January 15, 2000
The Wisdom Fund

Media Show Bias in Coverage of Violence in Indonesia

by Enver Masud

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. media's anti-Muslim bias shows once again in their reports on the violence in Indonesia, where calls of "jihad" receive widespread newspaper and television coverage, but the massacre and burning of dozens of Muslims by Christians -- the reason for the call to "jihad" -- gets little or no coverage.

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Correspondent for the Independent, reported on January 11, 2000 that, "Aid workers say they have found the bodies of large numbers of Muslims massacred and burnt by Christians in the ongoing violence in the Indonesian Spice Islands."

Mr. Parry reports, "A doctor with the aid team said he had seen a mosque in the village of Popilo in which bodies lay five deep. More bodies, including those of young children, were bulldozed into the ground near by. 'I think it was about 200 bodies,' he was quoted as saying. 'I saw some dried blood in the mosque, so I assume ... that the victims were slaughtered inside the mosque.'"

On January 5, 2000, Irwin Firdaus of the Associated Press had written, "Media reports in Jakarta said up to 10,000 people on Halmahera [in the Spice Islands] were seeking shelter in military barracks while waiting to be evacuated. The Indonesian Observer daily quoted local residents as saying most of those fleeing were Muslim, and that Christian militias had gone on a killing spree throughout the island."

Yet, as far as we can tell, this Christian killing spree was not covered by U.S. media. Instead U.S. media paid far greater attention to Muslims calling for "jihad" in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

They did not report why Muslims were calling for "jihad," nor the various meanings of jihad (or struggle), thereby, leaving the impression of a blood-thirsty Muslim majority out to kill Christians -- just because they are Christian.

The truth is considerably more complex, and neither Muslims nor Christians are blameless.

The 1000 plus islands comprising the Moluccas (or Maluku) in Indonesia, stretch from Halmahera in the north to Wetar off the north-eastern end of Timor. The largest of the islands, Halmahera and Seram, are the most undeveloped and underpopulated. The smallest, Ambon and the Bandas, are the most developed and populated.

The Moluccas -- the fabled Spice Islands -- to which Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans came in search of cloves, nutmeg, and mace, bore the brunt of the first European attempts to colonize Indonesia.

The Portuguese were the first to arrive in 1509, followed by the Dutch in 1599. By 1630 the Dutch were established in Ambon, and they had their headquarters in Jakarta.

After a brief occupation by the British, the Dutch returned in 1814, but encountered resistance. The leader of the rebellion, Pattimura, was captured and executed. He is regarded as one of Indonesia'a national heroes -- Ambon's university and airport are named after him.

When the Dutch left Indonesia after World War II, the mainly Christian population of Ambon in the Moluccas, proclaimed an independent Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS) rather than join with Indonesia.

In 1950 Indonesian troops occupied the islands, and the RMS fled to the jungles of Seram. From there about 12,000 were taken to the Netherlands by the Dutch government. And from the Netherlands they continue their resistance to Indonesian rule. Many have returned to retire or do business.

The violence in the Moluccas has come amid increasing religious tensions, fueled in part by Muslim migration to the islands, which have long had a Christian majority descended from its former Dutch rulers, and converts to Christianity.

Adding to the religious tensions is the prospect of wealth for some.

According to AFP (January 11, 2000), Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid said that the most recent bloody Muslim-Christian battles on Halmahera island in North Maluku, which have left hundreds killed, were "perpetrated by someone who wants to be the governor of the province," as well as "the prospect of a gold mine" in the area.

Others, rumored to be after the oil on Seram, may be fueling the violence which has taken about 2,000 lives in the past year.

["Audi Wuisan, the coordinator of the crisis center of the Indonesian Council of Churches, . . . said on January 13, copies of an open letter had circulated in West Nusatenggara province, of which Lombok is part, telling Christians there to condemn Christians in Maluku for slaughtering 3,000 Muslims."--"Angry Indonesian Mob Sets Churches on Fire over Slaughter of Muslims," AFP, January 17, 2000]

["A Muslim mob set fire today to at least eight churches on the Indonesian tourist island of Lombok and battled police trying to stop the spread of religious violence that has claimed more than 2,000 lives. . . . Fighting between Christians and Muslims first broke out a year ago on Ambon Island and quickly spread to other islands in Maluku and North Maluku provinces, . . . On Saturday, the Indonesian Council of Ulamas, a powerful group of Islamic leaders, said it supported calls for a holy war to protect Muslims from any further violence. But President Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim who advocates religious tolerance, angrily rejected such plans."-- Ali Kotarumalos, "Indonesian Religious Violence Grows," AP, January 17, 2000. Note: The AP version of the same incident, does not tell the whole story. It does not mention the slaughter of 3000 Muslims, reported by AFP. It does mention "2000 lives" claimed by violence, but an American reader is unlikely to read this as mostly Muslims killed by Christians.]

[On January 24, 2000, about 200 hospital staff, 700 patients and visitors were taken hostage in Thailand by the Christian fundamentalist God's Army. On January 25, an AP headline read, "Myanmar Hostage Takers Were Polite." Compare news coverage with that of Muslims.]

Matthew Moore, "March reignites Ambon violence," The Age (Australia), April 27, 2004

[Under the terms of the "good-will agreement," the government will drop a $135 million suit filed against Newmont last year after villagers near the mine at Buyat Bay, in Northern Sulawesi, complained of tumors, rashes and other illnesses that they said were caused by the waste from the company's gold mine.--Jane Perlez, "Gold Mining Company to Pay Indonesia $30 Million," New York Times, February 17, 2006]

It was clear that the conflict had little to do with religion per se and everything to do with who controlled the local government, and by extension, the economy.--Eliza Griswold, " The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam," Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 17, 2010) page 163

Hannah Beech, "Christianity's Surge in Indonesia,", April 26, 2010

Copyright © 1999 The Wisdom Fund - All Rights Reserved. Provided that it is not edited, and author name, organization, and web address ( are included, this article may be printed in newspapers and magazines, and e-mailed to others.
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