Indonesia's Shiites Fear They're Next

The small Al Khasanah Mosque in East Jakarta was half-full when Farid Okbah took to the podium to deliver his sermon. Fifteen minutes into his fiery speech, the place of worship was packed with around 150 people eager to hear the firebrand cleric lash out against what he called deviant beliefs.

Minority sects "are thorns in our flesh," he told his followers. "They are far more dangerous than the infidels. They weaken Islam from within, spinning Islamic verses to suit their own political agendas."

He cited the Ahmadis, the Sufis and moderate Sunni Muslims. But whatever criticism he had for these groups was eclipsed by the sheer vitriol targeted toward the Shiites.

One Shiite in Indonesia is one Shiite too many, the cleric said.

'Need to Be Exterminated'

Although Farid preaches in a small mosque, his sermons are picked up by groups like the Ikhwanul Jannah Foundation and the As Salafi Foundation and circulated on the Internet. Audio clips of his teachings and those of other anti-Shia clerics like Salim Al Muhdor and Salim Yahya Qibas are available online for download.

Farid is a Salafi, a follower of the ultra-orthodox interpretation of Islam that holds that only the version of the religion as espoused by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and the two generations after them is valid. For Farid, now in his 60s, alternative or moderate interpretations of the Koran or the Prophet's teachings constitute a form of deviancy.

The practice common among many Muslims in Indonesia of making pilgrimages to the tombs of Islamic missionaries and clerics is for Farid a "sinful modification of Islam." Likewise, he deems the high regard in which Ahmadiyah founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is held by his followers "heretical." But he pays special attention to Shiites, having spent much time collecting books about the branch to find "evidence" of their heresy.

In an interview with the Jakarta Globe, Farid brought out four books that he said proved the Shia interpretation of Islam made the Shiite community "more dangerous than Ahmadiyah."

"Their ideals are so deviant that their teachings need to be exterminated," he said.

Worried Shiites

The main difference between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam is that Shiites regard Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, as the divinely appointed successor to the Prophet. Shiites also only accept the hadith, or teachings, credited to Muhammad's close family and associates, while Sunnis only accept those credited to his companions.

Like the Ahmadis, Shiites are a minority in Indonesia. But unlike the Ahmadis, they have been defended by top religious figures in the country, including Habib Rizieq, chairman of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). However, at the grassroots level, Shiites say they are starting to feel the heat.

"Although I don't agree with Ahmadiyah, the persecution of Ahmadiyah members has left us worried," Fahrurozi Shadiq, a Shiite, told the Globe.

"Some of my friends have discussed the possibility that we may be the next target [of hard-liner attacks]."

He said he used to pray according to the Shia tradition at the mosque at his predominantly Sunni university campus in South Jakarta.

"I used to think, 'Why should I be afraid?' Yes, there are people who are curious about the way I pray. But that was usually it," he said. "Now they're growing intolerant. Last month, I was told not to pray there anymore. 'Take your sect elsewhere,' they said. Can you imagine? Intolerance at a campus filled with scholars and educated people?"

Musa Kazhim Al Habsy, another Shiite, said many followers were uncomfortable about displaying their faith in public, even in multicultural Jakarta.

"Some people have lost their jobs because of their faith. Entrepreneurs have lost business deals after their clients discovered they were Shiites," he told the Globe.

But while Shiites in big cities like Jakarta endure discrimination and verbal abuse, those living in small towns and villages face physical assault and vandalism of their property, he said.

"My late father was a Shia cleric in Bangil [in East Java]. When I was little, people would throw garbage in our front yard or write 'infidel' on our doors and walls," Musa said.

"But in the past five years it's become more violent. Some of our pupils have been harassed and our boarding school vandalized."

Sunni and Shia in Indonesia

Azyumardi Azra, a professor of Islamic history at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta, said the Shia community in Indonesia dated back to the arrival of Islam here, but grew rapidly after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

"Around the same period, Saudi Arabia tried to spread Wahhabism," he said, referring to the hard-line form of Salafism adopted by the ruling Saud family of that country. "At the time, Saudi Arabia was a rising oil giant and trying to spread Wahhabism, including to Indonesia."

Tensions between the Wahhabis and Salafis on one side and Shiites on the other escalated during the Iran-Iraq war, but later died down, Musa said.

"I guess tensions arose again after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Shiites in Iraq," he said. "With the Middle East in turmoil once again, the scale of the problem will only grow larger."

The Islamic Cultural Center in Jakarta, deemed the center of Shia propagation in Indonesia, says it is hard to estimate the number of Shiites in the country because many choose to practice their faith in secret.

There are around 150 Shia foundations, mostly under the name Ahlulbayt, or Lovers of the Prophet's Household.

The Pasuruan Incident

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites erupted most recently on Feb. 16, when dozens of demonstrators hurled rocks at the Alma'hadul Islam boarding school in Kenep village in Pasuruan, East Java.

Four Shiite students were severely injured in the attack.

A source told the Globe the attackers were Sunni Muslims, but police and government officials called it a "student brawl" unrelated to any religious issue.

Dedy Prihambudi, former head of the Surabaya Legal Aid Foundation (LBH), said that the attack took place after a prayer meeting in Pasuruan.

"It's not clear what was said at the meeting, but shortly afterward they headed to the school in a convoy and attacked it," he said.

He added that confrontations between Sunnis and Shiites last occurred in 2006 and 2007 in Pasuruan, but none reached this level of violence.

Jalaluddin Rakhmat, a leading Shia figure, said the situation in Pasuruan had been resolved through dialogue. However, local media reported that anti-Shia organizations have objected to several points in an agreement drawn up by the local administration, such as not calling Shia a deviant sect or seeking its disbandment.

"It looks like centuries of feuding between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East has found a new battleground in Indonesia," Musa said.

Preview of What's Ahead?

Buoyed by the weak response from the authorities to the recent attacks against Ahmadiyah communities, firebrand clerics like Farid are ratcheting up their rhetoric against Shiites.

"I never suggested violence, but if the people are growing restless because of the Shia movement and if they take the law into their own hands, then who's to blame?" he asked. "Of course it's the Shia's fault."

Musa said that in his hometown of Bangil, Salafi-affiliated groups have grown more vocal about shutting down Shia boarding schools in the area.

"They hold rallies where they say it's halal to spill the blood of the Shiites," he said.

The Ahmadiyah community knows the significance of such calls all too well. In the period leading up to the bloody attack on an Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik subdistrict in Banten, clerics made similar justifications about killing members of the sect. The attack in February saw three Ahmadiyah members killed, but the local administration blamed the sect for proselytizing.

"Differences between Muslim sects have always been and will always be irreconcilable," said Azra, the UIN professor. "We have to address the root causes of these acts of violence. Unfortunately, the government has no vision [for addressing the issue]. Instead, it turns a blind eye to the problem.

"The government is supposed to protect all citizens regardless of their faith, but now we see them blaming the victims. People will now think that violence committed by large crowds will never be prosecuted."

Reprinted with permission from the Jakarta Globe, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement