Lifestyle & Belief

Indonesia: religion and rule of law


Indonesians from various religions hold hands together in downtown Jakarta on Jan. 7, 2011, as they condemn a bloody religious clash, involving more than 1,000 Muslims who stormed a house in West Java to stop the minority Ahmadiyah Islamic sect from holding worship.


Bay Ismoyo

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The video footage is gruesome. A Muslim mob shouting "Allah akbar" ("God is greatest") beats half-naked men with bamboo sticks as police stand by and watch. One officer makes a feeble attempt to hold back the crowd that has grown to 1,500. Many of those present pull out their mobile phones to take pictures of the violence.

When the assault, targeted at the home of a religious leader, is finished, three members of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah are dead, and a handful severely injured.

The incident is the latest in a spate of recent attacks against the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic offshoot orthodox Muslims consider heretical because it venerates founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad rather than Muhammad as the final prophet.

Assaults against religious minorities are on the rise in this nation of 240 million, where nearly 90 percent of the population practices Islam. Two days after the Ahmadiyah attack hundreds of vigilantes set fire to two churches in Central Java to protest the five-year sentence for a Christian accused of insulting Islam. They demanded death.

Human rights groups say these incidents have trounced Indonesia’s image as a mainstay of religious tolerance among Muslim-majority countries and turned the spotlight on law enforcement officials who have failed to protect both Christians and the Ahmadis.

“The tragedy here is the absence of the state,” said Syafi’i Anwar, the director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP). “The administration is indecisive about protecting minority groups from attack and police are reluctant to take any action.”

The courts, an even less trusted institution than the police, have also fallen flat on meting out justice.

On Feb. 24, a district court in West Java sentenced 12 people to no more than seven months in jail for an attack on a Christian congregation in which one church member was stabbed and another badly beaten. Other cases involving so-called morality offenders — such as the former editor of Playboy Magazine and a rock star caught in a sex video — have landed suspects in jail for years for violating a controversial Anti-Pornography law championed by orthodox Muslims.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that the courts don’t represent social values,” said Haris Azhar, an advocate with the Jakarta-based commission for victims of violence, Kontras. He cautioned people against viewing such cases as good examples of Indonesian justice.

A tentative peace

A handful of police now guard the Al-Hidayah mosque in south Jakarta since a mob set it on fire last October. A metal door and new glass windows have replaced the damaged wood frames, but little else from the assault remains. The officers are friendly with the Ahmadis, eating snacks and chatting with the men after they finish their prayers.

Epon Juminah says the situation has been peaceful during the 30 years she has lived in Jakarta. “Our neighbors are from NU and Muhamadiyah,” she said, referring to Indonesia’s two largest Muslim groups. “They are Protestant and Catholic, and we all live together in a good way.”

She says the conflict does not come from people within the community, but she worries about rising intolerance from outsiders. Forty-year-old Kamariah moved to the neighborhood in 2002 from the eastern island of Lombok after vigilantes set fire to her home on two separate occasions. The latest incidents seem to have reopened that wound.

“We moved here because it was safer,” she said, her eyes growing moist with tears.

Police have charged nine men with assault in the Feb. 6 Ahmadiyah attack, which carries a maximum jail term of 12 years if the violence leads to death. But human rights groups say the police should be investigated for failing to protect the Ahmadis. And they blame regulations that forbid the sect from worshipping for providing tacit support to hard-liners.

After a 2008 clash in Jakarta during a religious pluralism rally, the government issued an anti-Ahmadiyah ordinance that bars the group from worshiping in public and spreading its teachings. The decree is a step below a 2005 fatwa from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) that orders the government to outlaw the Ahmadiyah.

As long as the MUI supports the decree, however, Anwar says moderate Muslim groups will be reluctant to defend the rights of the Ahmadi.

Amidhan, the chairman of the MUI, disagrees. “The Ahmadiyah are insulting to Islam,” he said. “The fatwa that the Ahmadiyah are kafir [disbelievers] is universal among Islamic scholars, so the escalation [in violence] is not because of the MUI.”

Citizens stunned by the ghastly nature of the Ahmadiyah killings have criticized President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for his puny response. Following the Ahmadiyah attack he said he “regretted” the incident and called for inter-religious problems to be solved in a peaceful way.

More recently he promised to look into disbanding any organization that advocates or engages in violence, his strongest condemnation since the Feb. 6 attack. Leaders of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) — one of whom was accused of inciting the attack on the Christian congregation — saw those comments as a direct attack, and thousands of them rallied last week to call for the president’s resignation.

Still, Yudhoyono has failed to condemn the sectarian violence outright, or mention the rights of the Ahmadiyah in his many public speeches. His recent assurances of justice appear aimed more at investors who poured billions of dollars in to the country in 2010.

“SBY lives by the polls, and two-thirds of the public don’t support the Ahmadiyah, so that’s a conclusive argument for why he should keep doing what he’s doing,” said Greg Fealy, a professor of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University. (A recent survey on attitudes toward religion conducted by the Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom, found that more than 60 percent of respondents said they could not accept Ahmadiyah and 45 percent said it should be disbanded.)

Some officials are taking a more proactive defense of religious minorities by pressing the passage of a religious harmony bill that would shield them from violence and intimidation. Other lawmakers, however, blame the Ahmadiyah for provoking the violence.

The roughly 200,000 Ahmadiyah followers in Indonesia consider themselves Muslims. But their interpretation of the Quran irks Islamic hard-liners who say the sect should repent and return to true Islam. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali also the chairman of the Islam-backed United Development Party, wants the group dissolved.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have already banned the Ahmadiyah, but Anwar says a similar move in Indonesia would roll back democratic progress.

“Our constitution is not based on Shariah [Islamic law], but Pancasila,” he said, referring to a doctrine that recognizes only six official religions, but also allows for the creation of religious organizations. The Ahmadiyah was listed as an official organization with the Department of Justice in 1953.

Indonesia has made progress since opening up to democracy after the fall of long-running dictator Suharto. The government helped negotiate peace accords that quelled bloody sectarian conflicts in Ambon and Poso, which led to the deaths of thousands in the late 1990s.

At that time analysts considered police key to hunting down Islamist militias, such as Laskar Jihad, that were terrorizing Christian communities. Now they worry that a new regulation allowing police to fire live ammunition on rioters could open the door for human rights abuses among a force with an established record of brutality.

“The Ahmadiyah are afraid because of this trauma, so they view any outside force as a threat to them, including the police and the legal system,” said Firdaus Mubarik, an Ahmadiyah spokesperson.

He fears this latest incident could have far-reaching tentacles.

Although the community warned the police that an attack was coming, they took no action, he said, either out of fear or an inability to separate between their duties to the state and their personal views of the Ahmadis.