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Tolerance test for secular Indonesia
By Tom McCawley
JAKARTA — A breakaway Islamic sect’s struggle to survive has become a major test of tolerance for Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Conservative, hardline Muslims are confronting moderates over the existence of Ahmadiyya, a 100-year-old minority sect that does not accept Mohammad as the last prophet of Islam. [Please see www.alislam.org for the issue.]
The Ahmadis, who have worshipped in their own mosques and communities here since 1924, believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is the messiah and last true prophet of Islam. The claim has energized and enraged Indonesia’s disparate Muslim hardliners, who in recent years have united in a campaign to ban Ahmadiyya, labeling its followers “heretics” and “deviants”.
Indonesia’s mild-mannered and religiously moderate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his government are caught in the middle. In a campaign season, where conservative religious groups have electoral clout, his administration has so far managed to please neither side.
Tensions flared into the open on June 1, when the hard-line vigilante group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) attacked a peaceful rally in support of both Ahmadiyya and religious tolerance at a symbolic national monument in central Jakarta. Stick-wielding FPI members, attacked women, the elderly and even clerics, leaving some 70 people injured. Police later arrested the FPI’s firebrand leader, Habib Rizieq.
On June 9, Yudhoyono signed a controversial decree which failed to fully support the sect’s right to exist, though it stopped short of disbanding it altogether, as religious conservatives have demanded. The decree explicitly forbade Ahmadiyya from proselytizing and threatened its members with up to five years in jail for possible charges of “tarnishing religion”.
Security forces, however, are compelled to protect Ahmadiyya followers if their actions are in accordance with relevant laws, under the decree. “We were facing two camps, both of which were extreme,” complained Indonesia’s religion minister Maftuh Basyuni to parliament, according to a quote published in Tempo magazine. “On one hand, Ahmadiyya is a victim. However, they are also the cause of public restlessness,” he said.
Several commentators have warned that the decree puts the country’s global image as a tolerant and secular society at risk. Indonesia remains a firmly secular state, with its 1945 constitution enshrining religious pluralism. Until now all of Indonesia’s five post-independence presidents have demonstrated a strong commitment to upholding secular values.
Conservative clerics have countered that Ahmadiyya has violated a sacred tenet of Islam and must be punished, shut down and brought into the mainstream religious fold. Such debates, over whether or not Indonesia’s public sphere should be run on secular or religious values, hark back to the nation’s independence from colonial rule over 60 years ago. The discussion has become more heated in Indonesia’s new democratic climate, which has recently transplanted over three decades of authoritarianism under former strongman Suharto, who stepped down in 1998.
Ahmadiyya, which claims followers in 190 different countries, is no stranger to persecution. Pakistan, where the breakaway sect was founded in the 19th century, banned the group in 1974. In Bangladesh, Muslim groups petitioned to have Ahmadiyya followers officially declared as “kafirs”, or non-believers. Ahmadiyya claims that its estimated 200,000 to one million members in Indonesia have faced rising harassment with the country’s transition to democracy.
Deviant or different?
The calls to ban Ahmadiyya later spread from fringe radicals to influential mainstream conservative Islamic groups. As attacks against the sect have stepped up, police have frequently watched idly as its followers have been assaulted, complaining their forces are understaffed and under-funded.
Rights groups, on the other hand, claim that Yudhoyono’s government is pandering to militants and failing to uphold Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance. “You ban Ahmadiyya, then you ban the Shi’ites, Christians and Buddhists,” Indonesia’s former president Abdurrahman Wahid recently told Reuters. Wahid, also a former chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim mass organization, the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama, said hardline groups did not represent most Indonesians and that the government should not cave to radical hardliners.
Other minority groups are understandably nervous in the wake of the June 1 attack and the government’s controversial legal response to the violence. Some 88% of Indonesia’s 230 million people declare Islam as their religion, with the other 12% mostly Christian, Hindu and Buddhist, all of which are included among the five religions covered by the official secular ideology, Pancasila.
Yet Islamist mobs have in recent years shut down over 90 Christian churches and prayer groups in West Java alone. To Christian and other religious minorities, Yudhoyono’s June 9 decree is a disturbing sign that the government is willing to prioritize hard-line Islamist demands over its constitutional commitment to protect religious freedoms.
Following the announcement of the June 9 decree, there have been signs that conservative religious groups feel emboldened, as witnessed in the rallies they have staged with several thousand people in attendance to protest against the Ahmadiyya sect. Muslim mobs have meanwhile continued to close down by force Ahmadiyya mosques across the country.
Ahmadiyya’s open challenge to mainstream Islam presents a dilemma, even for moderate Muslims who believe in the sanctity of maintaining a secular society. Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama and the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah, have both said Ahmadiyya should not be banned.
Privately, however, many clerics and moderate Muslims feel the breakaway group is misguided. Yet in Islam’s estimated 700-year history in Indonesia, the religion has over the centuries merged with local and often animist beliefs and customs.
In the seafaring, mainly Muslim Bugis culture of South Sulawesi, for example, transvestite priests still perform traditional wedding ceremonies. On the most populous island of Java, Muslim children still carry Hindu-derived names like “Sri” (a rice goddess), or “Dharmawan” (follower of the Dharma), and their life cycles are often marked by pre-Islamic ceremonies known locally as selamatan.
Some analysts attribute the government’s hard stance against Ahmadiyya to political timing. Yudhoyono, whose coalition maintains a slim hold over parliament, is seen as vulnerable to interest group pressures in the lead-up to next year’s general elections. That’s recently been compounded by a declining popularity rating, which took a hit in May after his government oversaw a dramatic fuel-price hike.
Although Yudhoyono won a landslide victory in direct presidential elections in 2004, political analysts say he can ill-afford to alienate the alliance of Islamist parties in parliament, which currently account for around 15% of the legislature’s vote. Fears of Indonesia abandoning outright its secular tradition are for now overblown.
But Ahmadiyya’s current struggles demonstrate that in Indonesia’s emerging and raucous democracy, even voices of intolerance will be heard.
Tom McCawley is a Jakarta-based freelance journalist.