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A Muslim Schism
Conservative Islamic leaders are flexing their muscles, putting pressure on SBY’s largely secular government
By Eric Unmacht
Aug. 15, 2005 issue - In dark trousers, batik shirts and traditional peci caps, Abdul Basit and his friends look like any other Indonesian Muslims. Basit, 52, is the head of Ahmadiyya, a splinter Islamic sect best known for its belief that Muhammad was not the last prophet. The group professes to have 250,000 adherents in Indonesia. But that doesn’t impress conservative Muslim groups, which have been harassing Ahmadiyya members as supposed heretics. In June thousands of Indonesian Muslims marched on Ahmadiyya’s headquarters in Bogor, breaking windows and injuring followers with stones. Books were pillaged from the group’s library and burned. “We have been here for 80 years… and never broken any laws, so how can people tell us we have to change our religion?” asks Basit. “How can other people say we have no right to our beliefs? It’s ridiculous.”
It’s much more serious than that. Islamic academics and other experts say the attack exposes a growing schism among the 200 million Muslims in Indonesia. Even as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, better know as SBY, is trying to modernize Indonesia’s international image, many of the country’s Muslims are looking more conservative. Greg Fealy, a research fellow and lecturer in Indonesian politics at the Australian National University, says that the Iraq war and global efforts to fight terrorism have created a “siege mentality” in many Muslims, intensifying their conservatism. Meanwhile liberal Muslims in Indonesia, taking advantage of newfound freedoms, are becoming more vocal. That is starting to stir a backlash. Perhaps more significantly, the two biggest Muslim organizations in the country-Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which have been a moderating force historically and together have some 70 million members-are now led by conservatives.
All of this is creating palpable tension between moderate and conservative Muslims, hardening opinions and raising the specter of violence. It’s also putting pressure on the government, which would much rather focus its energy on improving the economy instead of mediating religious disputes. Earlier this month the top clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which comprises a broad range of Muslim groups, including NU and Muhammadiyah, issued several fatwas, or Islamic edicts, that have caused alarm. The MUI renewed its claim that Ahmadiyya was an illegitimate religion, and outlawed mixed-faith marriages and interfaith prayers. The MUI also issued a vague ban against liberal religious thought, pluralism and secularism, which some analysts say is evidence that conservatives are testing the government’s resolve. “The conservatives are flexing their muscles… and establishing their presence in the political landscape,” says Yenny Zannuba Wahid, daughter of former Indonesian president and NU leader Abdurrahman (Gus Dur) Wahid. The MUI has no legal authority and cannot enforce its edicts, but it does sway people.
So what is the MUI up to? Some analysts say that it wants to counterbalance the largely secular government. Representatives of the International Crisis Group told NEWSWEEK the recent MUI fatwas reflect the growing influence of two groups in particular-the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, an organization closely linked to the radical right, and the Committee for International Islamic Solidarity, a hard-line missionary group founded in the late 1980s during the Suharto regime.
Analysts say the authority of the MUI has been inadvertently enhanced by the government’s reluctance to criticize the clerical leadership. They note that authorities have done little to find the perpetrators of the Ahmadiyya attacks. Most government officials are uncomfortable with the hard-liners, but they also realize that they need the large conservative organizations to help implement national goals. Indeed in late June, Yudhoyono himself opened the MUI’s annual conference. The president urged the mullahs “to intensify their campaign against acts of violence that tarnish Indonesia’s image.” He also called on the clerics to help persuade Indonesians to reduce their fuel consumption. Government fuel subsidies are a major drain on the national budget.
Sidney Jones, an expert on terrorism in Indonesia with the International Crisis Group, calls SBY’s decision to attend the meeting “unfortunate.” A leading Indonesian Islamic scholar, Azyumardi Azra, says the government “doesn’t know what to do. It’s afraid to oppose the conservatives because certain groups could radicalize.”
The attack on the Ahmadiyya complex illustrates the dilemma. If the government defends the right of Ahmadiyya to exist, it will alienate millions of Muslims. If it doesn’t, it will effectively repudiate the importance of religious freedom. Neither option is appealing, so the central government is sitting on the fence and letting local officials make decisions. The government in Kuningan, Bogor, has shuttered Ahmadiyya’s headquarters, claiming the group was engaged in “un-Islamic activities.”
Din Syamsuddin, the deputy chair of the MUI and newly elected chairman of Muhammadiyah, says that the MUI is not against social and political pluralism-just religious pluralism. “If you look at what the idea of religious pluralism is, it’s the idea that you embrace all religions as the same,” he says. “It says there’s no absolute truth in one religion. The Ulama in the MUI see this as a contradiction to Islam, which is the absolute truth.”
If Muslim-on-Muslim violence flares up again, the government may have no choice but to step in. “We’re protected by the law,” says Basit of Ahmadiyya. “Every religion has freedom to practice their faith.” He says that the June attack was really a violation of human rights, “but there seems to be a reluctance [to defend us].”
Meantime spokesmen on both sides of the religious divide are lashing out in the media. Conservatives rail at “demonic” liberals, while liberals describe their foes as “Taliban fundamentalists“-a public criticism unheard of just a few years ago. Political analysts say the heated rhetoric may even be healthy for Indonesia’s young democracy. “We’ve seen a more and more vocal public, and that’s very positive,” insists Jeffrey Hadler, an Indonesia expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s when people stop vocalizing and start picking up swords that we have to worry.”