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Apr 24th 2008 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition
Religious freedom is put at risk by political expediency
SEVERAL thousand hardline Muslims protested outside President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s palace in Jakarta on April 20th demanding that he ban Ahmadiyah, an unorthodox but moderate Muslim sect founded in 19th-century India that claims around 200,000 members across Indonesia. At an earlier meeting of one of the groups involved, a leader was filmed chanting “Kill Ahmadiyah! Kill! Kill! Kill!” Far from having these extremists arrested for inciting violence, Mr Yudhoyono was this week considering pandering to them by issuing a decree to restrict Ahmadiyah’s freedom of worship. One group of advisers has urged him to do so, while others were counselling against a move that would violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
The proposed ban has its roots in Mr Yudhoyono’s tender treatment of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI), a semi-official group of Muslim clerics that was created during the authoritarian regime of Suharto (1966-98). The president nodded his approval as the MUI issued fatwas against “deviant” sects. On April 23rd Abdul Salam, a self-proclaimed prophet who leads another unorthodox group, al-Qiyadah al-Islamiah, was jailed for four years for blasphemy. MUI’s fatwas have also given vigilante groups an excuse to attack sects’ members and their homes and mosques. In Ahmadiyah’s case the fatwas have also prompted another Suharto-era creature, the Co-ordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society, to launch an inquisition.
In January the board said it had decided not to call for a ban because Ahmadiyah’s leaders in Indonesia had issued a statement affirming that Muhammad was the last prophet, rather than Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Indian mystic who founded the group. But this month the board declared that since Ahmadiyah had gone back on this pledge to “correct” its beliefs, a ban was now in order. Government officials then said that a decree against Ahmadiyah, though not necessarily an outright ban, was being prepared. Last weekend, police forced Ahmadiyah to cut short its annual congress in Bali.
As elsewhere, there are differences among Indonesia’s Ahmadis over the meaning of their founder’s claims to prophethood. However, under Article 29 of Indonesia’s constitution—“The state guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his own religion or belief”—their beliefs are their own affair.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom is immediately preceded by an apparently contradictory affirmation that “the state shall be based upon the belief in the one and only God.” Indonesian law requires citizens to belong to one of six officially approved religions even though three are not monotheistic: Buddhists and Confucianists have no god; Hindus have lots of them. Now that Indonesia is a democracy, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship might be thought to trump all other arguments. But the mess has yet to be cleared up by the courts.
Yet Mr Yudhoyono’s government can do the right thing when pushed. After the Bali bombings in 2002 it rounded up most leaders of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the jihadist group responsible. Three of the bombers were sentenced to death and face execution shortly. Two more JI leaders, arrested last year, were sentenced to jail terms this week. However, while it is contemplating banning peaceable Ahmadiyah, the government has been reluctant to prohibit JI despite its atrocious violence. It may do so now that the courts, in this week’s sentences, have at last labelled JI a terrorist group. There have also been no moves to ban the local chapter of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical group that, although it does not preach violence, does call for the downfall of the Indonesian state and its replacement with a caliphate.
Mr Yudhoyono may believe that he is avoiding conflict by appeasing the country’s vociferous but unrepresentative radical Islamist fringe. His liberal critics retort that the state has a duty to protect minorities, rather than sacrifice them to some supposed public good. In any case, suppressing Ahmadiyah and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiah would be more likely to damage Indonesia’s stability and unity than letting their members worship freely. The country’s many Hindus, Christians and members of other faiths would surely be asking themselves: “Are we next?”
Some Ahmadiyah members have called for help from the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission. The outside world—which has so far seen Mr Yudhoyono as a democrat, a reformist and a leader of moderate Islam—might indeed make it clear to him that giving in to the bullies and repressing a peaceable religion would have unfortunate consequences.