Dodging Sectarian Strife in Indonesia

East Java is walking a tightrope over the arrest and arraignment of 41 Christians for blasphemy in early May on allegations that they had made a 10-minute video that vilified Islam. The lid appears to be staying on at the moment, partly because this region of predominantly Muslim Indonesia is largely a stronghold for moderates. Another 60 Christians are said to have fled to Bali and other islands to escape the same charges.

Both Christian and Islamic religious leaders seem to be pulling together to head off violence and trying to keep Islamic firebrands away from the dispute. Once convicted of links to the 2002 Bali bombings, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, who is believed by Indonesian and western officials to be the spiritual leader of the radical Islamist organization Jemaah Islamiah, did come to Malang, where the alleged offences took place, to urge punishment of the offenders. Moderates are hoping he doesn’t come back.

At this point it isn’t certain whether the video was actually made by the accused. The story began in April when an angry Muslim arrived with a copy of the CD at the office of Muhammad Nidzhom Hidaytullah, the executive secretary of the local branch of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) – the Indonesian Muslim Scholars' Council.

Nidzhom, who has displayed a remarkably cool head, knew that if it fell into the hands of radicals it could cause an outbreak of church burning and assaults on Christians.

The 10-minute video, shown to Asia Sentinel, shows about 40 people in a room, most dressed in traditional Muslim clothes – the women wearing head scarves, the men in sarongs and kopiahs, the flat, oval traditional hats Muslim men wear. At the front a preacher waves a book that appears to be a copy of the Koran. At one stage the book is put on the floor. In a grainy and shakily-shot scene the participants form a ring and condemn the text with angry words and gestures.

Captions at the beginning of the video claim it shows a teaching session conducted last December at a hotel in the nearby town of Batu. It was part of a weeklong workshop run by Lembaga Pelayanan Mahasiswa Indonesia (LPMI), the Indonesian Student Ministry, a protestant organization.

The caption also said that the people in the video wearing Muslim garb were Christians. Although the LPMI is supposed to be a student organization the participants in the video look middle-aged. The video doesn't appear to have made it to the Internet but copies aren't hard to find in Malang and are reported to be circulating in other towns.

Nidzhom says he doesn’t know whether the video was an isolated event by a fringe group of rogue Christians, or a sinister attempt to stir sectarian strife. He said he also wondered whether the workshop might have been taped, copied and distributed by Muslims.

Nidzhom saw his immediate task as defusing emotions in a society where real or imagined insults to a religion can unleash hate and unpack weapons. Lives and property were at risk, as they have been far too often after the 32-year rule of strongman Suharto ended in 1998, when newly liberated religious and racial tensions bubbled to the surface. Bloodletting and bombings of places of worship have erupted when minor incidents were reported incorrectly or blown out of proportion.

In 1996 more than 20 churches were trashed or burned in East Java. Further destruction and killings occurred three years later. In most cases real or imagined religious insults were the catalyst.

Nidzhom urgently discussed the issue with senior members of the Ulama, or scholar’s council, in East Java and Jakarta, arguing for a measured response.

"We must learn from the life of the Prophet," Nidzhom said. "We were feeling very angry but we could not express our feelings. We must control our emotions and show that this is the way He would have handled the situation.

"If we take action against the Christians they will react and the fighting will be never-ending.

"I understand and realize how people feel, but this is a time when we must be wise. In Islam we should not be condemning other religions. Malang is a good town with a mature approach to religion."

Nidzhom also distributed copies of the video to mosques, a move that has been criticized by some Christian leaders because it could have created widespread outrage and further stoked tensions. However Nidzhom argued that exaggerated rumors were already spreading about the video and had to be corrected. Rumors, he said, claimed that Christians were stamping on the Koran and only by showing the video could this slur be disproved.

"Muslims are under attack by globalization and secularism," he said. "People must know what we are up against. After they'd seen it the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) a major Islamic organization with a claimed membership of 40 million told their followers to ignore the provocation and cool down.

He then called a meeting at MUI headquarters of the Forum Komunikasi Umum (FKU) a discussion group of all faith leaders. The protestants condemned the video and said it was the action of a small minority outside the mainstream churches.

Protestant pastor Johan Haryono, a member of the FKU who attended the meeting with Nidzhom, said church leaders had offered unqualified apologies to Muslims for the behavior of the people at the LPMI meeting.

This was followed by a service where about 3,000 worshippers from several different Christian churches vigorously applauded a parade of speakers who apologized to Muslims.

"The LPMI – also known as Campus Crusade has been running for more than 50 years and is good," Haryono said outside the service "But they have walked too far, gone beyond the boundaries, been too emotional.

"To be an evangelist is to love, but they are committing blasphemy against the Koran. That is evil. I have no idea why they did this.

"We are grateful to all the Muslim leaders. What they did was very good. They kept the balance. It's finished now – it's up to the police."

The self-effacing Nidzhom, 42, said he felt uncomfortable being called a peacemaker, though he agreed the situation had been tense. He claimed it could still go bad – particularly if the police do not move quickly on the case. The calm could also rupture if outsiders get involved and stir the situation, and there were concerns about Abu Bakar Ba'asyir’s visit to Malang. Java isn’t out of the woods yet.

But Nidzhom and the Christian leaders for once have managed to hold things together rather than letting them spin out of control, as they have in Sulawesi and other regions. And once they do spin out of control, they are very difficult to put back together.