Interview with Me: The Issue Behind Religious Anger in Indonesia

Professor George Cherian of Singapore interviewed me when we met in Bali Media Forum in November 2013. The interview goes from the 2005 Danish cartoon, up to the issue of intolerance in Indonesia and the role of mass media and social media in Indonesia.

This piece is taken from the original page at Journalism & Intolerance,


Teguh Santosa describes the dynamics of dealing with extremists in Indonesia.

You made the news with your decision to publish the Prophet Muhammad cartoons in 2006, when many other media were either afraid to publish, or felt it would be insensitive to publish. Why did you feel it was necessary to show the cartoons in your news report?

The main reason is that I wanted to educate the readers – and most of them are Muslims. I wanted to tell them that Muslim people are not people who would like to show their anger easily. In this world, many times we see Muslim people get angry. They accuse of somebody else as the main reason for their problems. Even though that may be partly true, I think there are a lot of things to do to solve the problems, not only by showing anger.

The second reason is that these were not cartoons showing the Prophet. It is only a cartoon to try to relate Islam with terrorism, and Muhammad with terrorists. The one who drew the cartoon, he had that kind of impression of Islam. Of course the understanding they have of Islam is different from the understanding of someone who is Muslim.

So this wasn’t just an editorial decision based on news judgments alone. You felt, as a Muslim, this was right to do.

Of course we cannot separate our mind when we are doing something.

But you certainly weren’t intending to offend anyone. Quite the opposite?

Ya. Actually we published the cartoon three times. The cartoons first came out in Denmark on September 30 of 2005. In October 2005, we published the cartoon two times.

That was before it became a worldwide controversy.


We had a reader in Denmark, and he told us that the Muslim minority in Denmark made a protest and nobody seemed to care about that. I thought, OK, this is like an early warning for me. Because, sooner or later, the story would come to Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country. I wanted to make a preparation. The first thing we did was not publish the cartoons, but get comments – from Majelis Ulamah Indonesia [MUI, the national Islamic body], for instance, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, and also the fundamentalist Muslims. And then we put the pictures there.

And what was the angle of the story? That this was something Indonesians should get angry about?

No, no. It was like a dialogue. If we want to follow what Huntington suggests to us, in this dialogue of civilisations – not clash, but dialogue of civilisations – we have to understand each other. So I asked Habib Rizieq, at that time the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front [FPI], about this case; and also someone from MUI; and then the foreign ministry. The main idea was to prepare the society that this thing will come, and if we don’t really understand what is behind this, then there will be an over-reaction of the people and so on.

So I published many stories in October 2005, and I published the pictures two times. Nobody seemed to care about it. It was only after the Haj, in December-January I think, then people over-reacted to the cartoon.

This was after the Danish imams went to the Arab League.

I didn’t pay attention to that. But when I published it again on 2 February 2006, then the day after, it became something big.

So you were acting as a responsible journalist, but it backfired badly? You were accused of blasphemy and charged.

Ya. I didn’t run away. Around 300 of FPI came to my office – one of the hardline groups, in Jakarta mainly, and also in Solo – chanting “Kafir! Kafir!” and so on. I received them, I talked to the leaders, and after we finished the meeting, they said, “Viva Rakyat Merdeka! Viva Rakyat Merdeka!”

I met with Abubakar Bashir – Westerners call him the leader of the JI [the militant group, Jemaah Islamiyah]. At that time, he was just out of prison. We met in a mosque, I told him what I had done. He said this was not a blasphemy towards the Prophet or the religion, what you have to show in the court is that you are a good Muslim, that’s all.

Still, the police continued my case using Article 165A from our Criminal Code. It is like blasphemy. They intended to detain me for 20 days, but it was a big shock for everybody – journalists and the government – so maybe because of that, after 24 hours they released me, although the case was still going on in court.

Do you know who was putting pressure on the police to press charges?

Based on what police said, it’s like the common people. Common people accused me, made a report to the police on this case, and the police said they had to process it based on that.

They were not high level…

No, just common people. They said he was just a Muslim and felt offended by what I did.

But it turned out in your favour.

In the Indonesian judicial system, there is an intermediate decision, so in this process, the judge said that it is supposed not to be by using Article 165A and he suggested another article. The prosecutor didn’t agree and went to the higher level of court, but the higher level of court decided that what the judge in the first level said was true. So they lost again, and then submitted it to the supreme court and then the case disappeared.

After that was there any further pressure on you? Any mob action?

No, not at all. It’s really about communication. I think I have good relationship with them since before. I really try to understand why they behave like that. I talk to them many times.

Looking back at the episode, do you understand why the Danish paper published the cartoons? Do you think they had a good reason to or was it a completely irresponsible attack on Muslims?

I can understand that now we are living in a limitless world. But that doesn’t mean that we can say anything, we can do anything based on what we have in our mind. I am trying to understand the cartoonists’ ideas behind this.

The Danish newspaper’s argument is that this was a very important issue facing Danish society because the intolerant elements in the Muslim population were basically trying to censor. The cartoons were meant to tell Muslims that this is a free society, that Danish society is all about open debate and nobody has a right to stop that debate. Is that something that you can understand?

If that’s the main reason, I can understand that. Even I can understand if someone has another idea about Islam. I can understand that, because it is based on their educational process. I can accept that.

That was now 6-7 years ago. Things in some ways seem to have gotten worse in Indonesia. There is a higher level of intolerance. Although Indonesians tell me that the majority of Indonesian people are still very committed to democracy and freedom of speech and tolerance and a secular approach to politics – but there is a strong, and quite frightening minority who are able to threaten and silence the moderates. Is this something that worries you?

What I worry more about is the effectiveness of the government. For me it is not an issue of intolerance at all. It is an issue of…

Rule of law?

Rule of law and the inability of the government to rule the country. It is just because of the economic troubles I think. I do not close my eyes to whatever happens – like a group of Muslims, a minority, they are very radical, they reject one other group’s religion. I don’t close my eyes to that case. But I don’t want to go in front of them and again tell them that God created all of us the same and that nobody is higher than anybody here. I don’t want to go there.

Why not?

Because this is not the main reason. They already know about that. They already know from the mosque, from the church, everywhere. Their father, their mother, taught the same things, that we are human, and we have to protect other humans. They already know about that.

But why at a particular moment, they behave angrily and they destroy anything? Not because they forget what has been said by parents or the imam or the leaders of religion, but because there is a certain condition.

What is that condition?

The political and economical condition. So, for me, the main problem is in the palace, in the parliament, based on the policies that we create. The rich become more rich, and the poor become more poor. This is the field. And anything on that kind of field can be used as a trigger to make trouble; not only religion.

So religion is being used as an excuse, but the problems are actually elsewhere?

Ya. You cannot go there and then try to bring them to what you understand as the right track. No, no, no. Poor people, if they are angry, don’t ask them to analyse why they are in such a condition. Find another way to solve their problems. Otherwise you will hit a wall.

That’s what I did. I went to the leaders of those people, and I also went to the leaders of the elite, to tell them that there is a connection between the policies being made by the politicians and the things that happen on the field.

Some of the conflicts that are taking place now, that are giving Indonesia a bad name, are the building of the church in Bogor and the treatment of the Ahmadiyya and so on. You see the government not standing up for the rights of minorities, even though under Indonesian law it may be quite clear that these minorities need to be defended. What is your analysis of that?

For me, we have to have a clear position of the law. If the land has to be used for church or mosque, and there is a riot, just go ahead, build the church or mosque. If there is no rule about that, don’t do anything on that land. I have no idea about the detailed problems in Bogor. But in Indonesia, we have thousands of places where church and mosque stand side by side. So again, it has nothing to do with intolerance, it has something to do with, how can we respect the rules. I don’t know, maybe the problem is in Muslim society or maybe the problem is in Christian society, or maybe the problem is at the court level.

Not only common people are trying to relate politics and religion, but sometimes the politicians are trying to relate politics and religion. We are the biggest Muslim country, and if you do something not good for the Muslims you will lose your support. So you will buy time, you will make unclear decisions if you are afraid that the Muslim majority will hate you.

What about the persecution of the Ahmadiyya?

Ahmadiyya is not the business of the government, it is the business of Muslim society, of Muslim ulama. If the MUI, after they finish their meetings, decide that Ahmadiyya is not Islam, that’s their domain. They are the ones who can say, Ahmadiyya is Islam or not Islam. If MUI says Ahmadiyya is not Islam, the Ahmadiyya people will feel so bad; so they will argue. Let them argue with each other.

But the state will have to protect this dialogue between them. Protect, meaning that if there is someone, not Ahmadiyya, who tries to kill them or try to destroy the Ahmadiyya mosque, the police have to protect them. If they use Molotov, shoot those people – not in the head, just in the foot, to stop the action. So that is the protection I have in mind. But not get involved in the decision.

In our judicial system we have what is called a surat keputusan bersama, a government decision made by three ministries about religious issues. That is another problem. From my point of view, we have to delete that kind of system.

And leave it to the religious authorities?

Ya, leave it to them. But we have to protect – when someone, no matter what his religion, tries to destroy other places, you have to protect them.

But in Indonesia, many times, when you have two groups fighting each other on the street, whatever the reason – it can be about religion, it can be about politics – the police look at the numbers of the people: if they are bigger than them, just stay. The state doesn’t exist on the field.

The media also have an important role here. Some may accuse the media of playing the same numbers game: just side with the majority, instead of siding with the weak or siding with principles like justice and so on.

Not only that. Many journalists and many editors, they don’t really want to study the case. Just like in Sampang, for instance, media can easily say it is a debate between Sunni and Shia. I don’t really like that way of reporting. I think we need also intellectual journalists on the field.

At the same time, in Indonesia, the idea of having intellectual journalists on the field is an expensive idea. Because the reality cannot support that idea.

So part of it is about having journalists who can interpret and analyse complex issues. But isn’t is also a question of principle? Sometimes, not just in Indonesia but elsewhere also, you have the media just not being brave enough to stand up for minority rights when it is clear that a group is being persecuted. The media is afraid of a backlash from the majority. Surely what is needed is just courage?

In Indonesia, the journalists can easily be used by his or her environment – by the police who make the first statement, or by anyone who oppress, or the one who is oppressed. I have many reporters now, and many times I have to argue with them, who said this, who said that. And journalists like just using their recorder. Just on off, on off, on off.

Without processing.

Ya. We are living now in a very different situation, not like 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Now we have to be very smart in making our reports.

You come from Medan in Sumatra, and the north of Sumatra is probably the most strongly Muslim part of Indonesia. What is the role of media in promoting a culture of peace and tolerance in societies that are very devout and quite homogeneous?

I am proud of Sumatra and Medan because it is the real melting pot of Indonesia. Even more than Jakarta. In Medan, people were born there, raised and live there. You cannot easily find a family who, from the great grandfather to the great grandchildren, are the same religions or tribes. You will find a mix. So I am proud of that.

But lately I find that there is also a threat to this society. Now we have gadgets and open communication which means we can underline our differentiation. So now we stick to our own group, or to what you think is your own group.

So I am very worried, and that is why I created the School of Democracy in Medan, and MedanBagus, to try to bring the idea of Medan as a melting pot.

So they promote values like diversity?

Ya, I ask them to do that. Otherwise by having these gadgets in your hand, you can easily believe that you are different from your neighbours.

I am not suggesting us to go back to the authoritarian regime. When I was in university in Bandung, it was in the mid 1990s, we dreamt of the day when we have maximum access to media and information because we believed that by having maximum access each individual in Indonesia will value, will be proud of, the idea of Indonesia. Now we have access, but we are heading to another direction. We are tending to make a block between us. I get that sense. I am not saying we have to go back to authoritarian regime, because in authoritarian regime you can make a nation, you can make a state, by power, by military force, but that’s not the idea.

It’s not genuine.

It’s not genuine. You have to dialogue. You have to dialogue. But in that dialogue you need someone to maintain the border, otherwise people will get to what Thomas Hobbes said, bellum omnium contra omnes, all against all.

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Born in Medan, lives in Jakarta, loves Indonesia.

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