Papua (Indonesia): Muslim-Christian tensions on a knife edge

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By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

International Crisis Group (ICG) has just released an informative and
significant report on the escalating ethnic and religious tensions in Papua
(eastern Indonesia).

Indonesia: Communal Tensions in Papua
ICG Asia Report No. 154, 16 June 2008

As the report notes: "Indonesian Papua has seen periodic clashes between
pro-independence supporters and government forces, but conflict between Muslim
and Christian communities could also erupt unless rising tensions are
effectively managed."

According to ICG, the key factors behind escalating sectarian tensions are
"continuing Muslim migration from elsewhere in Indonesia; the emergence of
new, exclusivist groups in both religious communities that have hardened the
perception of the other as enemy; the lasting impact of the Maluku conflict;
and the impact of developments outside Papua."

WEA RLC News & Analysis has regularly raised the issue of Muslim migration and
demographics in Papua, most recently in a 20 December 2007 posting entitled:
"Papua (Indonesia): Genocide by Demographics". (Link 1)

The ICG report gives detailed accounts of how changing ethnic and religious
demographics in various towns have produced localised but threatening culture
clashes. Violence has been only barely contained and tensions simmer just
under the surface.

Concerning the "new, exclusivist groups in both religious communities", IGC
says that the arrival in Papua over the last ten years of new "militant
strands of both religions" is contributing to tensions. "On the Muslim side",
they note, "Hizb ut-Tahrir and salafi Muslims are giving a harder edge to an
Islam that until recently was . . . reasonably moderate." Then, "On the
Christian side, neo-pentecostals and charismatics are promoting their own
brand of exclusivist truth and see the expansion of Muslim daawa (religious
outreach, dakwah in Indonesian spelling) as their greatest challenge." (Page 1)

ICG is no doubt attempting to be fair, non-judgmental and politically correct
by presenting these "exclusivist" and "militant" groups as moral equivalents.
But this is unfair and unreasonable.

There is however a good deal of interesting information in the ICG report.
While Salfists are mainly winning over the Javanese, the Hizb ut Tahrir (which
preaches Islamic-Marxist revolution) and the Pentecostal
God-wants-you-to-have-prosperity-and-power sects are winning over many poor,
marginalised, disempowered indigenous Papuans, thus deepening the fractures
within Papuan society which is largely mainline Protestant.

The ICG report also details the degree to which the conflict in Maluku spread
to Papua.


One very disturbing element of the ICG report is the regular reference to the
"new history" that has recently been "rediscovered by Muslim commentators". As
ICG reports, "the subtext to the new popular history is that foreign
missionaries were responsible for Christianisation of a Muslim land; that
Christian colonialism proceeded to obliterate all traces of Islam; and that
not just Papua Muslims but Indonesian Muslims more generally must redouble
efforts to regain lost ground and exert the control that is rightfully
theirs." (page 21)

ICG does not challenge the Muslim commentators' "new popular history" or
denounce it as revisionism. Rather ICG accepts it, describing Muslim
acceptance of it as a "new awareness" (p4) or a "new understanding" (p11) of
history. Clearly, if Muslim commentators say it, it must be true!

The same benefit-of-the-doubt courtesy is not, however, extended to
Christians. For example: "Toward the end of the year, rumours began
circulating in the Christian community that Laskar Jihad, the salafi militia
that wreaked havoc in Maluku from 2000 to 2002, was conducting military
training in a trans-migrant area known as Satuan Pemukiman (SP) 7 in Masmi,
outside Manokwari, with the aim of fighting Christians who had opposed the
mosque. The fears were calmed after it turned out that the young men involved,
almost all of them migrants, were not Laskar Jihad at all but members of a
non-political, non-religious martial arts organisation." (Page 5) This
reporting would be fine except that the footnote reference cites as the
source: "Crisis Group telephone interview, Muslim activist, Manokwari, May

ICG seems to have an anti-Christian bias which causes it to undermine and
minimise Christian concerns and thereby de-legitimise Christian requests. It
seems to accept as inevitable that Papua will become Muslim and regard as
unreasonable that Christians would want to prevent that.

Despite these problems, the ICG report is both informative and important.
Religious liberty advocates will understand just how incredibly serious the
situations described are.

ICG forecasts that if Muslim v Christian clashes do erupt, they will remain
localised. I do not agree with that assessment. The jihadist groups, the
pro-Indonesia militias and in particular the Indonesian military (TNI) are
looking for an excuse to unleash violent repression and ethnic-religious
cleansing. Any violent local clash therefore has incendiary potential to
convert simmering tension into burning terror across the region.


The most disappointing (and shameful) thing about the ICG report is that while
ICG offers several recommendations for managing the situation, implementation
of the Special Autonomy Law is not one of them! De-militarisation and the
opening up of the region to visitors, journalists and human rights monitors
are not amongst ICG's recommendations either.

ICG's recommendations include things such as ". . .ensure that Papua develops
its own indigenous [Muslim] scholars and teachers able to interpret universal
Islamic values in ways that are in harmony rather than conflict with customary

But it is naive to think there is such a thing as "universal Islamic values",
and even more naive to think that Javanese Salafis would accept having
indigenous Papuans "interpret" or customise orthodox, Qur'anic Islamic values
so that they no longer conflict with customary (Melanesian, tribal, animist,
Christian) traditions.

What Papua needs is openness and internationally-monitored full implementation
of the Special Autonomy Law. And it needs it very soon, before it is simply
too late and the momentum behind the genocide of Papua's Melanesian Christians
is irreversible.

Elizabeth Kendal


1) Papua (Indonesia): Genocide by Demographics
WEA RLC News & Analysis,
By Elizabeth Kendal, 20 December 2007

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