It's time for an update on the inseparably braided political and religious goings-on in two key Muslim nations; Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, and Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace and site of the recently concluded hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.
As you may expect, it’s not good news.
Moreover, it’s news that’s in danger of going under-appreciated because of the undeniably more alluring headlines -- for American news junkies, at least -- related to the Catholic Church’s sexual corruption cover up, and the Trump administration’s equally crumbling cover up of sexual, financial and all-around political corruption.
Let’s start with Indonesia, which once enjoyed, and capitalized on, a reputation for being one of the most politically moderate and religiously open-minded of Muslim nations.
These two pieces provide a refresher, should you require it. The first is a news report from Reuters, while the second is a previous GetReligion analysis by editor Terry Mattingly ("That wave of attacks on churches in Indonesia: Is the 'moderate' Muslim news hook gone?"
Now, it seems, the situation in the Southeast Asian archipelago nation has gone from bad to worse, and perhaps to the absurd.
Here’s what The Washington Post reported last week.
A Buddhist woman’s conviction this week on blasphemy charges has alarmed many in Indonesia who were already worried about the erosion of religious pluralism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Meiliana, a 44-year-old Buddhist from the island of Sumatra, was convicted Tuesday of violating Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy law and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Her crime: complaining about the volume of the Islamic call to prayer blasted by a mosque’s loudspeakers near her home.
Catch that? Somehow complaining about the volume of mosque’s loudspeakers, used to summon the faithful to prayer, is a serious attack on the fundamentals of the faith itself. Raise your hand now (or comment below) if you agree with me that this is a clear case of religion being deployed for political purposes.
How else can one interpret this when you consider that even Indonesia’s two leading Muslim religious organizations have come to Meiliana’s defense (like many Indonesians she uses just one name). And that she’s a member of Indonesia's minority Chinese community, which once enjoyed outsized privilege under past Indonesian dictatorships?
Plus, as you’ll recall from the refresher links above (you did check them out, didn't you?), ex-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama, a Christian and also an ethnic Chinese Indonesian, was ousted from office and also jailed on blasphemy charges. His offense? He suggested that the Quran, Islam’s scriptural text, did not prohibit Muslims from voting for non-Muslims in secular elections.
Sure seems like a pattern to me.
Here’s another ominous sign of what may lay ahead for Indonesia, also from the Post’s article.
This month, Indonesia’s relatively moderate president, Joko Widodo, stunned his more-liberal supporters by announcing that his running mate in his reelection bid next year would be Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin. In his role as head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, Amin was influential in the push to jail Ahok, a former close ally of Widodo.
Now for Saudi Arabia.
You’ll recall that it was but months ago that the elite international media heaped (what now seems egregiously premature) praise upon Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, at 32, his nation’s de facto leader. Labeled a “modernizer,” he shrewdly garnered PR points for granting the kingdom’s women the right to drive. All manner of liberal religious reform (a highly relative term in the ultra-conservative nation) was foreseen.
Ah, but that was then, and this is now -- as this piece from The Guardian, published last week --makes clear.
Saudi Arabian prosecutors are seeking the death sentence for five human rights activists, including a woman who is thought to be the first female campaigner in the country facing execution, rights groups have said.
Israa al-Ghomgham, a Shia activist arrested with her husband in 2015, will be tried in the country’s terrorism tribunal even though charges she faces relate to peaceful activism, Human Rights Watch said.
“Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behaviour, is monstrous,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
Together with her husband, Moussa al-Hashem, and three other defendants, Ghomgham faces charges that “do not resemble recognisable crimes”, HRW said.
Once again, we have a case of the political (the Sunni Saudi monarchy is all powerful in its desert realm) and the religious (Israa al-Ghomgham’s Shitte Muslim minority community has long been oppressed by the Sunni majority) co-leveraged by the powerful to benefit the powerful. And don't you dare criticize the crown prince’s decidedly undemocratic policies as democratic Canada had the audacity to do.
I think this Washington Post editorial summed up the Saudi situation quite appropriately. Its final point:
The kingdom has been engaged in a sustained crackdown on dissent and protest. Saudi authorities imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi for suggesting the kingdom needed moderation and his sister Samar Badawi for advocating on behalf of human rights. Was their advocacy really that dangerous? Vision 2030, the blueprint of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pledges that the “values of moderation, tolerance” will be “the bedrock of our success.” The document says Saudi Arabia’s principles include “being conscientious of human rights.” Perhaps the king and crown prince ought to read their own brochures and take them to heart. As it is, they behave as despots from a darker era.
So fill yourself with a surfeit of stories datelined the Vatican and Washington. Important things are happening in both places, to be sure.
But try not to overlook the many other stories continually breaking around the world. Their importance may not seem as immediate. But that surely does not mean that their significance is any less. Such is the case with Indonesia, home to an estimated 225 million Muslims, and Saudi Arabia, to which so much of the traditional Muslim world looks to for religious guidance.
For if they backslide on democratic religious norms, fail to follow through with anticipated religious reforms, or further link religion and politics in today’s globalized world (a path that’s almost synonymous with Islam’s founding), you can be sure the impact will engender headlines for years to come. And don't count on it being all good news.