, it is actually setting the tone for the current local elections, the 170-something elections that I mentioned earlier.

What is most important in the gubernatorial election of Jakarta, the capital, is what people see as the rising importance of Islamists and Islamic politics in which they were able to galvanize massive, the largest gathering of people in history actually, who gathered together to replace the very popular governor, who was a double minority, who was non-Muslim—

DEVIN STEWART: Chinese Christian.

SANDRA HAMID: Yes, and ethnic Chinese. People who are against him would say that it is not that reason that made them go against the governor, but it was because he was actually blasphemous.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you think?

SANDRA HAMID: It is debatable. The judge actually gave him higher than what was asked for by the general attorney.

The whole case is based around this taped speech that he gave to a certain group of people saying: "I understand that some people will make you afraid to be voting for me, but don't be fooled." That tape was actually doctored. The person who doctored the tape actually is charged under technology legislation.

But at the same time, the governor was also seen as guilty of blasphemy. Like many people, I think we can see that there is a lot of politics in it rather than a purely legal case.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think it will always be a crime to be blasphemous in Indonesia? Will that legislation stick around, or is there any kind of effort to change those laws?

SANDRA HAMID: That law is going to be around for many years. There is a lot of civil society trying to revisit the law, bringing it to the Constitutional Court with very little result. That law has been used so much more after we had democracy than before.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you explain that?

SANDRA HAMID: This is the thing because during Suharto's time it was used I think about 10 times since 1965. We've had hundreds of cases of blasphemy since we've had democracy. There are many reasons for this. Competition in politics is one. Trying to bring people down using blasphemy can be effective. But it is not necessarily that that is the majority, but all of the different interests under democracy have space, so sometimes when there are conflicts in perspectives people can use this law.

It is hardly ever that you use this law and not win. This is something that many people think is very undemocratic, but at the very same time it is politically almost impossible to actually do away with this.

However, as we speak I do know that there is a case in the Constitutional Court trying to look into this again. There are enough civil society people who are concerned about this. Academics are writing about this. Indonesia is a very religious country. It is easy to twist that and make it into that person who is bringing this up or making this a case is anti-religion. That would really be a hard spot to be in when you are a politician.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about your new monograph. It's called "Normalizing Intolerance: Elections, Religion, and Everyday Life in Indonesia." First of all, what do you mean by "normalizing intolerance"?

SANDRA HAMID: What I see is that there are words, there are practices, there are things, discourses, that were not necessarily common before, but more and more have gotten into the mainstream of vocabulary, it has become more common to see some practices, things that one would never consider being part of who we were. Saying "Merry Christmas" became more and more problematic.

What I was looking at really is that gray area that is not really unlawful, but people can say, "Why can't I say it?" For example, I can say because you are not Muslim that you are a kafir. There is nothing wrong with that because the meaning of the word is some people would say non-Muslim. So you are a non-Muslim, so you are a kafir. But culturally it has a different meaning. Culturally it means that you are not a good person. Not only that you are not Muslim, but you are a bad person. The common usage of this word is new. It is not something that was normal before, and people are defending the usage of that simply because it is actually legal to say it. That is what I mean, and there are more examples of that.

DEVIN STEWART: You're an anthropologist, so let's talk about some other examples. For how long have you seen these changes? What's the timeframe you're talking about? Is it the past 10 years, the past 20 years?

SANDRA HAMID: I will back up a little bit and talk about what knowledge is available out there. Indonesian civil societies and academics are very good at collecting cases of discrimination. We have really good data on that, like churches burned or discrimination or even violence against the group Ahmadiyya, and so on and so forth.

But what we don't have is the ethnography of the everyday life of discrimination, things that are not necessarily discrimination with a capital D; this is like your daily experience. When I was writing that paper, I actually started to talk to people around me and beyond, trying to get more and more stories, and I am still working on this. I want to get that data bigger. So I classify a couple of different strands of stories, if you like, on everyday life.

The question is: "Have you or somebody you know immediately experienced something that you see as a change because some religious practice or religious belief has changed between now and before?" Everybody I ask has some kind of story that they say, "It didn't used to be like that, but now it is like this."

For example, in a small village—I understand that you just came from Jogja [Yogyakarta], for example. Outside Jogja I interviewed this person who told me that there used to be events near Ramadan, before Ramadan, that the villagers would come together in a cleansing-of-the-village kind of tradition. It was for everyone. But now, the non-Muslims feel they are not invited, they are not part of that anymore. So something that used to be a multi-religion, village-level, kind of community thing became something that is more exclusive.

In the city we also see that. One friend actually of mine told me how she is a non-Muslim, and she said that she was part of this communal monthly meeting—she is a housewife—in the neighborhood, and they would take turns every month, and then one day when it came to her turn, and they had been doing this for at least eight years, the neighbors told her: "We're not coming to your house anymore. This is your turn, so we're going to the restaurant."

And she said, "Why?"

"Because we have learned more and more now about that it is not acceptable to eat in a non-Muslim's house because we cannot be sure of the halal nature of your house."

That sentence, in and of itself, is okay. It is like an observing Jewish person who wouldn't eat in a non-kosher house. But the fact of the matter is that for eight years it was something that was practiced. So there is change there. I'm not saying that it's wrong or it's right, but I'm saying—

DEVIN STEWART: Just different.

SANDRA HAMID: —that it's changing.

She then decided: "You know what? I was not part of that discussion." What she had hoped is that why can't it be discussed and then make a decision. But she felt she was ousted in that conversation, and there are plenty of examples like that on a social level.

DEVIN STEWART: From an American's ears it sounds kind of like microaggressions. Is it anything like that?

SANDRA HAMID: I think so particularly for the person who is the target—"target" may be too strong a word, but the subject—of this practice.

Another example: Indonesians love WhatsApp groups. I don't know how it is in America.


SANDRA HAMID: So every social gathering would have a WhatsApp group. During the time, as I mentioned earlier, the word kafir was more and more being used, I know that some non-Muslim members in the conversation list had to just leave the group, like: "Why do I have to hear it? Why do I have to be the target?" Even though it is not necessarily directed toward her, but because she is a non-Muslim, and she is in a bigger conversation about some non-Muslims are kafir and this and that, then she felt, "You know, I don't want to be part of this conversation." This is the thing that is really concerning to me because slowly and surely it is changing the fabric of what it means to be a social enterprise called Indonesia, and that for me is very sad.

One more example: I think a 10-year-old was told by his cousin: "I saw that you have a lot of non-Muslim friends. That's not really advisable. Don't you know that?" And the 10-year-old went to his parents and said, "Why did my cousin say that?"

This is happening because families learn from different ulamas, different teachers, different religious authorities, and there are many different interpretations. So the children now are introduced to these things, and this is something that is going to have long-term repercussions. That is my worry. What are the repercussions I guess would be the next question.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to repercussions, what is causing this change?

SANDRA HAMID: A couple of things. I don't think we can actually at this point say it is because of this, that, and this. What I see is a looming process that is over time and not necessarily designed to be that way, so I am not saying that there is a big conspiracy to make us be like a Muslim state, for example. It is not that. But it is a combination of politics and market.

DEVIN STEWART: The market as in the global market?

SANDRA HAMID: No, as in, partly global, but mainly I am talking about Indonesian markets.

There is an increased sense of piety in Indonesia. The businesses respond to that. Since maybe 15 or even 20 years ago, you see these things. You see a magazine that is solely for Muslim women, for example, or fashion that is solely for Muslim women, and later you would have cosmetics solely for Muslim women, and on and on. Cinema, films that just cater to the Muslim audience and more and more on TV, and it is very profitable.


SANDRA HAMID: I do think that this mass media is filling up the public space for this. In the messages of these—telenovela is a huge thing in Indonesia. We call them cinetrons, basically soap operas, and it is huge in Indonesia. The, shall we say, Islamic-imbued telenovelas or soap operas always have very simple messages of bad and good.

DEVIN STEWART: Morality tales.

SANDRA HAMID: Morality, but not just morality. It is also coupled with how it looks to be religious. So you have a person who looks religious, and he or she is very kind, and then usually she is then a victim of some kind of crime, and they will take it very well because of faith and all that, and then at the end of the day that person is having a good end. Then the bad person looks very rough, obviously not religious, and usually they have a very dramatic death. Things like this, simplification, the binary.

The binary is also seen in many different places, including very importantly in the teaching of religion. I am speaking about Islam because I am a Muslim, so that is what I know. Maybe it will be also important to see what is happening in others, but Indonesia is a majority Muslim country. Islam is very important, so that is what I am looking at.

More and more now they are on TV, like televangelists, and it is very black and white. It is also—you can also hear the Q&A—very simple. The ulama always says, "Either you're sinful or you're not. Either it's halal or not."

Whereas Islam actually is very complicated. Real ulamas will tell you no. If you ask them a question, they will say: "Well, according to this school of thought, it's A. According to this school of thought, it's B."

So it's always very gray. There are many different options on how to be a good Muslim depending on how you read the situation, and it is perfectly legitimate. But it's too complicated. If you ask something like: "I have remarried. My husband died. Now if I die, which husband am I going to be with in the afterlife? Is it my first husband or is it my second husband?" These are the kinds of questions people ask on TV.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. And they get straightforward, simple answers?


DEVIN STEWART: What's the answer?

SANDRA HAMID: At that point, I tune out.

DEVIN STEWART: You tune out.

SANDRA HAMID: I am just giving you examples, and something more political, like, "Is it okay to have a non-Muslim leader?" for example, and then they will say yes or no.

But I interviewed some religious leaders actually who were very thoughtful, even like gender-activist ulama, and they exist. This is what I want to also emphasize. In Indonesia we have them, and we have plenty of them. But they don't have sound bites. They cannot simplify complicated issues in sound bites.

I asked this particular guy, I said, "Kye [generic term for ulama or Muslim scholar, common in Java], isn't it important for you to have a straightforward message because your message I believe is important?"

He said, "I am not going to contribute to the culture of stupidity. Islam requires you to think, and I will continue doing what I do."

He is an extreme. There are other ulamas right now who see what the market wants, so to speak, and know what they are up against, and they are now simplifying their messages.

So if you ask me what caused it, it is all of these things: It is the market, it is the teaching, it is what people see, and, don't forget, the need to be pious. There is that need to be pious in this modernizing—

DEVIN STEWART: Where did that come from, the increased piety?

SANDRA HAMID: It is a global issue. People feel—and there are many analyses—they're unsure of the future, the ever-presence of the West, and where are we going to be, and all of these things. Increasing piety is definitely something that has happened in the last 20 years in Indonesia. Religious leaders also have more space now because in the old days the government used to suppress voices, including religious leaders' voices; they only want their version.

Now everyone has their version, and people have to choose which one, and many of them choose the simplest. A lot of these things are contributing to where we are right now. Then comes politics and politicians and political actors, to use a kinder word.

DEVIN STEWART: They take advantage of it.

SANDRA HAMID: They take advantage of it, and they write over this.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned implications or repercussions. What do you think is at stake here, given these changes? So you have these changes. My understanding is that you need a sense of solidarity, you need a sense of unity, in a country especially as diverse and expansive as Indonesia—what, 15,000 islands, something like that?


DEVIN STEWART: Many different ethnicities, many different religions. What's the future of a sense of unity given these types of changes that you've described?

SANDRA HAMID: I think it's not too dramatic to say that we're kind of at a crossroads from the last election in which a governor with a 70 percent approval rate can lose an election really because of his religion. Granted that he is the first that ran with double minority, and he has all of his issues around that election.

But the most important thing—and I was just hearing somebody who was on your podcast earlier, Marcus Mietzner—I think most analysts are saying that the Islamist groups, because there are many branches, many different interests, feel that they have the upper hand right now, feel that they can set the tone right now.

Politics, however, is not that simple. So whether or not they already have the upper hand right now, we will see in the 100-and-some local elections and also in the presidential elections. What we have seen, however, is that it is clear that they are a power to be reckoned with, that they had a taste of victory in the last Jakarta election, and what they will do with it, strategically they may be able to push their agenda forward.

Now what is their agenda? Well, many. Their agendas are many, and because they come from different groups, one is more into pushing for more Islamic legislation, for example. The extreme would be wanting to have Islamic law for Muslims, and the other thing would be having more Muslim leaders to be in positions of power. There are many different gradations of pressure from these people.

But the fact of the matter is that I think politicians without Islamic credentials, or who have never actually given it a lot of thought or have given it a thought but thought it was more of a simple thing, now think about it more carefully and more calculatedly. But I will leave that to political scientists to be looking at the numbers, crunching, and see what the different motivations are. What I am really most interested in are the repercussions of social relationships in Indonesia.


SANDRA HAMID: What it means to be Indonesian, cohesions, our imagination of being Indonesians. I think this is something that the government is already trying to really focus on. They have put a lot of resources to remind people of our ideology, Pancasila, that is really a home for everyone. It has yet to show real results in the grassroots, but definitely I think in the political sphere, among the elites and also among the academics there is a new realization that our democratic values have to be protected. We cannot take them for granted.

Because the moderates like in America and everywhere are moderates; they are not militants. That's why they are moderate. But now I think the moderates are waking up and know that this is something that they need to do, and I think there is some parallel perhaps with what we are seeing here, in which many people here in the United States also realize that we can't take all of these things for granted. So we have yet to see how socially it is going to be impacting Indonesia.

DEVIN STEWART: Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation's country representative to Indonesia in Jakarta. Sandra, great to talk to you today.

SANDRA HAMID: Thank you.

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