Lessons from the Meiliana case: Understanding Interreligious Relations in Contemporary Indonesia

In recent weeks, the Meiliana blasphemy case in North Sumatra has attracted international media coverage and drawn criticism from human rights advocates in Indonesia and abroad. Meiliana was found guilty of insulting Islam when she complained about the volume of a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. She was jailed for eighteen months. I will not focus on the debate as to whether the case is blasphemous or not, nor seek to analyze why this case led to significant community unrest, including attacks on Buddhist temples, in North Sumatra. Rather, I will place the case in a broader context of interreligious relations in contemporary Indonesia, drawing on anthropological perspectives. As found in a number of case studies across Indonesia (e.g., the Papuan district of Tolikara where there was Christian-Muslim conflict), increasing diversity may actually yield greater interreligious hostility and give rise to stronger majoritarian assertion of rights over those of minority groups. Long before the Meiliana case, local Muslim leaders criticized Chinese Buddhists over the construction of large statues at temples and for disrespecting local Islamic concerns. I found that the Meiliana case is only a trigger for the Muslim majority to ‘attack’ the Chinese minority in the region. This case shows that practices of communal rights as reflected by the majority sentiment are far more evident than that of individual rights. Indonesia needs a more balanced approach to bridge between respecting the rights of the majority on one side and protecting the rights of the minority on the other.

About the Speaker
M Adlin Silais a senior researcher at Badan Litbang dan Diklat Kementerian Agama RI (Research & Development Agency in the Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs) and lecturer at the faculty of Political and Social Sciences (FISIP) UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. He received his PhD majoring in Anthropology from SCHL, ANU CAP. His thesis entitled “Being Muslim in Bima of Sumbawa, Indonesia: Practices, Politics and Cultural Diversity” has won the Ann Bates Prize for the most outstanding PhD thesis on Indonesian study in 2015. He is now the recipient of the ANU Indonesia Project-SMERU grant for the 2018–2019 round.

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