November 22, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Democracy and Restraint

An offhand remark is threatening to destabilize one of the biggest countries in the world.

In the process, the ongoing crisis in Indonesia is providing yet another example of how democratic institutions around the world are increasingly struggling to prevent sectarian tensions from igniting powder kegs.

The governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama – an ethnically Chinese Christian in the majority Muslim archipelago nation – kicked the hornet’s nest in late September when he suggested that some people might misinterpret the Koran to suggest that Muslims should not accept Christians or Jews as their leaders.

The Economist noted that Ahok referred to wrongful interpretations of the Koran, not the intended meaning of the holy book. Ahok has repeatedly apologized, too.

But many of Ahok’s fellow citizens interpreted his comments as blasphemy – a crime in Indonesia – and called for his arrest in rallies that resulted in one death and scores of injuries, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or ABC, reported.

The police have opened a case, jeopardizing Ahok’s hopes of reelection in February.

Ahok stands a good chance of facing charges that carry as many as five years in prison. The Economist noted that every defendant in the dozens of blasphemy trials in Indonesia has been found guilty since 2004.

That’s because Islamic politicians are using Indonesia’s anti-blasphemy law as a cudgel against enemies whom they might not defeat at the ballot box, the Conversation argued Monday.

A spike in prosecutions under the law has occurred since Indonesia became a democracy and Islamic political parties sprung up following the fall of ex-dictator President Suharto in 1998, the news website said.

Many Indonesians reject that version of justice, however. This weekend, thousands took to the streets to reject using Islam as a wedge issue. “We are gathering here not to protest but to show that we are not easily divided by religious or political issues,” Indonesia lawmaker Budiman Sujatmiko told ABC.

The country’s authorities don’t appear to be listening, though.

Before the protests, police issued a warning, saying there was no need to demonstrate because they were investigating the case. Trust us, in other words.

What’s wrong with this picture? Violent riots occur, and the police open a case. Activists plan peaceful demonstrations, and the police ask citizens to stay home.

In the meantime, hardline Muslim groups are calling for Ahok’s detention. They’re threatening to take to the streets again on Dec. 2 unless police detain the governor, according to the Jakarta Post.

The Economist opined that Indonesia’s image as a tolerant country has been damaged. That’s true.

But Indonesia can show that an effective court system isn’t the only hallmark of a democracy. In a free country, prosecutors must be able to exercise restraint, too.

WANT TO KNOW

Back in the Saddle

Less than a week after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with US President-elect Donald Trump, Japan deployed troops authorized to use force for the first time in nearly 70 years – sending 130 Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers to South Sudan as part of a contingent of 350 Japanese peacekeepers.

The new team has a mandate to “use weapons to defend people, including aid workers, and cooperate with other foreign peacekeepers to protect their camps” during their six-month mission, according to NPR.

During Trump’s campaign, the candidate questioned whether Japan and other US allies were paying enough to support US troops in Asia and suggested Japan should take a more active role militarily. Meanwhile, though Japan’s parliament voted to allow the military to fight overseas last year, critics worry that deploying troops in South Sudan could suck the country into a complicated conflict in which it has little to gain.

Heretics, Apostates and Murder

The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Kabul, signaling that the conflict in Afghanistan is not getting any simpler with the fading of Al Qaeda and the withdrawal of US troops.

The suicide bomber killed 32 people in what was the second large-scale attack to target minority Shiites in Kabul in just over a month, the Associated Press reported.

Shiites, who make up about 15 percent of Afghanistan’s population, were suppressed during the five years that the Taliban controlled the country. They have become more public since the US ousted the extremists from power. But the Islamic State, which emerged in Afghanistan last year, holds them in as much contempt as do Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Such Sunni extremists view Shiites as heretics and apostates and frequently target their mosques and ceremonies. After a similar attack by IS in Afghanistan this July, experts expressed fears that the mass carnage could spark other kinds of sectarian violence.

Absolution

With the specter of a conservative US Supreme Court on the horizon following the election of Donald Trump, Pope Francis drifted further from the Catholic Church’s traditional hardline stance against abortion on Monday.

In an apostolic letter, Pope Francis extended indefinitely a special dispensation he granted last year that allowed all priests, rather than just bishops and specially designated confessors, the power to absolve the sin of abortion, CNN reported.

While its practical impact is unclear, the measure further solidifies the move toward greater inclusiveness that has shaped Francis’ papacy since he assumed the office in 2013.

Saint John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, described abortion as “murder,” and the church has been a strong force behind pro-life groups worldwide. Though John Paul II also allowed priests to forgive the sin of abortion, until Francis’ dispensation only a bishop could lift the automatic excommunication that occurred as a result.

DISCOVERIES

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Come Thursday, families all around the country will sit down with friends and relatives to feed on the holiday’s star, the turkey.

But during Thanksgiving festivities at Poplar Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, Md., turkey isn’t on the menu – it’s on the guest list.

For 18 years, Terri Cummings and her husband have hosted an alternative Thanksgiving of sorts at the animal sanctuary that they own and operate.

By dining with the turkeys instead of feasting upon them, Cummings hopes to raise awareness about the wellbeing of farm animals.

“We’ve been doing the Thanksgiving with the turkeys,” Cummings told NPR. “More people are aware of the issues now. They’re more concerned about farm animals. They realize that there’s a need to have sanctuaries like this one.”

Cummings’ gathering boasts an all-vegan menu and attracts hundreds of visitors each year, some of whom drive hours just to be with other like-minded people and palates.

“This is not your typical potluck,” said partygoer Ruth Davis. “I mean, people really haul out everything they have to come up with great meals here. So I was anxious for it, but no, the turkeys and the chickens, all of them should come first.”