Azyumardi Azra on Mob Rule

Apr 27th, 2006, in News, by

Azyumardi Azra talks on the increasing prevalence of mob action and how the government and police seem unwilling to stop it.

Moral conservatives have slammed the newly launched Playboy magazine for being pornographic. Have you read it?

The Playboy published here is not as “hot” as the foreign editions; some local magazines and tabloids often carry pictures which are more erotic. But Playboy has caused anger among some people, including members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who have violently expressed their objections to the magazine by attacking its office building.

It is okay to disagree with something, but the police should have strictly enforced the law. If there are people who want to take the law into their own hands, the police must act. The police have failed to enforce the law, not only in the case of Playboy, but also in other incidents when groups have committed acts of violence in the name of religion and morality.

This kind of violence seems to have been on the rise since 1998 when the state’s authority started to diminish. There has been a liberalization in politics, and now everyone can express whatever feelings they want. But freedom of expression is not always compatible with democracy, especially if it is expressed in a way which is against the law. This kind of freedom cannot be justified because democracy only works well if each party exercises its freedoms responsibly and obeys the law.

And there is chaos at the moment, isn’t there?

Yes, there has been relative chaos since 1998 because the authorities have failed to take strict measures and used to be afraid of dealing with hardline groups like the FPI. They are afraid of a backlash; if Muslims get angry. Whereas actually Muslims in general are against violence, love peace and want this peace to last forever.

But many people, especially people outside this country, connect Muslims with violence.

Maybe this is because of the media reports. This kind of news is interesting, so it is always reported; the representation of the moderate is not always there in the media. That’s the nature of news – to create an impression that hardliners are dominant. However, research conducted by several institutions clearly shows that the majority of Muslims do not like violence because it is against the spirit and the teachings of the Koran, which tells people to do good things.

There are always religious groups and other parties that justify the use of violence. In the U.S. there are Christian fundamentalist groups which resort to violence to protest Darwin’s evolutionary theory or pro-life groups, which have planted bombs in legal abortion clinics.

Should extremist groups be banned?

Banning something is not the right approach. Extremists should be handled with law enforcement because it is very clear that the use of violence is unlawful. You may have different ideas but you should not resort to violence. If the state does not take any legal action against the perpetrators, this sets a bad precedent and hardline groups will prevail. And this is what we have seen: the tendency to mob rule or “mobocracy”. During the past two or three years, these mobs have been demonstrating about moral issues, while in the era of (former presidents) BJ Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid, they were connected more with politics.

Are some Indonesians hypocritical on moral questions?

Yes, there are many Indonesians who are hypocritical about morals or apply double standards. This should be the challenge for religious leaders – to focus public attention on relevant and important moral issues.

Currently, there is a gap in people’s perceptions about morality – a disconnect. People are not angry when they see rampant corruption or widespread poverty, but they resent erotic dances while they actually enjoy them.

In the case of Playboy, hardliners blame the magazine for the decline in public morality.

People should widen their concepts of morality, bring them out of the private domain and make them public – but this doesn’t mean confusing personal moral issues with public ones.

Take, for an example, people who go to a house of worship diligently and pray. They may have good personal morals, but they are not ashamed when they commit corruption, which is all about public morality. They don’t care about public morality. On the individual level, they may have discipline and ethics, but not on the public level. That occurs everywhere.

There is a gap here between personal and public piety. People don’t care about the law any more – you can see it in the way people drive on the roads, people lack discipline, they flout traffic rules – in this way, they are very permissive.

Is this gap growing?

Yes this is happening because law enforcers are not effectively and consistently enforcing the law.

Clearly, this can have dangerous effects. There are groups out there in society that feel they have a mandate from God to straighten things out, including through the use of violence.

Of course the issue is complicated. Everyone should be responsible for their own morality, although government officials, religious leaders, ulema and priests are also responsible for guiding people – teaching them about morally good and bad behavior.

No community is perfect. There are moral issues debated everywhere in the world, and there are often groups which try to protect public morality in a violent way. The difference is that in other countries people can’t take the law into their own hands, while here in Indonesia it seems violent acts are permitted, which I think is very dangerous.

One Comment on “Azyumardi Azra on Mob Rule”

  1. Dragonwall says:

    Unless the Indonesian Government is prepare to go all out to cater the need of the poor and hungry, I doubt much of Indonesia will change in terms of people getting agitated with continued mob violence. To the majority when food is mandatory then violence will become unavoidable.

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