Religion is playing an increasingly pervasive role, threatening Indonesia’s national ideology, a tradition of pluralism, inclusiveness, moderation, and tolerance that is known as Pancasila. This trend is displayed most dramatically when terrorists strike at churches, but has been manifest in the political realm for some time, and very clearly in the important 2017 Jakarta local election.

The popular governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as "Ahok," a Christian Indonesian of Chinese ancestry who is close to President Joko Widodo, was falsely accused and ultimately convicted of blaspheming Islam. Ahok had been leading in the polls by a wide margin until the “212 Movement,” a coalition of extremist groups including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which advocates placing Indonesia under Islamic law, organized massive rallies against him. Ahok ultimately lost the election to the candidate supported by the Islamic groups and is currently in jail for the alleged blasphemy.

This is just one example of the politically motivated heightening of religious and ethnic tensions in Indonesia. Extremists are drawing divisions between Indonesian citizens and utilizing mass demonstrations and social media as rallying points to garner political support, threatening the country’s harmonious social fabric. When those tensions devolve into violence and terrorist acts, such as the ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks on churches and police in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, national security is threatened.

With local elections for governorships, district heads, and mayors being held next month, and with a presidential election slated for the spring of 2019, politicians are sitting on a powder keg as religion is being utilized to stir up resentments, arouse suspicion, and question patriotism. The candidates’ records and policies are taking a back seat to their religious affiliation and demonstrations of religious devotion, as identity politics become the dominant strategy to divide communities and attract voters.

Within the Muslim community there is a struggle between moderates and conservatives over the nature of Indonesian Islam and its manifestations in political and social structures, institutions, and culture. Two starkly different futures for Indonesia are envisioned by the opposing factions: one wants to continue the democratic Indonesia of today, where no single religion has primacy over another, while the other wishes for a state that reflects the majority Muslim demographic by being governed under Islamic law.

Judaism, Jews, and Israel are not part of this battle, nor in any way a part of the rift within Indonesian Muslim society, yet they come into play as tools in today's ugly political climate. The vast majority of the public conflates the three terms with little or no distinction between them, and all three carry a negative connotation.

The Jewish community in Indonesia is miniscule - some 100 people in a country of over 260 million - so direct knowledge of Judaism and Jews is entirely absent. Acquaintance with Israel is overwhelmingly associated with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with Indonesian Muslims siding firmly with their Muslim brethren. As in many other countries across the world, there is only the vaguest of understanding of the conflict itself. Identifying Israel as a colonialist state, Indonesia refuses to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and establish diplomatic relations. While many moderate Muslims tend to view Jews and Israel with more open minds than their conservative brothers and sisters, they, too, sometimes adopt the same stereotypes that color overall public perceptions. Anti-Semitism is not limited to the Muslim community, but is also widespread in non-Muslim communities. Stemming from ignorance, anti-Semitism is fed by global conspiracy theories and misinformation.

As Director of AJC Asia Pacific Institute (API), I visited Indonesia last month with a colleague to find out firsthand about the situation in Indonesia, and to find out if API could meaningfully expand our work there. Prior to the visit, several Indonesian friends sympathetic to AJC's advocacy goals advised us not to seek certain meetings, particularly with government officials, because regardless of the individual's personal willingness to meet with us, the timing was too sensitive.

We were told that, as representatives of an American Jewish organization, the “taint” of meeting with us, should the meeting be exposed publicly (primarily on social media), was too great a personal risk. We were advised to save those meetings, especially political engagements, for after the 2019 presidential election, when, it is hoped, the tensions will subside.

My colleague and I nonetheless had several enlightening meetings with Indonesians of various faiths. Many Indonesians are interested in establishing ties that could strengthen Indonesia and cement its place as a pluralistic nation where democratic values are secure. What’s more, many of those we met with seemed genuinely open to, even eager for, an improved relationship with Jews and with Israel.

Working with highly engaged and well-connected Indonesian civil society organizations, business people, academic figures, AJC Project Interchange alumni, and other contacts, API has several promising opportunities to expand our work, particularly in the interfaith realm. Seeking a better understanding of the Jewish community and Israel amongst Indonesians, as well as understanding Indonesia and its pluralistic heritage and current challenges ourselves, remain important goals. We are proceeding carefully and thoughtfully, but with determination.

As the June elections approach, the world is watching how Indonesians conduct themselves. Free and fair elections without incitement and violence will bode well for Indonesia's future as the country heads for a heated runup to the presidential election next spring. AJC, too, is watching with great anticipation and hopefulness.

Shira Loewenberg is Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Asia Pacific Institute.

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