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Agence France-Presse - 5/11/2008 3:22 AM GMT
Move to ban ‘deviant’ sect puts Indonesian tolerance in question
A push by hardline Islamists for Indonesia to ban a “deviant” Muslim sect has ignited a battle for the soul of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Mob violence, protests and chilling threats have formed the backdrop to pressure on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and key ministers to ban the minority Ahmadiyah sect.
A decision last month by a Suharto-era state board overseeing religion recommended the sect be broken up because it believes Mohammed was not the final prophet, contradicting a central tenet of mainstream Islam.
Liberals are aghast at calls to ban the sect, but the ever-cautious Yudhoyono is under pressure to appease a vocal Islamist minority.
While nearly 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, the country is not an Islamic state. Instead, Indonesians live under a quasi-secular system where religious freedom is guaranteed but the state only recognises six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
And while the official state ideology also mandates belief in one God, the country has in practice tolerated a plurality of beliefs, earning it an easy-going reputation amid a rising global tide of Islamism.
But critics say this could change if the push to ban Ahmadiyah succeeds, opening the floodgates to Islamist demands that could radically undermine Indonesian pluralism – and its fledgling democracy.
In the West Java village of Ciaruteun, the Ahmadi mosque sits locked with its roof tiles removed. Protests by the village’s non-Ahmadi majority last month prompted police to close down the mosque to avoid violence.
Around 200 police remain on standby at headquarters, while more than 60 uniformed police and intelligence officers mill around the neighbouring village of Cisalada, which is home to 600 people, all Ahmadis.
In the nearby district of Sukabumi, another Ahmadiyah mosque was gutted last month after being torched by an angry mob reportedly led by a group of Muslim preachers.
Sitting next to the shut mosque, 68-year-old Ahmadi villager Ahmad Hidayat said he was shocked when hundreds of his fellow villagers noisily descended in the early morning.
“What was strange is that this is a mosque, a place of worship, but it was wrecked by Muslims themselves,” he said.
But for Asrori, a muscular non-Ahmadi villager in a white Muslim cap, there was nothing surprising about the villagers’ anger.
“Every villager was part of the protest against Ahmadiyah existing here,” he said.
At the pointy end of attempts to ban Ahmadiyah is a coalition of Islamists with a long reputation in Indonesia for intimidation and violence.
The coalition includes mass organisation the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who served more than two years in prison for his alleged role in the 2002 Bali bombings before being cleared and released.
The radicals say Ahmadiyah, which claims 200,000 followers in Indonesia, must be banned so it cannot “mislead” Muslims. They point to fatwas in 1980 and 2005 by Indonesia’s top Islamic authority, the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, branding Ahmadiyah “deviant”.
The groups say they would enforce a government ban on the “infidel” sect without resorting to violence, and that such a government move would head off wider unrest.
But Indonesia’s radical Islamic fringe does not have a peaceable reputation.
A video circulated by religious freedom campaigners shows FPI preacher Sobri Lubis exhorting a crowd in the West Java city of Banjar to hunt down Ahmadis.
“We invite Muslims to wage war against Ahmadiyah, to kill Ahmadiyah wherever they are,” Lubis said to audience cries of “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great”.
While supporters of the ban on Ahmadiyah say the move is about protecting Muslims, many opponents see it is as the first battle in attempts to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state.
“We are very sad because our nation has already entered into the domain of a theocracy, a sharia state,” said Shamsir Ali, a spokesman for Ahmadiyah in Indonesia.
“You know what has happened in the Middle East, where secular countries or non-theocratic states before long have become sharia states,” he said.
“Ahmadiyah is only the first (target).”
An adviser of President Yudhoyono, prominent lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution, said groups like FPI have been able to exert so much pressure through a mixture of intimidation and an appeal to Muslim solidarity with top officials.
“The police, the prosecution, don’t dare be against these people. They are small groups, but very strong with their intimidation, terrorism,” he said.
Nasution, who has met the president and senior ministers to try to block the proposed ban, said the move could unleash a “domino effect” leading to unrest as minorities such as Bali’s Hindus come under threat.
“The agenda is finally to ban any other religion which is against their beliefs,” he said.
“They already have a strategic plan of who has to be banned in Indonesia, who has to be dissolved, who has to be eliminated.”