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My preparation for a news conference in February launching a Human Rights Watch report on Indonesia's rising religious intolerance included an emergency escape drill. We weren't concerned about fire. Instead, we had been warned that an Islamist militant group might try to disrupt our event in Jakarta.

So we made sure we could exit the premises quickly if the group showed up. One of our speakers, a member of the Ahmadiyah religious community who has needed extensive facial reconstruction surgery following an attack by Islamists in western Java two years earlier, needed no convincing. Thankfully, the group stayed away.

Fast forward to August 22, and Indonesia's religious affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali, had an encounter with one of the country's most violent Islamist organizations, the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI).  But rather than confiscating the FPI’s weaponry-of-choice – machetes and spears – or serving its members with arrest warrants, Ali opted to make the keynote speech at the FPI's annual congress in Jakarta.

In a feat of bewildering understatement, Ali chided the FPI for their reputation for “kejawaraan” or “criminality" and reminded them of Islam's doctrine of peace. The audience, a who’s who of the country's most intolerant Islamist politicians and clerics, listened politely before turning to the meeting's real focus: the FPI's pursuit of a nation ruled by Islamic law instead of the country's secular constitution. 

Ali should not have been surprised: the FPI has long sought to justify violence by espousing an interpretation of Sunni Islam that labels most non-Muslims as “infidels,” and Muslims who do not adhere to Sunni orthodoxy as “blasphemers.” 

Ali couldn't claim ignorance of the FPI's 15-year record of bigotry and criminality. The FPI and kindred groups are implicated in multiple serious acts of harassment, intimidation, threats and increasingly, mob violence against religious minorities, including several Protestant groups, Shia , and the Ahmadiyah. The group is also notorious for attacking nightclubs, bars and other purveyors of alcoholic drinks, particularly during the annual Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.  (Such attacks are not limited to the FPI – Indonesia's Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, documented 264 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, up from 216 in 2010). 

But perhaps Ali has forgotten about the FPI attack on representatives of the interfaith National Alliance for Freedom of Faith and Religion (AKKBB) at the base of the National Monument in Jakarta in June 2008. The FPI injured dozens of AKKBB campaigners in that incident. But the FPI's more recent victims should have been fresh in his mind. They include a man allegedly stabbed in the back and head on August 11 by rioting FPI members in East Java’s Kandang Semangkon village, and a woman killed on July 19 when an FPI vehicle fleeing a confrontation with local residents in Kendal, East Java, ran down her motorcycle.

Ali's presence at the FPI event did more than just debase his office, and make a mockery of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's recent assertion of being "very concerned" about religious intolerance. It lent official legitimacy to a group that has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to violently undermine Indonesia's constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Ali's presence at the event – and his failure to take the FPI to task for their religious bigotry and violence – was the Indonesian equivalent of a senior U.S. politician attending a Klu Klux Klan rally and tut-tutting unsafe cross-burning practices. It misses the point, adds insult to the injury of the FPI's victims, and emboldens the group to continue its campaign of religious intolerance and violence.

Sadly, Ali’s willingness to rub elbows with Islamist thugs is not out of character. Human Rights Watch noted in its February report that Ali has been outspoken against religious minorities and has repeatedly made discriminatory comments about the Ahmadiyah and Shia. In January 2012, after a meeting with lawmakers, Ali publicly stated that the Shia faith is “against Islam.” Yudhoyono has not only failed to censure Ali for such bigotry, on August 13 Yudhoyono awarded Ali the Bintang Mahaputera Adipradana medal, the country’s second highest civilian honor.

Yudhoyono’s tolerance of such statements from a senior minister is part and parcel of his wider failure to confront the FPI and other agents of rising religious intolerance. In February 2013, Yudhoyono's spokesman tried to dismiss Human Rights Watch’s reporting of violations of religious freedom as "naïve."

Meanwhile, the situation in Indonesia has become increasingly menacing for religious minorities. On August 4, a bomb planted by unknown perpetrators exploded inside a Buddhist temple in downtown Jakarta while congregants worshipped, injuring three men. Police are investigating. The violence comes just weeks after Indonesian Islamist militants vowed vengeance against Buddhists for attacks in Burma by members of the Buddhist majority against the local Rohingya Muslim population. A day later, unknown perpetrators tossed Molotov cocktails into the yard of a Catholic high school in Jakarta. Staff scrambled to extinguish the flames and kept the devices from igniting by dousing them with water from a bathroom.

Yudhoyono needs to take steps to extinguish the fires of religious intolerance, which have spread under his failure of leadership. He should enforce the law, uphold constitutional protections for religious freedom, and make it clear that he will no longer condone the excesses of the FPI and similar groups.  And to prove he means business, he should fire Ali and appoint a new religious affairs minister – one prepared to confront, rather than coddle, Indonesia’s forces of religious intolerance.

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