Indonesian Religious Radicals Attack Shi'ite School Group

In an ominous new turn, a Sunni mob of about 500 men attacked a group of about 30 Shi’ite students and teachers in an East Java city Sunday, killing two men and injuring another five who were trying to protect the women and children.

Unicef, the United Nations children’s aid organization, denounced the attack, saying there is “no excuse for violence against children and actions that put children at risk are unacceptable in any society. “ The organization called on the community to condemn the violence and “to ensure that every child is protected from harm.

Violence has slowly been picking up against Shias despite a ruling by the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, considered the country’s highest authority on Islam, that Shi’ite religious teachings are in the Islamic mainstream.

In the past, mainstream Muslim groups largely confined themselves to attacking fringe Muslim groups such as the Amadiyah, who believe their prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as the last messenger of Allah. The sect was declared apostate in 2008 by the Ulama. The sect has been the target of horrific sporadic violence, including an incident in February 2011 in which three Ahmadiyah members were hunted down and beaten to death by a mob of more than 1,500 villagers in a city in Banten Province in East Java.

In what human rights groups have called an outrageous miscarriage of justice, the ringleaders were given sentences of three to six months, while a badly injured Ahmadi leader, Deden Darmawan Sudjana, was given six months for refusing an order to leave the sect’s own property.

However, across the country, there is growing concern about religious intolerance for anyone in a religious organization beyond mainstream Sunni Islam, with human rights groups particularly concerned that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has not used the power of his presidency to lean on law enforcement agencies to stop the violence beyond making occasional speeches condemning violence.

Last Wednesday, lawmakers of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) called on police to particularly crack down on districts in West Java, where residents destroyed homes belonging to a religious sect, saying data from government and civic groups have shown that West Java tops other regions in religion-related violence.

Generally, Indonesia’s 203 million Muslims are easygoing and tolerant of other religions as called for by the country’s official pancasila philosophy, which specifies five principles that are supposed to encompass all religions – belief in one god, a just and civilized humanity, Indonesian unity, democracy and social justice for all.

However, intolerance against other faiths and Muslim branches is growing. Shi’ites make up only about 1 percent of Indonesia’s Muslims.

A local court on the island of Madura in May, for instance, used a recently passed blasphemy law to sentence a Shi’ite Muslim leader, Tajul Muluk, to two years in prison for what were described as “deviant teachings” that caused “public anxiety.”

Madura has been a particular hotbed of violence against Shi’ites although intimidation of and attacks on members of the faith have also been recorded in other East Java locations. The Task Force for Freedom of Religion and Beliefs, an NGO rights organization, condemned the verdict against Tajul as an assault on civil liberties, saying it “seems to be an attempt at sidelining religious minorities.”

In the latest incident around 30 Shi’ites, most of them children, were traveling from Nangkernang village on the island of Madura, bound for Bangil in East Java to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month with their families. However, the mob stopped them and prevented them from continuing, then began attacking them.

Umi Kulsum, who was at the scene told reporters that “Two people died, Hamama and Tohir. Five were wounded as they were trying to protect the women and children. I was petrified. When the incident happened, there weren’t any police officers. The mob had swords and machetes, and they attacked all of the adult males who were trying to protect the women and children.”

Amid the continuing intimidation, Umi said that while she had requested police come to ensure a safe passage for the convoy of children, "police never came. It wasn‘t until hours later that eight police officers arrived at the scene," she said.

East Java Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Hilman Thayib said police deployed 300 officers from precincts across Madura to Nangkernang, as well as one company from the East Java Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) unit to prevent violence.

Umi identified the attackers as followers of Roisul Hukama, a local Nahdlatul Ulama leader who has been fanning hatred toward the Shia community.

“How many lives must fall until police and the government intervene?” Umi asked. “Our children have stopped going to school for five months. My husband is in jail, and my whole life is under terror.”