Religious vigilantism as a sociopolitical problem

Two religious incidents happened two week ago in two major cities of Java. First was on December 6 when a Muslim group called the Ahlus Sunnah Defenders (PAS) forced a Christian community to cancel a Christmas service in Bandung.  Second was a day later in Yogyakarta when the Muslim People Forum (FUI) forced Duta Wacana Christian University (UKDW) to drop billboard with a hijab-clad student.

Both cases have a similarity and differences that must be taken into account. The similarity lies in the way the two Muslim groups carried out the acts. Many described it as an act of intolerance. I would rather call it religious vigilantism.

It is true to a certain degree that there is a problem of intolerance. However, there exists a much bigger factor at play; that is, the sociopolitical landscape that paved the way for such Muslim groups to play with regulations or capitalize on Islamic symbol; to take “law enforcement” into their hands; and to suppress vulnerable groups with freedom, without facing legal consequences.

Someone may have an intolerant belief. Yet that belief will not manifest into a vigilante act if the sociopolitical structure does not enable him/her to do so. The sociopolitical landscape here is complex, and preconditioned by intertwined factors.

The weakness of the police in the face of Muslim vigilantes must clearly be the first to note. When a vigilante group forces and threatens a vulnerable group, the police do not protect the latest’s freedom from coercion. Rather, the police facilitate a “mediation” between the two groups in favor of avoiding horizontal conflict. What happens in the mediation, however, is that the vulnerable group must bow down to the demands of the vigilantes.

This pattern is easy to identify, and have been found prevalent across the country over the last few years.

Another factor is the law, whose ambiguous articles are subject to subjective feelings (of being offended, insulted, etc.), unable to be empirically measured and, therefore, are in service to the privileged groups.

If a criticism or even insult against a minority religion is stated by a leader of a majority religion, for example, it is much less likely to be prosecuted and persecuted than if the case is the reverse. If a prayer is held in a public place by the minority, it is much more likely to be problematized by the majority than if the case is the reverse.

A new factor must also be counted, that is, the significance of Islamic identity and symbols to be capitalized on. The rise of identity politics has elevated the mobilization power an Islamic identity issue has. The anti-Ahok rallies, which have attracted a lot of people beyond expectation, may have made Muslim vigilantes think they have many in their back; it raises their ‘confidence’ while hoping they will get the same support over another issue. The rallies can set a precedent for a litigation process to be dictated by crowds—a phenomenon a Tempo Magazine editorial called “mob-ocracy”.

The last factor must lead us to think of the importance of a rally, as it can pose an impressive show-of-force message to the public. Let’s face it: the so-called radical groups are adept at carrying out a rally. Anti-religious extremism rallies organized by moderate Muslim organizations are much smaller in number compared to rallies of Islamic solidarity (with Palestine, for example) or against blasphemy or against perceived anti-Islam regulations.

Nevertheless, the biggest factor at play in my opinion is the expected inaction of political leaders. (Condemnation is not an action—it is far from enough.) Political leaders who are permissive to vigilante groups will bring about more confidence for the vigilantes to repeat the acts.

This permissiveness of political leaders can be due to several other factors. It might be that they take advantages from the vigilantes, such as patronage for several issues, preserving economical resources, or being used against political rivals—all depend on the political economy of the relevant context.

To be fair, however, there is a difference between the case in Bandung and that in Yogyakarta. The vigilante group in Bandung is relatively new. The mayor was not permissive; he understands the problem and is aware of the citizens’ right to worship. And he has apologized, even though miscommunication between the police and the Christmas service committee was put to blame.

The more latent problem is that in Yogyakarta, the self-declared “City of Tolerance” in 2011. FUI has been doing vigilante acts many times. We can list the acts (the group might be under different names, but the people are more or less the same) carried out this year alone: the dismissal of seminar and public screening on perceived deviant sect and communist; the forcible dismissal of transgender Islamic boarding school; the attack to a music event perceived to be promoting LGBT; and dispersal of World Press Day celebration held by the Alliance of Independent Journalists.

Of these all, we heard nothing, not even a statement as easy as condemning, from the Yogyakarta government. Until this article is written, nothing coming from the Yogyakarta mayor or the Sultan on the UKDW billboard case.

This must be worrying. A study on vigilantism finds that an organized, long-lived vigilantism “nearly always enjoys a considerable degree of ground-level support” and the more prolonged it is, the more it “will co-opt the position of power that is normally the reserve of justice system” (Silke, 2001).

Putting an end to vigilantism requires solving the above diagnosed systemic problems. It is indeed a long time effort. For a short-term, we may not be able to expect much from the law and the police. But pressure to the government to firmly and decisively tackle the case is the thing to do. Government’s neglect means the vigilantes win. Another is to make the “silent, passive Muslim majority” louder and more assertive than the so-called radical groups are. What is it to do, more practically? A rally, perhaps?

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