Back to Indonesia: When covering disputes among faithful, AP should talk to more Muslims

Tensions remain high in Indonesia, where opponents of the nation's Christian governor -- he is part of the nation's minority Chinese population -- held a massive rally calling for the arrest of Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja and his trial on charges of blasphemy.

Obviously, many journalists believe that a story like this requires lots of vague adjectives in front of the word "Muslims."

In this case, the opponents of Ahok are "conservative Muslims" and the Muslims who support him are "moderate Muslims." What does this mean? Who knows, other than the fact that the conservatives are (you knew this was coming) mad about the growing presence of LGBTQ activists in public life.

Here is the key passage in an update from the Associated Press:

The crowds massed in the area of the national monument formed a sea of white that spilled into surrounding streets while gridlocked motorists sat on the sidewalks. Some held huge banners calling Ahok a blasphemer who should be jailed while others chanted and prayed. The blasphemy controversy erupted in September when a video circulated online in which Ahok criticized detractors who argued the Quran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader.
It has challenged the image of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as practicing a moderate form of Islam and has shaken the government of Jokowi, who accused unnamed political actors of trying to undermine him.

Recently, I criticized a Washington Post story about these events in the incredibly complex culture of Indonesia because it didn't include quotes from non-Muslims. As Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin noted at that time: "Tremendous hole in this piece: What about non-Muslim Indonesians? There are many Hindus in Java, Christian Chinese, Sikhs and others living there."

The problem with the recent AP coverage of this dispute is that it offers a different kind of simplicity -- by (a) dealing with these clashes as a matter of politics, alone, and (b) by failing to interview representatives of some of the largest and most powerful Muslim organizations in Indonesia.

Once again, readers are being handed press coverage that pits "conservative" Muslims who are concerned about morality and religion against "moderate" Muslims who, it would appear, are only trying to protect their political turf.

So who is missing? To be specific, it's crucial that AP reporters on the ground in Indonesia are not quoting leaders of the massive Muhammadiyah network or representatives of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the world's largest Muslim organizations. That superhero at the top of this post? He's a popular symbol of Nahdlatul Ulama.

To get a sense of what these groups are about, let's back up a year and look at part of a New York Times piece about Nahdlatul Ulama and its efforts, through an online documentary, to fight the theological teachings of the Islamic State:

The challenge ... comes from Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population but which lies thousands of miles away from the Islamic State’s base in the Middle East.
“The spread of a shallow understanding of Islam renders this situation critical, as highly vocal elements within the Muslim population at large -- extremist groups -- justify their harsh and often savage behavior by claiming to act in accord with God’s commands, although they are grievously mistaken,” said A. Mustofa Bisri, the spiritual leader of the group, Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian Muslim organization that claims more than 50 million members.
“According to the Sunni view of Islam,” he said, “every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion, and foster the perfection of human nature.”
This message of tolerance is at the heart of the group’s campaign against jihadism, which will be carried out online, and in hotel conference rooms and convention centers from North America to Europe to Asia.

The crucial point in this article is that Nahdlatul Ulama is making its case against radicalized forms of Islam, and ISIS in particular, in terms of theology and the actual practice of Islamic faith in daily life.

An earlier AP report on this topic contained the same hole as the AP story I began with in this post, in terms of throwing labels at this conflict ("hardline" Muslims get lots of attention in this case) instead of quotes from religious groups on both sides of this theological and, yes, political debate in Indonesia. Here is that article, as it appears in Time magazine and here is the crucial passage:

The furor over Ahok, sparked by his criticism of detractors who argued the Quran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader, has highlighted religious and racial fault lines in Indonesia, the world’s most populous nation, and the growing challenge from proponents of Shariah law to its secular system of government.

For Chinese Indonesians, the controversy has awakened painful memories of the mass protests that ousted late dictator Suharto during the 1998 Asian financial crisis. Boiling resentment against immigrant Chinese tycoons who profited from ties to Suharto and his famously corrupt family spilled over into mob attacks on Chinese property and people, killing many. Nearly two decades later, Jakarta’s Chinatown is still scarred by the burned out shells of buildings torched in the chaos.

Later there is this:

When Ahok in 2012 became the first Chinese to be elected deputy governor of Jakarta, and the first Christian in half a century, it was seen as a sign of the pluralistic tolerance fostered by the moderate form of Islam practiced in Indonesia.

But his rise to governor in 2014 to replace political ally Joko “Jokowi” Widodo after his election as president was unpalatable to hard-liners. With the support of moderates that hope to gain from Ahok’s fall, they have elevated their agenda to the national stage, and revealed that intolerant interpretations of Islam adapted from the Middle East have made greater inroads than believed.

I am trying to come up with some comparisons in American life to illustrate what is happening here, in terms of journalism. This would be like covering a dispute among American Protestants without interviewing anyone from the National Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals, or reporting an article about a dispute over Judaism in public life without quotes from the American Jewish Committee.

In other words, where are AP's quotes from the religious leaders who are, for millions in the mainstream, at the heart of Islamic life in Indonesia?

Just asking.

As always, it pays to remember that there is more to life than politics -- especially when people are arguing about morality and religion, as well as politics. #Really

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