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Minority Muslim sect struggles for religious freedom in Indonesia
JAKARTA, Indonesia: Indonesia’s president vowed to crack down on a radical Islamic group after stick-wielding mobs charged hundreds of protesters at an interfaith rally in a critical test of the country’s commitment to religious freedom.
The violence last Sunday injured dozens of members of Ahmadiyah, which has been targeted repeatedly since the government said in April it was considering banning the small Muslim sect because it refuses to recognize Muhammad as the last prophet.
A decision was expected by the end of the month, Wisnu Subroto, the deputy attorney general, said Friday.
“The violence has sullied our country’s reputation,” President Susilo Bambamg Yudhoyono said after TV images appeared showing members of the radical Islamic Defenders Front descending on protesters at the national monument last weekend.
“This country has laws and a constitution,” he said. “The perpetrators must be arrested.”
The Islamic Defenders’ Front is one of several radical Islamist groups seeking to introduce Shariah, or Muslim law. The vast majority of Indonesia’s population of 235 million are moderate Muslims.
Yudhoyono’s response is being watched closely by human rights advocates as a gauge of progress since the predominantly Muslilm nation emerged from 32 years of dictatorship a decade ago, but it is not clear how far his government is willing to go.
Critics say a handful of arrests will probably be insufficient, noting that several of the hardline leaders remain at large and that the group has a long history of smashing nightclubs deemed un-Islamic, throwing stones at Western embassies and torching buildings of rival groups.
At the same time, Yudhoyono’s administration relies on the support of Islamic parties in Parliament and has been accused in the past of caving in to the demands of increasingly vocal fundamentalists. That could be especially true ahead of next year’s elections.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said last month it had “persistent fears that Indonesia’s commitment to secular governance, ethnic and religious pluralism, and a culture of tolerance will be eroded by some who promote extremist interpretations of Islam.”
Ahmadiyah member Budi Prastyo, 30, said if the violence continued and police failed to protect them, the group would be forced to defend itself.
“We are true Muslims,” he said. “We want peace, not war, but the other side wants war.”
Founded in 1889 in Punjab, India, Ahmadiyah has millions of members around the world with an estimated 200,000 in Indonesia. While it broadly follows Islamic scripture, the sect is regarded with distrust by many Indonesians.