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Razed mosque reveals intolerance
Marianne Kearney, Foreign Correspondent
PARAKAN SALAK, INDONESIA // Crouched in his house, as he watched a Muslim gang set fire to his local mosque, Ustadz Kasmir Muhbarak could only pray his wife and four children would not also be attacked by the enraged crowd.
“We didn’t have time to save anything – just the clothes on our back and ourselves,” said Ustadz Muhbarak, a Muslim teacher as he recalled the burning of the Ahmadiyah community mosque in Parakan Salak, West Java, a fortnight ago.
Ustadz Muhbarak and the community of 212 Ahmadis in this small West Java village are the latest victims in a wave of attacks on religious minorities by Muslim thugs over the past three years in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Last week, a group of Muslim hardliners forcibly closed a Christian church, claiming it was operating illegally. Since 2005, more than 30 churches and ad-hoc worship centres such as shops, houses and malls across West Java have been forcibly closed by Muslim groups. Christian groups struggle to get permission to build new churches, because under the law, 60 per cent of nearby residents must approve the construction of a new church.
Almost 90 per cent of Indonesians are Muslim, but most practise a highly syncretic form of the faith that blends traditions of animist-Javanese, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
Indonesia, a secular state, officially recognises six religions and is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. But conservative and hardline Muslim groups have begun a concentrated attack on the country’s religious pluralism that many here suspect is the first step towards establishing an Islamic state.
Almost half a dozen hardline groups have demanded the government ban Ahmadiyah, after the Ulemas Council – the government’s religious advisory board – declared the sect was heretical for its belief that its Punjabi founder, Mirza Gullam Ahmad, is the last prophet, not Mohammed.
Attacks on the sect escalated in April, after the council and the lawyer general recommended the government ban Ahmadiyah. Over the past month four of Ahmadiyah’s mosques have been vandalised or burnt down by a group calling itself Forum for an Islamic Community. Others have voluntarily closed to avoid violence.
In Parakan Salak, residents point out that such attacks do not reflect well on Indonesia’s Muslim community, once famed for its ability to coexist with the archipelago’s numerous religions and mystical beliefs.
Bu Ikah, whose snack shop backs onto the mosque, but who is not Ahmadi, cried as she remembered the night fellow Muslims ransacked the mosque.
“I couldn’t believe when the mosque was burning they clapped. They burnt the mosque even though there were lots of copies of the Quran,” she said. Ms Ikah said she has not been able to eat properly since, still fearful the gang will return.
“This is dirtying the name of Islam,” said Asep Saepudin, Ahmadiyah’s community leader.
But that is not the local hardliners’ view of their Muslim brethren.
“We cannot tolerate insults; whoever insults Islam must be fought,” said Ustadz Abdul Karung Ndang, the fiery preacher from the neighbouring village of Kampung Sundang and head of the Ulema Council’s local chapter.
Holding court in a local government office a few kilometres away from Parakan Salak’s burnt mosque, Ustadz Ndang declared every Muslim has a duty to defend the faith.
“We will struggle for this, we cannot accept this sect,” he said. But Mr Ndang denied he or anyone from the council incited the gang. He claimed the attack, which involved 1,000 youths, including dozens transported in from neighbouring districts, was “spontaneous” and not planned or organised.
His point is that the general Indonesian Muslim ummat, or community, wants all the Ahmadiyah out, and that the local youths are not being manipulated by him or radical Muslim groups.
Ustadz Ndang is the face of a new, less tolerant Islam that is becoming far more powerful in Indonesia. A charismatic man, the ustadz holds sway over the local government.
Asked whether they would heed Jakarta’s decision if it were to reject the recommendations of the religious advisory board and rule that Ahmadi have the right to call themselves Muslim, local government officials say they would forcibly close down the sect.
“Although as local government I have to protect their rights, as a Muslim I feel I must defend Islam,” said Yayat Supriatna, the village subdistrict head.
Muslim moderates counter that Ustadz Ndang and the Muslim groups who back him – such as the Ulemas Council, the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, Hizbut Tahrir and the Prosperous Justice Party – are not the face of mainstream Indonesian Islam.
“They are just a minority, in fact, probably less in number than the total number of Ahmadiyah followers,” said Nong Darul Mahmadah, an activist from the National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith, which includes Muslim leaders such as Adburahman Wahid, a former president and ex-head of Indonesia’s 60-million strong Nadhatul Ulema party.
Ms Mahmadah and the National Alliance intend to prove the Ulemas Council and hardliners in Parakan Salak are an outspoken but unrepresentative slice of Indonesian Islam by bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets on Sunday for Indonesia’s Pancasila Day.
The philosophy of Pancasila, which underpins the constitution, highlights religious and cultural tolerance.
Moderate religious leaders and human rights groups are concerned if the government fails to protect Ahmadiyah, the hardliners will next target liberal Muslims, secular Muslims and religious minorities.
“If Ahmadiyah is today declared a deviant sect, then the same thing could happen to us tomorrow,” said Kiai Imam Ghazali Said from the An Nur Islamic boarding school in Surabaya, East Java, one of a group of young Islamic clerics trying to push the government to back down from the ban or issuing any ruling on Ahmadiyah.
Others are concerned that the ban is part of the conservatives’ push for the introduction of sharia, or Islamic law, across Indonesia.
“This is part of an international trend where the Wahhabi teachings are spreading globally,” Ms Mahmadah said.
She pointed out that the Forum for the Islamic Community is headed by the Prosperous Justice Party, which supports sharia law, and the forum’s secretary is a prominent member of Hizbut Tahrir, an international movement that aims to establish an Islamic caliphate.
Adnan Buyung Nasution, a prominent human rights lawyer, who also sits on the president’s advisory board, is also threatening to launch legal action if the government issues a ban. He argues the ban would be a violation of Indonesia’s secular constitution.
But with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the ever-cautious Indonesian president, wary of not upsetting Muslim groups before next year’s national elections, the decision might boil down to which side can bring more people onto the streets: the hardliners or the moderates.