Larger text size Very large text size Meiliana, a year-old Buddhist mother of Chinese descent, sat crying in disbelief in a North Sumatra court in late August. Her complaint had sparked violent backlash from local Muslim groups, who had stoned her home, forcing her and her family to flee to another city. They also attacked and seriously damaged twelve Buddhist temples in the area. The same court that sentenced her showed leniency to eight attackers arrested by police, giving them jail terms of just months. Muslims in Indonesia perform an afternoon prayer during Ramadan. For a country that presents itself to the world as a moderate Muslim-majority democracy that respects diversity and enjoins religious and ethnic harmony, Indonesia has faced increasing criticism for rising intolerance and sectarianism.
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Participants held overwhelmingly negative views of Indonesian Islam, associating it with terrorism and the Middle East. If it is true that relations between Australia and Indonesia are defined by differences rather than commonalities, as many scholars have asserted, then religion is one of the biggest points of contrast between the two countries.
There are about million Indonesian Muslims 88 per cent of the total population compared to just , Australian Muslims 2. For most of the history of bilateral relations, Islam has, somewhat strangely, figured little in Australian diplomacy towards Indonesia.
Only with the rise of terrorism in the early s, and especially the October Bali bombing that cost 88 Australian lives, did Islam become a prominent element in the relationship.
Prior to the emergence of terrorism 15 years ago, Australian political leaders had only generalised views of Indonesian Islam as moderate and tolerant compared to the more severe forms of the faith found in the Middle East. There were two main Australian government responses to this. The second resulted in a massive expansion in Islamic sector aid to Indonesia, which was sold primarily as countering terrorism but actually had much wider educational and democratic objectives.
The Howard government wrote the script for characterising Indonesian Islam and every subsequent government has largely followed this. Both ordinary Indonesians and Australians were said to be victims of extremism with a shared interest in fighting it, thus emphasising a common struggle between the two nations against terrorism.
This line was particularly common during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from — Indonesian Muslim leaders who met government officials grew tired of their relentless emphasis on radicalism and lack of interest in almost any other aspect of their faith.
The second major initiative was to give development assistance to the Islamic education sector. The main initiator of this assistance was then foreign minister Alexander Downer, who justified the leap in expenditure as a counter-terrorism measure. There is little evidence to support this assertion, but the funding was gratefully received by an Islamic education sector that lagged far behind the standard of non-religious state schools and non-Muslim private schools.
Its curtailment has prevented Australia from gaining longer term benefits from 12 years of generous development assistance. Sadly, Australian views of Indonesian Islam continue to be excessively shaped by apprehension and security preoccupations, which in turn generate reductionist moderate—radical typologies. Threat perceptions make a hollow basis for bilateral relations.
Associate Professor Greg Fealy