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Islam and Christian– Muslim Relations,

Vol. 20, No. 1, 73 –89, January 2009

Explaining the Cause of Muslim-

Christian Conflicts in Indonesia: Tracing
the Origins of Kristenisasi and Islamisasi

Department of Political Science, Arizona State University, Tempe, USA

ABSTRACT Within the last decade, Indonesia has experienced numerous incidents of communal
violence between conservative Muslims, who are the religious majority in the country, and the
Christian minority. This has been caused by mutual prejudices and suspicions that have
gradually developed between the two groups. This article will explain the origins of such
sentiments by looking at the history of Muslim –Christian relations in Indonesia. It argues that
the origins of tensions between the two religions date from the Dutch colonial period in
Indonesia and persisted throughout Indonesia’s post-independence history. First, the article will
survey the roots of Kristenisasi suspicions among Indonesian Muslims, from the Dutch colonial
period until the New Order regime under Suharto. Next, it will examine government policies
designed to appease conservative Muslims and restrict the religious freedom of Indonesian
Christians. Finally, it will discuss how these policies helped to create the fear of Islamisasi
among Indonesian Christians.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia was rocked by an
upsurge of violent conflicts which occurred throughout the country, killing tens of thou-
sands of Indonesian citizens and leaving several million Indonesians as refugees in their
own homeland. Such conflicts have occurred primarily in eastern Indonesia, specifically
in the provinces of Maluku, Central Sulawesi and East Nusa Tenggara. They tended to
be primarily sectarian and occurred between adherents of two major religious traditions,
Islam and Christianity, which together claim as adherents the vast majority (approximately
97%) of Indonesians. Islam is the confessional faith of about 87% of Indonesians, while
approximately 10% of Indonesians are Christians. Christianity is the majority faith of
the population in certain Indonesian provinces such as Maluku, Papua, North and
Central Sulawesi, and East Nusa Tenggara.
As more violent conflicts between Indonesian Muslims and Christians occurred between
1998 and 2001, it became clear that many of them arose from prejudices and suspicions

Correspondence Address: Alexander R. Arifianto, Department of Political Science, Arizona State University, PO
Box 873902, Tempe, Arizona 85287-3902, USA; E-mail:

0959-6410 Print/1469-9311 Online/09/010073–17 # 2009 University of Birmingham

DOI: 10.1080/09596410802542144
74 A.R. Arifianto

that each religious tradition has against the other. On the one hand, conservative Muslims
have long suspected Christian groups of engaging in a campaign to convert Indonesian
Muslims to Christianity. On the other, many Christians also suspect conservative
Muslim groups of having engaged in efforts to make Indonesia an Islamic-inspired state
at best, and a fully-fledged Islamic state at worst. These suspicions, combined with
other national and local political cleavages between these groups (e.g. conflict over
access to political and economic resources), have been considered as the variables that
explain the conflicts between members of these two religious traditions.
Conflicts between the adherents of Islam and Christianity in Indonesia have caught the
attention of scholars of inter-religious relations in Indonesia by surprise. Previous scholar-
ship in this area (e.g. Hefner, 2000; Steenbrink, 1993, 1998) has been inclined to argue that
relationships between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia tended to be positive and har-
monious, because: (a) there is a long-tradition of religious tolerance between the two reli-
gious groups which has lasted for decades and diminished significantly the prospect of
open conflicts between the two groups; (b) adherents of the Muslim and Christian faiths
in Indonesia have tended to be respectful of one another’s traditions and willing to live
and work together in their community despite their religious differences; and (c) the
majority of Indonesia’s Muslim population was syncretic and tolerant of other religious
traditions that live alongside them, thus promoting a climate of religious toleration.
Given this widespread perception among these scholars, who have presented Indonesia
as a model for inter-religious tolerance, it is not surprising that many of them had problems
explaining incidents of extreme violence between Indonesian Muslims and Christians
living in the above-named conflict areas and the high number of casualties resulting
from these religiously-inspired conflicts. In recent years, numerous studies have been con-
ducted to help explain the causes of these conflicts (e.g. Bertrand, 2004; Sidel, 2006; Van
Klinken, 2007). The authors of these works seem to attribute the causes of these conflicts to
non-religious factors. While they recognize that religious ideas and values are important for
the majority of Indonesian Muslims and Christians, they argue that the conflicts were
caused by the manoeuvres of Indonesia’s political elites, at both the national and local
levels. These manoeuvres were carried out to deal with the great political uncertainty
that occurred after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 and the subsequent upheaval of
the ruling regime in Indonesia, through which it was changed from an authoritarian
regime toward one that is at least formally democratic. Specifically, the aim of these
manoeuvres was to reposition these elites and their allies so that they would be able to
control the state power and patronage upon which they were dependent for their survival.
Nevertheless, these authors do agree that religious differences between Muslims and
Christians were instrumental in sharpening the contention between members of the politi-
cal elite who were followers of one of these two religious traditions, and they recognize
religion as the primary identity marker for the actors involved in these conflicts (Bertrand,
2004, pp. 72, 74; Sidel, 2006, pp. 40 – 41; Van Klinken, 2007, p. 22). Religion became the
identity marker for these actors because, under Suharto’s long authoritarian rule, he
implemented policies that promoted the expression of religious piety as part of his govern-
ment’s agenda to prevent the spread of ‘atheistic’ Communist ideas.1 The result of this
policy was an increased level of religiosity among Indonesian Muslims and Christians,
which, over the course of Suharto’s New Order regime, contributed to the exacerbation
of tensions and suspicions between the two religions (Bertrand, 2004, p. 78; Van
Klinken 2007, p. 22). By the time Suharto’s regime ended, Muslim and Christian
The Cause of Muslim –Christian Conflicts in Indonesia 75

leaders had begun to use religious images and rhetoric to mobilize their followers and to
portray their rivals as ‘infidels’ who threatened their faith communities and needed to be
eliminated. The extreme intensity of Muslim –Christian conflicts in Maluku and Poso was
attributed to the use of these religious identities and images.
However, there are important issues in Muslim –Christian relations in Indonesia that
have not been adequately addressed by the authors referred to above. They do not
adequately explain how far back the contention between Muslims and Christians in
Indonesia goes, why it arose in the first place, or how it serves as a foundation for the
political interests, agendas, and preferences of each of the two religious groups. In short,
what leads many Indonesian Muslims and Christians to develop such hostility towards
each other and to engage in violent acts against members of the other religion? This is
the question that this article will attempt to address, by looking at the roots of Kristenisasi
and Islamisasi prejudices among Indonesian Muslims and Christians.
This article will argue that the roots of such prejudices can be traced back to the mid-
nineteenth century, when the Dutch colonial government decided to actively support
Christian missionaries’ efforts to propagate their faith among the Indonesian population.
At about the same time, a new generation of Muslim clerics, who had received their reli-
gious education in the Middle East, started a programme of religious reform to renew
Islamic teaching in Indonesia and bring it more in line with the original teachings of
the Prophet. The convergence of these two movements helped cause the development
of mutual suspicions between Indonesian Muslims and Christians which affected the
relationships between these groups in the early twentieth century and continued to influ-
ence the interactions between members of the two religious traditions from Indonesia’s
independence to the present time. This can be seen clearly from the various political con-
flicts that occurred between the two groups, including, for instance over the 1945 Jakarta
Charter, which Christians feared would turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. It was also in
evidence during the first half of the reign of Indonesia’s long-term dictator Suharto, when
many Christian leaders co-operated with his regime’s policy to suppress the political
activities of conservative Muslims. This heightened the tensions between the two
groups and increased fears of Kristenisasi (Christianization) and Islamisasi (Islamization)
between them.
This article will now proceed to survey the roots of suspicions among Indonesian
Muslims regarding Christians and their political activities from the period of Dutch occu-
pation in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to the middle of Suharto’s
New Order regime. Then it will examine government policies enacted by the New Order
government to appease conservative Muslims and address these concerns, culminating in
the decision by the regime to support conservative Muslim groups in the 1990s and adopt
many of their political agendas. The article then will discuss how these policies helped to
create a fear of Islamisasi among Indonesian Christians. Finally, the paper will conclude
by reviewing the impacts of Kristenisasi and Islamisasi suspicions on contemporary
political discourses in Indonesia and will offer some policy recommendations that could
help reduce, if not eliminate, these fears among the adherents of these two religions.
Two caveats are in order before proceeding. First, the essay is written from a political
science perspective. It primarily focuses on how Muslims and Christians in Indonesia
interact with one another, as well as with successive Indonesian governments, as compet-
ing interest groups. While it is recognized that these organizations are primarily religious
groups that focus primarily on providing spiritual and pastoral support both for their
76 A.R. Arifianto

members and for potential converts, the article will focus on their political interactions
rather than their spiritual activities. Theological reflections and differences between the
two religions will therefore not be covered here.2
Second, the article focuses primarily on the interactions and conflicts between members
of Indonesia’s Christian community and the small and yet politically significant groups
within Indonesian Islam that will be termed ‘conservative Muslims’. Conservative
Muslims are defined here as those who promote a more literal interpretation of Islamic
theology as reflected in sacred texts such as the Qur’an and Hadith, as well as actively
working towards Indonesia becoming at least a Sharica-inspired state, if not a fully-
fledged Islamic state. It includes a significant number of Indonesian Muslims who consider
themselves as pious (or santri) Muslims and tend to think of themselves as modernist
rather than traditionalist Muslims.3 It also includes a very small but growing number of
Indonesian Muslims who are influenced by the teachings of radical Islamic groups from
the Middle East, such as the Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia and the Salafis from Egypt.4
While Indonesian Christians have tended to have a more positive relationship with tradi-
tionalist Muslims as well as some modernist Muslim leaders, that relationship is not the
focus of this essay.

Muslim – Christian Relations during the Dutch Colonial Period (c. 1850 – 1942)
Islamic foundations in Indonesia date back to approximately the thirteenth century, when
merchants from India and the Middle East spread their faith to the courts of Indonesia’s
various small trading kingdoms in Sumatra and Java, which in turn helped disseminate
the new faith to the rest of the population. By the seventeenth century, most of the inhabi-
tants of Indonesia’s coastal kingdoms, as well as a large number of the archipelago’s
hinterland societies, had become Muslims (Hefner, 2005, p. 83). However, at about the
same time, European colonialists (first the Portuguese, then the Dutch), intending to
forcibly take over the very lucrative spice trade centred in Indonesia, began to arrive in
the archipelago.
The Dutch were successful in colonizing the territory that comprises Indonesia today.
They gained effective control over much of Java and Sumatra by the end of the seventeenth
century, and then gradually expanded their control through the rest of Indonesia by the
mid-nineteenth century. However, during this period, the Dutch colonizers were not inter-
ested in converting Indonesian Muslims to Christianity. They thought that doing so could
endanger their commercial interests, since in order to maintain the Dutch East Indies as a
viable trading colony, the Dutch needed to maintain a close economic relationship with the
native rulers of the areas they colonized. Mass conversions to Christianity would only have
created further tensions between the Dutch and these rulers, something that the Dutch
sought to avoid (Steenbrink, 1992, pp. 66 –68).5 The Dutch policy to maintain ‘neutrality’
and not support Christian missionary campaigns to convert Indonesian Muslims lasted
until the mid-nineteenth century.
However, from the mid-nineteenth century until the end of their rule in 1942, the Dutch
reversed their policy of discouraging Christian missionary activities in Indonesia and
began to encourage Protestant and Catholic missionaries to convert the native population.
The Dutch justified this policy reversal in the aftermath of several Islamic-inspired rebel-
lions against Dutch rule that occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century (e.g.
the Diponegoro rebellion in Java (1825 –1830) and the Padri rebellion in West Sumatra
The Cause of Muslim –Christian Conflicts in Indonesia 77

(1823 – 1837). The Dutch increasingly viewed Islam as a ‘hostile’ religious tradition that
could be used by native Indonesians to mobilize against Dutch rule (Hefner, 2005, p. 90).
At the same time, many Dutch government officials believed that Indonesians who had
converted to Christianity were more likely to develop more cooperative attitudes
towards the Dutch colonial power and to support their continuing rule over Indonesia
(Van Klinken, 2003, pp. 23, 56).6
The Dutch colonial government made rural and remote areas throughout Indonesia a
target for Christian missionary efforts, hoping that if the population converted to
Christianity, these areas could be turned into ‘buffer’ zones that would protect Dutch-
controlled urban centres from the threat of ‘radicalized’ Muslims living in surrounding
areas. Examples of ‘boundaries creation’ to divide Muslim areas through the creation of
Christian ethnic enclaves can be seen elsewhere throughout Indonesia in the late nineteenth
century, for example, in North Sumatra (using Batak Christians to isolate Aceh Muslims
from Malay Muslims), East Borneo (using Dayak Christians to separate Banjarese
Muslims from Malay Muslims), and North Sulawesi (using Christianized Tobakus and
Minahasans to divide Buginese Muslims) (Aragon, 2000; Ropi, 1999, p. 83).
While these mission efforts were officially concentrated in the remote regions where the
indigenous population were not predominantly Muslims, in practice Christian missionary
activities were also conducted in predominantly Muslim regions. For instance, Christian
missionaries operating in Java justified their proselytization efforts by arguing that the
island was not a Muslim area, but dominated by the practitioners of kejawen—a locally
based religion which mixed elements of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism and local
customs. In their view, since the Dutch colonial government imposed no prohibitions
upon proselytizing among kejawen practitioners, they were free to do so and did just
that (Benda, 1958b, p. 339; Ropi, 1999, p. 84).
The Dutch colonial government’s support for Christian missionaries in the mid-
nineteenth century also coincided with the arrival of modernist Muslim clerics who had
studied in the Middle East and wanted to purify Indonesian Islam from the ‘deviations’
of local syncretic traditions. These clerics were influenced by the teachings of nine-
teenth-century Islamic reformers, such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad
Abduh, who called for a reformed Islam based on traditional Islamic scriptures and texts
(the Qur’an and Hadith), alongside an education system that combined modern science
and technology with a traditional Islamic curriculum. They also promoted the concept of
a global Islamic community (umma) that would promote the creation of Islamic nation-
states which would eventually be unified under a single Islamic caliphate (Laffan, 2003,
pp. 120 –122, 131 – 133).
These clerics saw Christianity and the Dutch-sponsored Christian missionaries as a
threat to Islam and as a device intended by the Dutch colonial government to lead
Indonesian Muslims astray from their faith to follow what they perceived as a ‘false’
religion (Sumartana, 1991, pp. 30 – 32). In the early twentieth century they were instru-
mental in the foundation of reformist Islamic organizations such as Muhammadiyah,
Jong Islamiten Bond (Young Muslim Association) and Persatuan Islam (Persis),
which were established to promote their Islamic reform agenda as well as to counter
the Dutch campaign to promote Christian missionaries (Laffan, 2003, pp. 166 – 171;
Steenbrink, 1992, pp. 135 – 138). As a result of these activities, relations between
adherents of Islam and Christianity in Indonesia during this period became more
conflictual and tenuous.
78 A.R. Arifianto

Tensions between Indonesian Muslims and Christians were further aggravated by the
Dutch government’s policies, which overwhelmingly supported Christians and their
missionary activities while at the same time curbing Islamic-based political and religious
organizations. Within the Dutch civil service, the few indigenous civil servants who were
recruited by the colonial government came from indigenous noble families, which were
only nominally Muslims, and virtually none of them came from pious Muslim families
(Hefner, 2005, pp. 90 – 91 and Ropi, 1999, p. 84). In addition, in the recruitment of the colo-
nial armed forces, the Dutch preferred to recruit soldiers from the Moluccan islands, who
were mostly Christians and were considered to be more ‘loyal’ to the colonial government
than the Muslim Malays or Javanese (Husein, 2005, p. 67; Van Klinken, 2003, p. 23).
As a result of these policies, many Indonesian Muslims viewed Christian missionaries
as willing partners of the Dutch colonial government in extending the colonization of
Indonesia (Ropi, 1999, p. 85). While the government officially asserted that it did not
try to promote any one religion over others, the actions it took to support Christian
missionaries were in clear conflict with this assertion and Indonesian Muslim leaders
were very aware of it. They therefore started aggressively to oppose Christian missionary
campaigns and accused Indonesians who converted to Christianity of being Dutch collab-
orators (Boland, 1971, p. 224; Ropi, 1999, pp. 85 –92).
Distrust of Christians was prevalent among Islamic organizations and even some
Indonesian secular nationalist leaders. They perceived Christians to be Dutch collaborators
and viewed Dutch support for Christian missionaries as an attempt to ‘Christianize’
Indonesia. It was not until the Indonesian War of Independence (1945 –1949) that
Indonesian Christians were able to show their Muslim compatriots that they were not
collaborating with the Dutch but supported an independent Indonesian state (Boland,
1971, p. 224). Even so, many Indonesian Muslim leaders continued to view Indonesian
Christians with suspicion and to contemplate the prospect of Kristenisasi of the Indonesian
archipelago with much concern. Such suspicions persisted during post-independence
Indonesia, whenever Muslims and Christians were involved in political disputes.

Muslim – Christian Relations under the Sukarno Regime (1945 –1966)

When Indonesia declared its independence in August 1945, the leaders of the new nation
were divided into two groups. The first was called the secular nationalist group. It consisted
of political leaders who mainly came from the indigenous nobility ( priyayi) and had
received a modern Western education in the Netherlands. This included Indonesia’s first
president and vice president, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, as well as the constitutional
lawyers Supomo and Mohammad Yamin.7 While most of these leaders were Muslims,
some of them were only nominally so and mixed their practice of Islam with Javanese
syncretic beliefs. In addition, due to the influence of the post-Enlightenment political
philosophy they had learned from their studies in the Netherlands, these leaders were
largely secular in their political orientation (Van Niel, 1960).8 Indonesian Christian
leaders such as Johannes Latuharhari and Samuel Ratulangie also belonged to the
secular nationalist group. These Christian leaders supported secularist policies proposed
by other nationalist leaders because their own vision for the newly independent Indonesian
state was that it should be nationalistic, inclusive and secular in orientation. In their view,
only a secular state could protect the rights of Christian minorities in Indonesia (Husein,
2005, p. 71; Van Klinken, 2003).
The Cause of Muslim –Christian Conflicts in Indonesia 79

The second group consisted of Islamic leaders, mainly from the conservative and modernist
camps (e.g. A. K. Muzakkir, Harun Rasjidi and Kasman Singodimedjo) but also included
traditionalist leaders such as Wahid Hasjim.9 They demanded that the independent
Indonesian state should be built on a strong Islamic foundation. These leaders had played
a substantial political role during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia (1942–1945)
because Muslim organizations had strong linkages to the rural population, who could be
easily mobilized by the Japanese for their war effort, and because the Japanese had
misgivings regarding nationalist Indonesian leaders because of their Dutch education and
their political orientation toward the Western world (Benda, 1958a; Noer, 1978, pp. 9–10).
The contention between the two groups erupted openly when the Muslim leaders
proposed the addition of a clause, later known as the Jakarta Charter, to the proposed
Indonesian Constitution. This clause read that Indonesia would be organized as ‘a Republic
founded on the principles of the Belief in One God, with the obligation for adherents of
Islam to practise Islamic law (Shari‘a) (Ketuhanan dengan kewajiban menjalankan
Syariat Islam bagi pemeluk-pemeluknya)’ (Boland, 1971, p. 26). The Muslim camp also
demanded a Constitutional clause that would require the president of the new republic
to be ‘a native born Indonesian who is a Muslim’ and that Islam be declared the new
state’s sole official religion (Aritonang, 2004, p. 245).
These clauses met with strong objections from Christian leaders, who feared that such
clauses would make Indonesia an Islamic state and would exclude the participation of
Christians in the newly independent country. They even issued a threat that Eastern
Indonesia (Christian-dominated regions such as East Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and North
Sulawesi) would secede from the new state if these clauses remained in place. Their oppo-
sition was also supported by some nominal Muslim leaders, who argued that these clauses
would force all Indonesian Muslims to practise Shari‘a law against their will. As a result of
these objections, although these clauses were initially accepted by the Indonesian Indepen-
dence Preparation Council (Panitia Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia (PPKI)), they
were later removed from the final draft of the 1945 Indonesian Constitution. This decision
satisfied Christian and secular nationalist leaders but left Islamic leaders very upset
(Aritonang, 2004, pp. 254 – 255; Husein, 2005, pp. 74 –76).
The removal of the Jakarta Charter from the Indonesian Constitution created a deep
wound among conservative Muslims, who strongly believed that, since Indonesia was
the largest Muslim country in the world and the vast majority of its population were
Muslims, the country should become an Islamic state. The fact that their proposal was
defeated by an alliance between Christian and secular nationalist leaders helped fuel
their suspicion that Christians had a disproportionate influence within the corridors of
power in Indonesia and heightened their fear of the eventual Kristenisasi of the newly
independent nation.
The fears of conservative Muslims were heightened further when Indonesian Protestants
and Catholics decided to form their own political parties immediately after Indonesia’s
independence was declared. Both parties were represented in most of the parliamentary
cabinets that were in office between 1950 and 1957, during the time when liberal
parliamentary democracy was effective in Indonesia (Aritonang, 2004, pp. 278 –284;
Webb, 1978, p. 62). Both parties also contested the 1955 parliamentary election. During
this election it was expected that adherents of these two denominations would vote for
their respective political parties (i.e. the Indonesian Christian Party (Parkindo) for
Protestants and the Catholic Party (Partai Katolik) for Catholics) (Webb, 1978, pp. 66,
80 A.R. Arifianto

71 –72). The platform of these parties to promote religious liberty and to support efforts by
the religious denominations they represented to propagate their faith to all Indonesians,
including Muslims, created further tensions among conservative Muslims and added to
their fear of Kristenisasi (Aritonang, 2004, p. 290; Webb, 1978, p. 66).
As a result of their fears and discontent, conservative Muslims began a campaign to
reintroduce the Jakarta Charter when deliberations to draft a new Indonesian constitution
took place between 1957 and 1959. These deliberations pitted against each other the two
groups that first debated the same topic in 1945: conservative Muslims who supported the
Jakarta Charter and the establishment of Indonesia as an Islamic state; and the coalition of
nationalists, nominal Muslims and Christians who opposed these proposals. The two
groups’ arguments proved irreconcilable and their debate only ended when, on 5 July
1959, President Sukarno dissolved the Constitution Assembly and arbitrarily declared
the 1945 Constitution, without the Jakarta Charter, to be the new Indonesian constitution
(Aritonang, 2004, pp. 311 – 329). Sukarno then began his authoritarian rule over Indonesia,
which lasted until his ouster in 1966. He arrested conservative Muslim leaders, whom he
accused of challenging his rule, especially those who belonged to the modernist Masyumi
Party (Aritonang, 2004, pp. 330 – 331).
Under Sukarno, Indonesia’s official religious policy mirrored that of the 1945 Indonesian
Constitution: all religions enjoyed full religious freedom and all Indonesians were expected
to respect and tolerate adherents of religions different from their own. Sukarno adopted a
relativist definition in determining the religious practices that should be recognized by the
Indonesian state. They included not only major religious traditions that had significant
number of adherents in Indonesia (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confu-
cianism), but also locally grown religious beliefs that incorporated animist and polytheist
elements (aliran kepercayaan). Even the Indonesian Communists Party (Partai Komunis
Indonesia (PKI)), which was officially atheist, was accepted by Sukarno and included in
his government (Kim, 1998, pp. 359 – 360). The consequence of this inclusivist policy
was that followers of all religions (including Christians) were free to carry out their
religious activities and to proselytize among non-members (including Muslims) without
any intervention from the government or Islamic groups. Membership of Christian
churches increased significantly during the latter part of Sukarno’s time in office. In Java
alone, the membership of the Catholic Church almost doubled from 125,500 members in
1953 to 241,400 members in 1965 (Kim, 1998, p. 360).
As a result of this inclusive policy, Sukarno was considered to be an ally of Indonesia’s
Christian minorities. Consequently, many Christians supported Sukarno’s authoritarian rule
in Indonesia, considering it to be the least of all possible evils (compared with either a
conservative Muslim or Communist regime) (Aritonang, 2004, pp. 335–340). However,
his policy of bringing together all religious traditions, as well as Communists, into his
political coalition was not acceptable to conservative Muslims. They were hoping for a new
regime that would be more receptive to their goal of establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia.

Muslim – Christian Relations during Suharto’s New Order Regime (1966 –1998)
The New Order’s Early Years: Cracking Down on Conservative Muslims
At first, the hopes of conservative Muslims seemed to have been fulfilled when, as a
result of an aborted coup attempt allegedly supported by the Communists, Indonesian
The Cause of Muslim –Christian Conflicts in Indonesia 81

armed forces under the leadership of General Suharto decided to challenge Sukarno’s
rule and managed to wrest it from him in March 1966. The army then engaged in a
campaign to eliminate all Communist members and sympathizers and this was whole-
heartedly supported by conservative Muslims. Leading Muslim organizations such as
Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama even issued a religious teaching ( fatwa) which
stated that the extermination of all Communists from the Indonesian soil was a religious
duty for all Muslims (Boland, 1971, pp. 145– 146). Conservative Muslims became
willing participants in the Indonesian army’s campaign to eradicate Communists
because they believed they would thus gain favour with Suharto and other army officials,
and that the officials in turn would be more willing to share power with the Muslims
and would not object to the return of conservative Muslim parties such as Masyumi to
Indonesia’s public sphere (Boland, 1971, p.148; Ropi, 1999, p. 99).
However, this hope was quickly dashed when, in December 1966, the army issued a
statement that Masyumi would continue to be considered a prohibited political organiz-
ation. Former Masyumi leaders then formed a new party called the Indonesian Muslim
Party (Partai Muslimin Indonesia—Parmusi). However, while the government allowed
this party to operate, it forbade former Masyumi leaders to become leaders of the new
party (Boland, 1971, pp. 152 –153). Conservative Muslims suspected that these decisions
were made because the leadership of the Indonesian army was dominated by nominal
Muslims and Christians who were not willing to allow conservative Muslims gain more
political power in Indonesia (Ropi, 1999, pp. 101– 102). In 1973, Parmusi and other
Islamic parties were forced by the Suharto government to merge into a single govern-
ment-sanctioned party called the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pemban-
gunan (PPP)).
Conservative Muslims became more agitated when they started to realize that one of the
side effects of the military-sponsored purge of suspected Communist Party members and
sympathizers was the increasing rate of conversions from Islam to Christianity between
the late 1960s and early 1970s. This occurred because many of the people who were
targeted by the purge decided to convert to Christianity to save themselves and their
families from threats of imprisonment and/or death (Ropi, 1999, p. 99). They took advan-
tage of a requirement instituted by the Suharto government that all Indonesians should be
members of a religion officially sanctioned by the Indonesian state (Islam, Protestantism,
Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism) and should convert to one of these official reli-
gions. However, they declined to convert to Islam, which they considered to be a willing
partner of the persecution directed against them (Ropi, 1999, pp. 99– 100). It is estimated
that during the time of the anti-Communist purge (1965 –1971) more than two million
Indonesians, most of them living in Java, converted to Christianity (Husein, 2005,
pp. 120– 121; Willis, 1977).
The large number of Christian conversions in the late 1960s – early 1970s seemed to
conservative Muslims to be a confirmation that a campaign of Kristenisasi was being
carried out in Indonesia. They accused Christians of engaging in efforts to ‘fish in troubled
water’ and take advantage of the political turmoil of the late 1960s to increase their mem-
bership at the expense of Indonesia’s Islamic umma (Shihab, 1995, pp. 306– 307). A
national religious summit was called to promote better inter-religious relations between
Muslims and Christians in the aftermath of several attacks against Christian churches in
1967. However, Christian leaders refused to comply with the summit’s recommendation
that Christians limit their missionary activities to Indonesians who were not members
82 A.R. Arifianto

of one of the five officially recognized religions, or who were polytheists. They argued that
this recommendation violated the religious freedom clause of the 1945 Indonesian Consti-
tution and that it was contradictory to the central mission of Christianity to preach the
Gospel to all humans regardless of their current religious status (Kim, 1998, p. 362;
Willis, 1977, p. 105). The opposition of the Christian leaders seemed to conservative
Muslims to be another confirmation that Christians were engaging in a Kristenisasi cam-
paign in Indonesia.
Finally, Suharto appointed many Christians to top positions in the Indonesian bureau-
cracy and military. For instance, in the Fourth Development Cabinet (1983 –1988),
Radius Prawiro, a Protestant, was appointed Minister of Finance, one of the most powerful
ministries in the Indonesian Cabinet. The Indonesian Chief of the Armed Forces during
this period was General L. B. Moerdani, a Catholic. In the Fifth Development Cabinet
(1988 – 1993), J. B. Sumarlin, a Catholic, became Indonesia’s Minister of Finance,
while Moerdani became the Minister of Defence and Security (Husein, 2005, pp. 118-119).
Supporters of the Suharto regime defended these appointments by stating that they were
made on the basis of the qualifications and achievements of these individuals, in addition to
their loyalty to Suharto. However, such explanations were not acceptable to conservative
Muslims, who saw all the above policies, plus the New Order government’s violent
repression directed against them (for instance, the 1984 Tanjung Priok incident that
killed hundreds of conservative Muslim sympathizers) as part of an ongoing Kristenisasi
campaign directed by Christians first at the Suharto regime, and then at the rest of
Indonesia’s Islamic population and they were looking for possible ways to reverse Suharto’s
policy of favouring Christians. The Islamic resurgence that started in the early 1970s and
reached its peak by the late 1980s provided an opportunity for them to do exactly that.

The New Order’s Reversal: Policies Favouring Conservative Muslims

From the 1970s, a revival of traditional Islamic teachings and practices among Indonesian
Muslims began. As a result of this revival, many Muslims who previously only practised
their faith nominally were now becoming more devout and strict in their practices. Several
factors are counted as possible causes of this revival, among them: increased promotion of
personal religious piety by the government as part of its campaign to combat the ‘Commu-
nist threat’, increased propagation of Islam by conservative Muslim organizations such as
the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia
(DDII)), increased linkages between Indonesian Islamic preachers and their counterparts
in the Middle East,10 and increased financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Middle
Eastern countries for the propagation of Islam in Indonesia (e.g. for building new mosques,
printing textbooks, bringing preachers from the Middle East, etc.) (Van Bruinessen, 2003;
Hefner, 2000).
As it became apparent to Suharto that Indonesian Muslims were undergoing a revival of
their faith, he began a gradual change in his policy towards conservative Muslims, from
actively repressing them from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s to accommodating and
co-opting them from the late-1980s until the collapse of his regime in 1998. Along with
more accommodating attitudes toward conservative Muslims, the regime also began to
implement policies directed at appeasing them. Many of these policies were also aimed
at addressing conservative Muslims’ concerns about the threats of Kristenisasi in
The Cause of Muslim –Christian Conflicts in Indonesia 83

The first policy directed to appease conservative Muslims’ concern about Kristenisasi
was the joint decree of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Home
Affairs signed on 13 September 1969, which required religious organizations that
wished to build new places of worships to seek written permission from both the local gov-
ernment head (Bupati) and the local head of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Such per-
missions were only to be given by the local head of the ministry’s office after consultation
with the Bupati and local religious leaders, as well as taking into account the plans of the
building proposal and local inter-religious relations. The Bupati was also required to
monitor the propagation and worship of religious organizations so that they did not
incite divisions between followers of different religious organizations (Crouch, 2007,
pp. 98– 99; Husein, 2005, pp. 331– 334).
The above provisions encouraged discrimination against religious minorities because
the requirement to consult with local religious leaders and to take into account local
inter-religious relations created incentives for the dominant religion in the area to
object to the construction of any new places of worship by members of minority religions.
Since Islam is the majority religion in most parts of Indonesia, this decree encouraged
Islamic religious leaders to forbid the construction of places of worship by non-Muslim
religious minorities (Crouch, 2007, p. 99).
As a consequence of this decree, Christians began to encounter problems in obtaining
government permits for building new churches and in many cases they were forced to
convert private homes into churches. Since the decree also made it illegal to convert
private homes into places of worship, another consequence of the decree was that it
created justification for conservative Muslims to disrupt worship services conducted in
private homes and to destroy those homes (Crouch, 2007, p. 101). This helps to explain
why, since its enactment, incidences of church burnings and vandalism have increased sig-
nificantly throughout Indonesia. Instead of promoting harmony between different religions
in Indonesia, the decree actually did the opposite, promoting further religious divisions
and encouraging violence against religious minorities, particularly Christians.
To complement the 1969 decree, in 1978 the Ministry of Religious Affairs issued two
new decrees that prohibited the proselytization of individuals and groups who already
professed an officially recognized religion and restricted foreign missionary activities in
Indonesia (Husein, 2005, pp. 132– 133, 335 –342). Despite the fact that these decrees
theoretically applied to all officially recognized religions in Indonesia, in practice they
were primarily targeted against Christian missionaries. These decrees were enacted
despite very strong objections from both the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Indonesia,
who argued that these decrees violated the religious freedom clause of the Indonesian
Constitution and severely limited their legitimate missionary activities. On the other
hand, conservative Muslims supported the enactment of these decrees, stating that they
would protect the Indonesian Islamic umma from Kristenisasi campaigns directed
against them (Aritonang, 2004, pp. 432 –435; Husein, 2005, pp. 196 –198).
By the 1990s, the New Order regime had reversed its long-standing policies of keeping
a careful watch over conservative Muslims and was instead trying to embrace and co-opt
them into its sphere of influence. This can be seen from gestures such as the establishment
of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) in December 1990 and
the appointment of Suharto’s protégé B. J. Habibie as its chairman, and Suharto’s well-
publicized pilgrimage to Mecca in 1991. More significantly, Suharto finally gave in to
the demands of conservative Muslims to replace Christians serving as government
84 A.R. Arifianto

ministers, top-ranking bureaucrats, and military officers with pious (santri) Muslims (Van
Bruinessen, 2003, p. 4). This can be seen in the composition of the Sixth Development
Cabinet (1993 – 1998), which had no Christians serving in important government
ministries, while it included santri Muslim figures such as Mari’e Muhammad (Finance
Minister), Abdul Latief (Labour Minister), and Wardiman Djojonegoro (Education Min-
ister). In addition, Feisal Tanjung, a santri Muslim general, was appointed as the Chief of
the Indonesian Armed Forces.
Thanks to the policy changes made by Suharto in his effort to accommodate and co-opt
conservative Muslims, by the mid-1990s Indonesian Christians were not adequately
represented within the New Order’s political network, at either the national or local
level. Thus, they were excluded from the centre of power which in the past had provided
Christians with protection of their religious rights and also serving as a source of patronage
for their leaders. This development, along with the enactment of various regulations
restricting the rights and movement of Christians, which have been described earlier,
helped to create a sense of unease among Christians, which led to increased tensions
between themselves and the Muslims. It was now Christians who were developing fears
of Islamisasi, alleging the Muslims were seeking to overpower them, exclude them
from the public sphere, and slowly but surely convert them to Islam. Such fears and
their manifestations will be discussed in the next section.

Indonesian Christians’ Responses to the Conservative Muslim Agenda

Like the fear of Kristenisasi among conservative Muslims, Christian fears of Islamisasi
also have deep historical roots. Ever since the Dutch colonial period, Indonesian
Christians were conscious of their position as a religious minority in a predominantly
Muslim country. They were well aware that Muslims often accused them of being ‘collab-
orators’ supporting continuing Dutch rule in Indonesia and were always suspicious of their
missionary activities (Boland, 1971, p. 224). Thus, Christians were always looking for
opportunities to demonstrate their nationalism and loyalty to their Muslim compatriots.
For instance, Indonesian Christian leaders liked to refer to the involvement of Christian
soldiers and political leaders during the War of Independence against the Dutch (1945 –
1949) and pointed to the thousands of Christian soldiers killed during this war as evidence
of their loyalty to the Indonesian state (Webb, 1978, pp. 58 – 61).
At the same time, Indonesian Christian leaders also believed that, to ensure support for
their community in a Muslim-dominated country, Christians needed to be actively
involved in Indonesian politics and to maintain some influence within Indonesian
circles of power. This is why Christians insisted on maintaining their own political organ-
izations and parties and being included in Indonesia’s public sphere through appointments
as cabinet members, government officials, and members of parliament in successive
Indonesian governments (Webb, 1978, p. 62).
Indonesian Christian leaders also considered the protection of religious liberty as the
primary political agenda of their group. They strongly believed in the protection
of their rights to practise their religion, worship freely, and propagate their faith to non-
Christians, and considered these as integral parts of their existence as Indonesian citizens.
In fact, some Indonesian Christian leaders believed they had nothing to lose by publicly
proclaiming their faith to others, since some Indonesians (secular nationalists) recognized
The Cause of Muslim –Christian Conflicts in Indonesia 85

Christians as ‘defenders of democracy and prosperity’ in their country (Webb, 1978,

pp. 66, 92– 93).
Due to the above political convictions, along with their organizational skills and net-
works within Indonesia’s circles of influence, Christians were successful in maintaining
adequate representation at the highest levels in Indonesia for several decades. As
Indonesian politics became authoritarian, less representative, and more personality-
focused for nearly four decades (1959 – 1998), ethnic and religious groups in Indonesia
increasingly considered the maintenance of these representatives as sources of political
favour, influence, and patronage to be integral to their groups’ political survival (Bertrand,
2004, p. 197). This was true among Christians as well as other Indonesian interest groups.
This is why Christians viewed with great concern the conservative Muslim campaign to
increase Islamic influence within the Indonesian state, restrict the rights of religious min-
orities and reduce their influence. As the Suharto regime adopted a more accommodating
policy towards conservative Muslims and implemented their recommendations in order to
appease them, Christians started to lose their influence within the regime and saw their
rights increasingly eroded by the regulations that were enacted by the regime. During
the 1990s, Indonesian Christians’ fear of Islamisasi therefore became stronger than ever.
Many Indonesian Christians responded to the increased influence of conservative
Muslims in Indonesian politics by withdrawing from the public sphere and, instead,
forming close-knit but exclusive religious study groups that were founded to strengthen
their faith against potential reprisal and persecution by the Muslims.11 The number of
these study groups proliferated from the early 1990s and they became very common
within both the Protestant and Catholic Churches (Van Bruinessen, 2003, p. 16). While
these groups provided strong and intimate spiritual support among their members and
encouraged them to develop bonds with one another, they tended to be distrustful of
groups and institutions (particularly Muslim ones) outside their groups and, as a result, con-
spiracy theories and fear of Islamisasi spread relatively quickly among members of these
study groups (Van Bruinessen, 2003, p. 17). In a climate where Indonesian Christians felt
themselves increasingly marginalized by the Muslims and no longer able to rely on the
Indonesian government to protect them against conservative Muslims’ plans to further
restrict their religious rights and exclude them from the political realm, it became impossible
to distinguish rumours from facts. This further fuelled Christians’ fears of Islamisasi and, as
a result, rather than trying to reach out to conservative Muslims and to persuade them to
change their attitudes toward Christians, many Indonesian Christians decided to withdraw
further from the public sphere and become more exclusivist themselves.
Thus, when the Suharto regime fell in 1998, many Christians living in predominantly
Christian areas in Eastern Indonesia believed that the time had come to settle scores
with Muslims and to regain the influence they had lost over the previous decade. At the
same time, in order to protect their hold on power from Christians, local Muslim
politicians in Eastern Indonesia encouraged the infiltration of their region by radical
Muslim groups influenced by the teachings of Wahhabis and Salafis from the Middle
East. This included groups such as Laskar Jihad, the Indonesian Mujahiddin Assembly
(Majelis Mujahiddin Indonesia (MMI)) and the Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front
Pembela Islam (FPI)). The clash between the two groups resulted in the Muslim– Christian
conflicts that occurred throughout Eastern Indonesia between 1998 and 2001, particularly
in Maluku and Central Sulawesi provinces (Mulyadi, 2003; Sidel 2006; Van Bruinessen,
86 A.R. Arifianto

The above discussion clearly shows that recent conflicts between Muslim and Christians in
Indonesia did not erupt in a vacuum. Rather, the hostility occurred after a long build-up of
suspicion and prejudice within both religious camps that the other religion was about to
engage in a campaign to drive out their faith, first from Indonesia’s public sphere, and
then from the country altogether. These fears were created by conflicting state policies
during the Suharto regime, first favouring a religious minority (Indonesian Christians)
over Muslims and then, as Indonesian Muslims became more politically active in the
1980s, favouring Muslims over Indonesian Christians.
Suspicion of Kristenisasi and Islamisasi became the basis upon which extremists within
the two religious traditions aimed for the introduction of policies designed to redress the
perceived advantages that had been unfairly gained by the other party, and to reduce, if not
eliminate, the other religion’s influence in Indonesia’s public sphere (Mulyadi, 2003).
Suspicion and fear also created incentives for the adherents of the two religions to
develop more exclusivist religious expressions that portrayed the other religion through
a lens of much distrust and hatred, which eventually encouraged them to address their
grievances through violent means. As a consequence of this exclusivist attitude between
the two religions, the possibility of inter-religious conflicts in Indonesia has increased
dramatically in recent years, while tolerance between adherents of the two religions is
becoming harder to achieve.
One possible means of reducing these fears is through the promotion of genuine inter-
religious dialogues between adherents of Islam and Christianity in Indonesia. Such dialo-
gues should take place not only between the leaders, but also among the grassroots
members of the two religions, because fears and suspicions are especially high at the grass-
roots level and, unlike the elite leaders, they are less likely to have regular interactions
with members of other religious traditions.12 One possibility for these dialogues is to
conduct inter-faith religious services where followers of both religions are invited to
attend and participate. Another is to conduct interfaith seminars or discussion groups
that explore the shared teachings of the two religious traditions.
However, the most important change that can take place to reduce fears and suspicions
between the two religions is for the Indonesian state to follow a strategy of neutrality and
non-intervention in the area of religious life and practice in Indonesia. In the past, the
state helped to promote policies that aggravated the fear of Kristenisasi among
Muslims, then completely reversed them by introducing policies that curtailed the
rights of Christians, thereby promoting the fear of Islamisasi among Christians. By adopt-
ing a truly neutral policy toward all religions, not intervening in their internal affairs, and
encouraging genuine dialogue between them, the state could help reduce, if not eliminate,
fears of Kristenisasi and Islamisasi among Muslims and Christians in Indonesia. At the
same time, this does not mean that the Indonesian state should adopt a completely
laissez-faire attitude toward religious organizations. The government should take a firm
stand against radical and extremist groups within both religions, thus preventing them
from promoting hatred and violence against one another and bringing them to justice if
they commit acts of violence.
Eliminating these fears from both the Muslim and Christian communities in Indonesia
will not be an easy task, given the long history of suspicion and the existence of vested
interests who would like to keep these fears alive among followers of both religions to
The Cause of Muslim –Christian Conflicts in Indonesia 87

further their own political agendas and interests. However, it needs to be done so that the
project of a united Indonesia that includes everyone, irrespective of their ethnic and reli-
gious differences, as it was envisioned by Indonesia’s founding fathers more than six
decades ago, can be truly realized in the twenty-first century.

1. Please see the discussion later in the article of Suharto’s policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s to crack
down on members and symphatizers of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia
(PKI)). An interesting recent study on this topic is Roosa (2006).
2. Here one must recognize the importance of Islamic theology, as interpreted by conservative and radical
Muslim groups, in shaping their views on religious minorities, especially those referred as ‘people of the
book’ in Islamic teaching, namely Christians and Jews, also categorized as dhimmı̄s. However, conser-
vative and radical Muslims tend to regard dhimmı̄s as second-class citizens with limited political and
civil rights and subjected to certain obligations, such as paying the poll tax, to ensure their protection
under an Islamic-inspired regime.
3. In the Indonesian context, modernist Muslims may be defined as those who tend to embrace the original
yet literalist interpretation of Islam as propagated by the Prophet and reflected in the sacred scriptures.
They tend to become members of Muhammadiyah, a national organization for modernist Muslims. Tra-
ditionalist Muslims are those who blend syncretic local indigenous traditions with original Islamic teach-
ings. They tend to be moderate in their theological outlook and are generally more tolerant toward
religious minorities such as Christians. Nahdatul Ulama, currently headed by the charismatic former
Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, is the national organization for traditionalist Muslims. For
more on Muhammadiyah, see for instance Alfian (1989) and Shihab (1995). For more on Nahdatul
Ulama, see, for instance Bush (2002) and Kadir (1999).
4. For more on Indonesian Islamic groups influenced by the teachings of the Wahhabis and Salafis, see Van
Bruinessen (2002, 2003).
5. This does not mean that there were no tensions between Indonesian Muslims and Dutch Christians before
the mid-nineteenth century. Some Indonesian Islamic theologians, such as the Indian-born Aceh theolo-
gian Nuruddin al-Raniri, wrote polemical works that discredited the religion of the Dutch (Christianity)
as a perverted and false religion (Ropi, 1998, pp. 218 –220). However, a great deal of the negative feel-
ings of Indonesian Muslims before the mid-nineteenth century were directed against the Dutch as
an occupying power in Indonesia rather than against Christianity (Ropi, 1998, p. 218).
6. It must be noted that not all Dutch colonial officials uniformly support the new policy. Some Dutch offi-
cials, including the Islamologist Snouck Hurgronje, opposed the Dutch colonial government’s active
support of Christian missions in Indonesia, on the grounds that Islam had a much firmer root in Indonesia
than most colonial officials thought and that it could aggravate tensions between Muslim leaders and the
colonial government (Benda, 1958b, p. 341). However, these officials were in the minority within Dutch
colonial officialdom and the Dutch government proceeded in its support of Christian missions.
7. These lawyers were primarily responsible for drafting Pancasila, the secular nationalist ideology that
became the official ideology of the Indonesian state, as well as the 1945 Indonesian Constitution that
is still in effect today.
8. For examples of Indonesian secular nationalist leaders’ writings on the proper role of religion (Islam) in
Indonesian politics, see, for instance, Sukarno (1926) and Hatta (1981).
9. Hasjim is the father of the current Nahdatul Ulama leader and former Indonesian President Abdurrahman
Wahid, who is well known for his inclusive theological views and his tolerance of, as well as friendship
with, non-Muslim religious leaders.
10. For more on the increasing contacts between Indonesian Muslim clerics and their Middle Eastern
counterparts, ranging from conservative Islamic organizations such as DDII to newer movements
inspired by Wahhabi and Salafi theologies, see, for instance, Van Bruinessen (2002).
11. Similar parallel groups were also founded by conservative and radical Muslims groups. They undoubt-
edly contributed to the spread of the fear of Kristenisasi among these Muslims as well (Van Bruinessen,
2003, pp. 10 –13).
12. Frequent dialogues between top leaders of Indonesian Muslim and Christian organizations were held
throughout much of Suharto’s reign. However, such dialogues only included elite-level leaders, not
88 A.R. Arifianto

those at the grassroots level. There was also no dialogue between Christian leaders and leaders of
Muslims groups that had the most grievances against them (namely conservative and radical Muslim
groups). Thus, the dialogues were not effective in preventing full-scale Muslim–Christian conflicts
from occurring at the end of Suharto’s regime (Interview with Fr Frans Magnis-Suseno, Jakarta, 3
July 2008).

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