Religious Persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
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Home Worldwide Indonesia January, 2008 The fallacy of fatwas
The fallacy of fatwas

Opinion January 02, 2008 

The fallacy of fatwas

Aboeprijadi Santoso, Jakarta

The recent attack on the Ahmadiyah group in Kuningan, West Java, is yet another reminder of how way state authorities get caught up in conflicts between established religious institutions and minority beliefs.

A similar situation occurred back when the Dutch colonial state repressed rebellious groups. The current situation is not exactly the same, yet the lessons are clear.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s order to stop attacks on the Ahmadiyah sect is a welcome gesture. Previously, however, he and the President supported the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in its fatwa or edict condemning Ahmadiyah and groups such as Al-Qiyadah Al Islamiyah.

In recent years, Indonesia’s government has become deeply involved in conflicts among religious groups by expressing moral support for the dominant groups and supporting action against so-called heretical minorities, or at least failing to prevent clashes. Thus, some established religious institutions have colluded with the government or even acted as if they were state apparatuses.

Not surprisingly, unrest has grown because of this increased religious intolerance. Assaults against the so-called “misguided” have happened again and again.

Some organizations, like the Wahid Institute and the Indonesian Bishops Conference, call for peace among religious groups. Others, similar in spirit but more desperate in tone, condemn a situation they liken to Medieval Europe. They blame weak state leaders and legislators, who seemed unable or unwilling to uphold the law that guarantees religious freedom in this country.

Since most of these incidents occur in particular localities, however, like the ongoing conflicts over the prayer houses of some minorities, the first institutions to blame for failing to stop them are the village or neighborhood chiefs and local police. A city major may forbid action against places of worship, but that means little if the local chief is not bold enough to impose order.

This picture comes out clearly in the 2007 annual report issued last week by Setara (Equal), a new NGO led by human rights activists and supported by various groups of politicians, activists and religious scholars. They blamed irresponsible political and religious leaders for doing little to prevent the clashes out of fear of opposing the fatwas and a desire to please their constituents. Some media outlets, too, apparently suffer from the same fear.

Out of 185 cases of violence and intimidation against Islamic, Christian and Catholic sects this year, the report found, almost half of them were carried out or encouraged by local officials. The other half were witnessed by passive state apparatuses. They occurred most frequently in Jakarta, West Java and East Java, regions that have experienced rapid social changes in recent years.

State policies, in particular at the lower level, seem to be in disarray. State apparatuses are unwilling or impotent to act, concluded Setara chairman Hendardi. As a consequence, “we and our leaders, including the President, are completely being held hostage by (this) situation,” said Setara board member General Saurip Kadi, a good friend and military academy classmate of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

As state leaders refrain from lawful actions to guard citizens’ rights, the doctrines promoted by mainstream religious leaders take precedence over state regulations. This opens the way for religious fundamentalism to prevail over the domain that should belong to the state.

A fatwa, it should be remembered, may be a legal order in the Islamic context, but is not legally binding for state and society. But the growing number of sects, reportedly nearing 100, has presumably inspired the dominant religious institutions to reassert their authority beyond their own domain. Religious doctrine thus becomes the aspiration of, rather than the inspiration for, state policy.

“God is not sovereign over this unitary state of NKRI, but social relations are,” warned Rocky Gerung, another founder of Setara. This state is based on the sovereignty of rakyat (people), not ayat (holy verses).

This situation is not wholly new. By the end of the 19th century, increasing tax burdens had impoverished Javanese peasant society. It was then, as the recently deceased historian Sartono Kartodirdjo pointed out, that traditional power holders became restless, local chiefs and rural bandits sprang up and a bewildering number of religious sects grew popular.

Despite the fact that the Dutch held firm control, peasant rebellions were frequent. Michael Williams’ study suggests that these served as a precondition for the social revolution that united Muslims and communists in Banten in 1926.

In both cases, then and now, a crisis is felt at the grassroots level. It leads to a new quest for faith and the mushrooming of religious sects, leaving a misguided state in limbo.

The writer is a journalist. He can be reached at

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