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Murder in God’s name
Feb 8th 2011, 12:47 by R.C. | JAKARTA
INDONESIANS are reeling from one of their country’s most awful incidents of religious violence in years. It happened on February 6th, in a village in Banten, the western end of Java, not far from Jakarta, a district where strictly Islamist parties poll well. Out of keeping with the more usual pattern of Muslim-versus-Christian attacks, this was a mob attack by Muslims against men who claimed to be their own fellows: members of a Islamic sect called the Ahmadiyah.
Three Ahmadis were killed and five seriously injured in a frenzy of violence: footage of the assault was deemed too graphic to be shown on Indonesian TV news, which tends to have a fairly high tolerance for the stuff. Instead the footage is circulating on the internet, if you have the stomach. Indonesians are asking what could have motivated religious people to commit such a barbaric act (“sadistic” is a word being bandied around)—and why the police were so feeble in their attempts to stop it.
Nerves have been frayed further by another spate of religious violence, first reported this morning. Elsewhere in Java a Muslim mob burned down three Christian churches, all the while calling for the death penalty to be brought against a Christian man whom they accused of blaspheming against Islam. They were apparently unsatisfied by the judgment of a court, which had already given him the harshest sentence available (five years in jail) for distributing leaflets that insulted Islam. This sort of mob violence is not rare enough.
But Sunday’s lynching was something on a different scale entirely. These murders were aimed at the sect itself. Ahmadiyah was established in India in 1889; modern Ahmadis believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet and messiah. This, of course, contradicts orthodox strains of Islam, which all hold that Muhammad was the final prophet.
Non-Ahmadi Muslims have long regarded Ahmadiyah as an apostasy. Its adherents are a persecuted minority almost everywhere they are to be found: the Pakistani Taliban carried out an especially terrible massacre of Ahmadi worshippers in May 2010. There have been attacks on them before in Indonesia, perhaps three in the past decade, but nothing remotely as gruesome as what happened on Sunday. A local group of Ahmadis had gathered at the home of their leader and then refused to disperse, despite complaints made by their neighbours. A 1,500-strong mob then arrived at the house, dragged the people from inside their mosque and fell on them with machetes, knives and sticks.
The sheer savagery of the attack shocked the rest of the country. Many Indonesians also felt let down by the police, not for the first time. The local police had been aware of the threat posed to the Ahmadis, and indeed they asked them to leave, for their own safety. The Ahmadis had replied that is was the police’s job to guarantee their safety, according to the constitution.
The footage of the attack shows that the police’s attempts to stop the mob were half-hearted at best. To critics of Indonesia’s police force, their pitiful effort is further proof of a lack of direction and authority at the top. The president, Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, has dithered in his defence of Ahmadiyah, sometimes suggesting that he might sympathise with its persecutors. As one disappointed adviser to the government told me, yet again the state has proven itself to be weak and ineffective when it comes to upholding laws concerning the freedom of religion.
And all this in Interfaith Harmony Week, launched amid considerable pomp and ceremony at the Jakarta Convention Centre on the very same morning at the attacks. As my government interlocutor admitted, Indonesia still has a way to go to “walk the talk” one hears so often: of a peaceful and tolerant country of many faiths.