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OPINION: Indonesian radicals in aggressive mode
Indonesia’s doctrine of diversity has come under attack in recent months from a group of extremists. Though small, they appear to enjoy the support of influential sections in the Government. AMY CHEW looks at the implications for Indonesian society.
ARMED with sticks and stones, hundreds of Indonesian Muslim extremists descended on the Ahmadiyah, a small peaceful Muslim group in Bogor, West Java, in July.
The attackers set fire to the women’s dormitory and knock- ed down a gate fronting the Ahmadiyah complex as its followers looked on helplessly. Some 300 policemen were on guard but failed to prevent the attack.
Shortly after, Emilia Renita, 38, a Shia Muslim in Jakarta started receiving threatening messages on her mobile phone saying: “Shias are deviant. Their blood is halal.”
“I was shocked. I am Muslim and yet I am threatened. What more for those who are non-Muslims?” she said.
The surge in radicalism was partly triggered by 11 decrees issued in July by the official Council of Indonesian Ulamas (MUI) which banned the Ahmadiyah, liberalism, pluralism and secularism as anti-Islam.
That the violence unfolded in the capital Jakarta and its satellite towns, and not in conservative villages far from the influence of modern progress, raises concerns over the erosion of tolerance in a country known for its moderation and pluralism.
“These radicals are spreading hatred against people who are of different beliefs — Muslims who believe in an Islam which is different from theirs, which is Wahhabism. Minorities and non-Muslims are treated as though they don’t have a right to exist,” said former student activist Syafik Alielha.
“They threaten the existence of Indonesia as a state of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika which means unity in diversity,” he said.
The refined culture and respect for elders, teachers, intellectuals and foreigners — characteristics which define the finest in Indonesian identity — are also under siege from the radicals.
When respected and fatherly Muslim scholar Dawam Rahardjo, 63, said at a recent seminar that absolute truth lies with God and not with man and that all else should be viewed as relative truth, young members of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) shouted and threatened to beat him up.
Never before had the young shown so little respect for a man who has dedicated his life to educating the young. Rahardjo is the rector of the Islamic University 45 of Bekasi.
So far, the radicals have targeted moderate, liberal and non-Sunni Muslims.
Ahmadiyah, which previously existed peacefully with other Muslims, is considered deviant as its followers believe their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is the successor to the Prophet Muhammad.
Christians have also been targeted. From April to September, 16 churches in Greater Jakarta were forcibly shut down by radicals. These churches are housed in shophouses and private homes.
The authorities have done little to prevent the attacks or take action against the radicals, emboldening them further.
“The Government is afraid,” said former President Abdurrahman Wahid who is also a Muslim ulama.
“Why should the Government be scared of the extremists when in fact they are only a small group,” said Abdurrahman, who is affectionately known as Gus Dur.
He headed the country’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, for 15 years before stepping down in 1999 to assume the presidency. NU claims 40 million followers and is known as the face of moderate Islam.
The Government appears to be hesitant and uncertain about how to deal with the situation, fearing a backlash from the Muslim majority.
The Liberal Islam Network (JIL) says the radicals’ newfound boldness reflects the growing conservatism in segments of the Government.
“They (in government) are not liberal. They are liberal and modern in other matters but when it comes to religion, they are conservative,” said Hamid Basyaib, JIL’s co-ordinator.
“What the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) wants is in line with its own thinking,” he said. FPI is a radical Muslim group opposed to the JIL.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s response to the situation has been to order his Minister of Religious Affairs, Maftuh Basyuni, to look into the matter while stressing that the Constitution guarantees religious freedom. But that has failed to stop the radicals.
“We are disappointed the Government has not taken any measures to stop them (radicals) from committing violence,” said Ulil Abshar Abdalla, JIL’s founder.
A senior police source told the New Straits Times that some senior officials occupying strategic positions in the administration were conservative and reluctant to act firmly against the radicals.
“They are people who are for a state based on syariah and therefore are not inclined toward taking a firm stance against the radicals,” said the police source.
JIL is a network of moderate Muslim scholars and intellectuals that promotes tolerance and liberalism and highlights the peaceful and tolerant aspect of Islam.
The group is small in size, but big in name and influence. Its members are regular columnists in the country’s major newspapers and are often invited to speak in local and international forums.
Their liberal and moderate views are deemed to run counter to the MUI’s decrees.
Last month, the extremist FPI descended on JIL’s headquarters, but backed off upon seeing a large crowd of police and local residents.
Not satisfied, the radicals are now pressing district officials to evict JIL from the area before Ramadan in October.
Moderate Muslims believe radicalism needs to be dealt with now to prevent it spreading and deepening.
To counter the radicals requires concerned Muslims, the Government and moderate Muslim leaders to speak to the populace at large.
“At the Government level, it needs to take steps to stop the violence in society and we must admit that violence is committed by certain groups who claim to be Muslims,” said Ulil.
“The second part is that Muslim leaders have to tell the people clearly that non-violence is a very important principle in Islam, that rationality is an important virtue and civilised life is a precious thing we should struggle for,” he said.
While the majority of Muslims do not support the radicals and the chances of their numbers growing to a huge mass is slim, they are politically well-connected.
And therein lies their greatest strength, which could well determine their influence in the country and ultimately the fate of this nation.
Indonesia has stood out in Southeast Asia as the country which waged a bloody and relentless battle to gain independence from the Dutch in 1945.
The war was won with Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists fighting side by side, diverse but united and ultimately victorious.
After 60 years of nationhood, it should be easier for everyone to live together in harmony. But as recent events have shown, Indonesia now faces a crucial battle to defend its way of life.