Pluralism and the struggle for justice and equality in Indonesia

It is an honour to have been asked to give this year’s Yap Thiam Hien human rights lecture. And I should begin by acknowledging both the importance of his work and the relevance of the example he set.

At a time when many people around the world are facing surveillance, arrest, attack and even killings for standing up for their rights, it is very good to honour the memory of a man who was uncompromising in his fight for rights and justice. His spirit of principle and boldness is something we need more than ever today.

I am speaking today on the topic of pluralism and the struggle for justice and equality. It is a topic that become more and more urgent across the world. As leaders seek to put up barriers and promote division, people are encouraged to look at the “other” with suspicion. And suspicion subtly becomes hatred, becomes violence.

As an ethnic Chinese himself, Yap Thiam Hien was a leading opponent of discrimination in Indonesia. So it seems very apt to address issues of identity-based discrimination and violence in the lecture bearing his name.

At Amnesty International, we have recently released our annual report on the state of the world’s human rights, where we warned about the pernicious rise of what we are calling the “politics of demonization” over the world.

Identity-based conflict has been with us since the beginning of time. But in the past year, we have seen poisonous narratives of “us vs. them” surge across the world. Leaders have peddled a toxic rhetoric blaming whole groups for social and economic grievances of the population.

We can never neatly define our own identity, of course. For all of us our identity is a composite of many different things: our gender identity, our ethnic origin, our skin colour, our religious belief. These different identities interplay with each other in complex ways.

However, I would like to focus especially on the cynical use of religion and religious identity as one of the weapons in the armoury of leaders seeking to divide and blame.

We have President Trump’s determined effort to pass a temporary ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States – which as the courts of Hawaii and Maryland have determined is motivated by anti-Muslim animus.

We see in Europe how longstanding values of secularism are coming under increasing pressure from toxic narratives that blame whole groups of people for people’s anxieties and fears. You only have to look at the discriminatory targeting of Muslims under the State of Emergency in France, for example.

And we see high levels of sectarian conflict in many parts of the world. Fighting along religious or sectarian lines in the Middle East and North Africa continues on an alarming scale, while armed groups such as Boko Haram carry out deadly violence in the name of religion in West Africa.

Against this backdrop, the question of how we live together with our differences is one of the defining issues of our time.

It is a question that has growing global urgency, yet many of us in the human rights community have neglected it relative to some other issues. As leaders have been ready to divide us, now more than ever before we need a positive narrative for pluralism. For living together in dignity as equals, respecting each other’s differences.

I am not here to present any panacea. But I believe that if we try to understand more deeply the global challenge to pluralism, we can work out some ways forward.

I would like to start by reviewing the challenge to pluralism across the world and what it looks like.


Let me begin by talking about Indonesia, which as we know is today the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Previously it has had a series of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms, and the Christianity of its colonisers.

Yet despite its complexity and diversity, its long and turbulent history, Indonesia can boast a long record of relative harmony between its different communities.

And there is much to applaud about the modern state of Indonesia. It has strong institutions, a relatively free media in all but Papua, a constitutional commitment to pluralism, and a longstanding liberal tradition that allows strong social movements to thrive.

The Pancasila, the guiding principles of Indonesia, give a strong mandate for social justice and unity. Compared to some other countries with a similarly large and complex population – and there are not many such countries – Indonesia has truly had some success as a pluralist state.

Although, we have seen – and continue to see – some serious exceptions. Religious tensions have been stirred and exploited to serve the cynical demands of vote bloc politics – dividing people by identity for the purposes of an electoral calculus.

Violence going unpunished, the government’s defiance of courts in refusing to open places of worship, the use of blasphemy laws, restricting religious practices through bylaws. Some of this may seem banal, but it is the fabric of discrimination, harassment and intimidation. It subjugates and brings fear to religious minorities and erodes trust and harmony between communities.

Some of the progress made after the Suharto era slipped backwards in the era of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency. We can’t allow that to continue now. Violent attacks have decreased today compared to that period, but equally the high expectations under President Jokowi have not been met.

Indonesia’s neighbourhood

However, these issues are not unique to Indonesia. Across Asia we see the threat which a majoritarian mind-set poses to diverse societies – the idea that the majority rules, and the whole of society should be shaped according to what the majority group supposedly wants.

Within this mind-set, religion and national identity often get fused together. The nation becomes almost inseparable from its majority religion. When this happens, abuses against minorities are almost inevitable.

We see it in my own country, India, where minorities suffer discrimination and violence every single day. Across the country, thousands of survivors of communal violence wait and wait for justice that never seems to come. In Muzzafarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh state, seven Muslim women were gang-raped in 2013 by men from the Hindu Jat community during an episode of communal violence. Four years later, there is not a single conviction in any of their cases. Instead, the women face more threats and harassment, until eventually they are pressured to retract their statements, losing all hope of justice. They tell us they are scared to leave their homes. This is just one window into a far wider picture across India.

We see it in Pakistan, where Ahmadiyya people face horrendous state-sponsored persecution, Shi’as face a barrage of armed attacks, Hindus suffer extreme marginalisation, and Christians face vigilante violence often justified by reference to the country’s blasphemy laws.

We also see it in the discrimination and abuses against the Rohingya which Amnesty International has documented extensively.

And we see in China how religious practice is heavily controlled and suppressed: whether it is Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, or Christians from unregistered denominations. The Falun Gong continue to face harsh persecution.

Across the world

Wherever we look around the world, it is never difficult to find people targeted for blame, discrimination and violence because of their identity – religious, racial, ethnic or gender.

Every major religion in the world has the potential for religious identity to be fused with racial or ethnic superiority or land claims.

Identity politics have surged in Europe and America, with leaders casting blame on the presumptive “outsider” for people’s anxieties. Anti-Muslim hatred and violence has surged in several places, with a sharp increase in attacks on shelters for asylum seekers in Germany to a surge in hate crimes in the UK after the Brexit vote.

And of course there are plenty of other stories I could tell, whether the brutality of the group calling itself Islamic State, or from West Africa.

What these diverse attacks on pluralism have in common is that they are all based on the dangerous myth which makes some people more “authentic” citizens – or even more fully human – than others.

With its huge population and diversity, Indonesia is a vital test case. If Indonesia can somehow get the recipe for pluralism right, the world can get it right. Indonesia has the potential to show the world how living together with our differences can work. So in these very sensitive times, that is why it is so important Indonesia does not backtrack.

Dissecting the issues

Those who peddle the politics of demonization are often most successful when they co-opt a sense of fear or grievance and put it into the template of identity. The simplest response to complex problems is to find a scapegoat, somebody else to blame. That is how a generalised fear of terrorism in the USA leads to a ban on citizens of Muslim majority countries.

When we are talking about religious intolerance, it rarely begins with violence. Violence happens within an enabling environment, it does not come from nowhere. So it stems from a culture of discrimination, often made easier by laws and policies which target particular groups. And this environment emerges from demonizing narratives, hatred and blame.

So narratives delegitimise minority groups or outsiders. This leads to marginalisation and discrimination, and this in turn leads towards violence. The state is rarely neutral, and when it sees its role as defending the religious identity of a nation, impunity becomes normal and expected.

Justice is almost always elusive. Sometimes the foot soldiers of violence are brought to justice, but they are only at the visible manifestations of something much deeper. For violence in the name of religion is a way of enforcing a hierarchy in a society.

I want to talk about these stages in turn.

Demonizing narratives and hate speech

The first sign of religious intolerance and the first challenge to pluralism comes with demonization and hatred of a particular group.

It may begin subtly, anonymously, like the anti-Semitic graffiti currently appearing on walls in Europe. Or it may be spoken overtly: the public displays of anti-Muslim rhetoric from President Trump on the campaign trail.

Or sometimes it escalates to direct threats and denunciation. In Indonesia, local government officials, sometimes working with radical Islamist groups, have intimidated or threatened Ahmadiyya or Shi’a followers to try and force them to renounce their beliefs. Or the increasingly common inflammatory statements against LGBTI people, with Islamist groups seeking to criminalise homosexuality.

Long and bitter experience has shown us how public displays of hatred function as the precursors of violence.

Individuals or groups with a hard-line message are part of the fabric of a successful, vibrant and pluralist civil society. There is no right not to be criticised or offended, for sure.

But the test for the state is whether it can draw the line in the right place, facilitating free debate but preventing it from stepping into incitement to discrimination and violence.


The second sign is discrimination, when one group and another are not treated equally by the state.

In Indonesia, we have seen this in the state’s closure or takeover of places of worship by local authorities. Or the defiance of court rulings, refusing to allow places of worship to open or reopen – such as the churches in Bogor and Bekasi which have been well documented.

Religious harmony does not come about through favouring the majority and suppressing the minority. It comes through the rule of the law, the even-handedness of the state.

Also in the name of religion, we see discrimination against women – through laws in Aceh, for example. Laws on “adultery” have a disproportionate impact on women – social expectations on what constitutes “appropriate” behaviour means they are more likely to face arrest and prosecution.


The third sign is where legislation is used to enforce a religious hierarchy in society.

This is a very live issue in Indonesia, despite the guarantee of freedom of religion in the constitution. The Joint Ministerial Decree in 2008 forbidding Ahmadiyya community members from promoting their activities and spreading religious teachings is outright discrimination.

But it is reinforced further by the regulations and bylaws passed by local authorities in several provinces, districts and cities further restricting Ahmadiyya activities and worship.

The recent jailing of three members of the so-called Gafatar minority for between three and five years earlier this month after a Joint Ministerial Decree was passed forbidding the Millah Abraham religious belief is another example of how laws and decrees enforce intolerance. If it is to respect the freedom of religion or belief of all citizens equally, the state simply cannot arbitrate on religious orthodoxy. The two functions are totally incompatible.

The blasphemy law in Indonesia plays a pernicious role too. Not only is it fundamentally discriminatory, it is also applied specifically against those belonging to minority religions or those whose beliefs deviate from the central tenets of the officially recognised religions.

The blasphemy charges against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, for making a comment in a video posted online that appeared to “insult” Quranic verses are also spurious. They show the government more interested in appeasing hard-line religious groups than defending pluralism and equality of all, and they should drop the charges against him.

Blasphemy laws are poisonous wherever they exist – nowhere more so than Pakistan. The laws stipulate the death penalty for blasphemy. But they also provide a licence for discrimination and vigilante violence. When someone faces a blasphemy accusation, especially if they belong to a minority, they become tangled up in a process that presumes them guilty, and offers them little protection against people willing to use violence against them. Once someone is accused, they are as good as dead.

Ultimately, the laws exist to reinforce the idea that the nation has one “authentic” religion, and they cast a pall of illegitimacy over everyone else.

People sometimes try to claim that laws such as these are necessary to protect the social fabric of a nation. But the same argument, the same logic, is used to justify laws imposing bans or restrictions on Muslim clothing in some Europe. Or the targeting of Hindus in Bangladesh.

It is easier to accept it when you are in the majority. But the view is very different when you are in the minority.

Sectarian and communal violence

The fourth sign is violence. It is a product of the enabling environment created by the other factors: demonization, discrimination, and often legislation which embeds and gives legitimacy to discriminatory attitudes.

Indonesia has seen plenty of violence in the name of religion – mostly against non-Muslim minorities but also against Muslim people in areas where they are in a minority, including an attack on a mosque in Papua.

Since 2006, attacks on religious minorities have included burning of homes and places of worship by mobs, sometimes causing whole communities to be evicted into temporary shelters. And often it happens with the police fully aware of threats against the communities but taking no action to prevent the attacks or protect the communities.

And there is the way that local authorities and radical groups have cited the Joint Ministerial Decree and local regulations to justify intimidation and attacks against the Ahmadiyya.

Impunity is normal, and every time it happens, it has consequences that go deeper than the violence itself. It helps to strengthen the idea that these minorities do not belong here. That they are less authentic citizens, less worthy of protection by the state.

This is both a betrayal of the fundamental principle of human dignity and equality; it is also a recipe for more fragmentation, more division, more conflict.

And of course at the more extreme end we see the vicious and cruel persecution of the Yazidis at the hands of the group which calls itself Islamic State. Or the cruel violence meted out by Boko Haram in West Africa.

Moving forward

So I have identified four signs of the attack on pluralism: demonization, discrimination, legislation, and violence. That is the playbook for how to undermine pluralism and equality in society.

We don’t always see all of those ingredients. But taken together they send a powerful signal about the place of those in society who do not conform to a majority religion or ideology.

So when we think about fighting back, we have to take all four conditions into account.

In Germany, Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoeller wrote about the cowardice of many in standing up to the Nazis when they were going after other groups of people:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

When we allow discrimination, demonization to take root, to become embedded in legislation, we should be very careful. We need to ask ourselves what kind of society we are allowing.

So we should not just wait for violence to occur. We need to recognise the signs of intolerance, the seeds of violence, and act early.

Let me suggest three ways of doing that.

The battle in public discourse

It begins with a battle in the public discourse. The only way to fight back against demonization is to recognise the humanity in each other, and build solidarity with each other.

In Europe, that means speaking up for refugees and against xenophobia. At Amnesty International, we have a global campaign calling on countries. We have called it “I Welcome” because we believe real change starts with an attitude, and people’s willingness to voice that. When we start by saying “I welcome refugees”, we can challenge the stubborn refusal of European leaders to take responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers.

In America, it means standing up against President Trump’s efforts to introduce a ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. No hate, no fear, no ban, no wall.

In Asia, it means refusing to accept the demonization of our neighbours from another community. It means speaking out every time they come under verbal or physical attack. It means taking a different attitude from others around us.

In Indonesia, as Yap Thiam Hien did himself, it means speaking out boldly for minorities, and calling for justice.

It means saying that we have a different message to fear and hatred. And that takes courage. But if we want to respect each other’s fundamental dignity and equality, and we want to live together in peace, this is what we must do.

It needs to be more than just words, of course. Canada has developed a beautiful slogan – #DiversityIsStrength – but ultimately that will mean nothing unless Canada is able to demonstrate how it cherishes and protects its diversity. Words need to be backed up by policy and action.

Structural equality and access to justice

So that brings me to the second point. Every time minorities come under attack and the state fails to protect them, the state demeans itself and betrays the people. Every time the state discriminates, it reinforces structural inequalities in society.

The state must fully execute its responsibility to ensure justice for those who experience violence or discrimination, and ensure reparations where appropriate.

It must do this consistently. Not one law for this community, a different law for that community. But leaders must be even-handed, speak up for the rights of all, without prejudice or selectivity.

In Indonesia, the post-Suharto progress towards pluralism slipped during SBY’s period, and we cannot allow that to continue now. Physical attacks on minorities may have decreased, but President Jokowi needs to do more to dismantle the structures which enable abuse. That means tackling laws and decrees, including the Joint Ministerial Decree and the blasphemy law.

It also means conducting investigations into intimidation, harassment and attacks against the Ahmadiyya, Shi’a, Christians and other religious minorities and bringing those responsible to justice. It means ensuring that displaced communities can be returned or offered alternative housing with safety and dignity. It means allowing places of worship to open.

It also means vigilance where freedom of expression crosses into incitement of discrimination and violence. Leaders must stand up to groups who advocate and inflame violence, and ensure that police are guardians of people’s rights, not weapons of discrimination.

Engaging religious groups as part of the solution

The third point of intervention is this: religious groups need to be part of the solution, and an important part of the recipe for pluralism.

Where leaders fail, people must step up. In Indonesia several large Muslim organisations have a track record of speaking out strongly against hatred and violence. Pope Francis has used his position as leader of the worldwide Catholic community to call for peace and justice. And in every corner of the world, for every religious leaders who foments violence and hatred we can find many more who foster peace.

Amnesty International stands ready to work with those who share the fundamental belief in the dignity and equality of all members of the human family.

Conclusion: why we need Indonesia to be strong

Let me conclude by saying this: at a time when politics of demonization have surged across the world, when hatred and fear and suspicion are spreading, when rancorous division is taking root, the world needs to hear a different tune. We need to see countries and populations willing to do it differently, to show how we can live together in peace.

Indonesia can be one of those places. The world needs an Indonesia deeply committed to its pluralist heritage, willing to do what is necessary to safeguard a future of peace and mutual respect.

That would be a great gift from Indonesia to the world. And one of which I believe Yap Thiam Hien would thoroughly approve.

I thank you.