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Intolerance Turns Deadly
Horrific violence Sunday in the province of Banten in Indonesia left three members of a deviationist Muslim sect dead at the hands of an enraged mob and also exposed the inability of the Indonesian government to take a firm stand on growing religious extremism.
The attack on a houseful of members of the Ahmadiyah sect by a mob of some 1,500 local residents has its roots in a 2005 ruling by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). That fatwah, which called Ahmadiyah’s teachings blasphemous, has been compounded, particularly in the last two to three years, by the seeming indifference of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has displayed relatively little ambition to rein in Islamist extremists and outright thugs acting in the name of religion.
Religious intolerance has been growing markedly against all non-Muslim religious groups. But it is the Ahmadiyah who have borne the brunt of the violence. Their belief that the sect’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last Islamic prophet, succeeding Muhammad, has made them a target in many countries for being heretical.
In the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of alleged communists could be summarily butchered in Indonesia, with little word reaching the outside about the extent of the horror. Today, some of those same passions exist, only they are channeled into religious feuds by groups seeking political advantage. The difference is that in a more open society, the government has to answer for such outrages.
"The MUI, Minister of Religious Affairs and hard-liners are responsible for murdering Indonesians," wrote one reader to the Jakarta Globe. "Our Pancasila constitution protects all Indonesians who believe in one god. The MUI fatwa against the Ahmadiyah religion is unconstitutional and should be revoked by the president, as it violates our constitution. I am now concerned that Indonesia will disintegrate, just because of disharmony among religions. Religion should be separate from government involvement, and it should be treated as a private matter, due to its emotional sensitivity. We should disband the MUI, the Religious Affairs Department and the hardliners, and then peace could prevail."
On Sunday at around 10 am, the 1,500 villagers surrounded and attacked 25 Ahmadiyah members who had refused to leave the house of a local group leader, Ismail Suparman. The Ahmadis had been guarding Suparman’s house after he was detained by local police on suspicion of proselytizing, which is forbidden under a 2008 ministerial decree restricting Ahmadiyah’s activities.
On Saturday, a local chieftain said that initially residents had no intention to take violent acts. Villagers "just wanted the followers of the Ahmadiyah to disband themselves," he told the government-owned Antara News Service.
Despite the fact that the villagers had been massing for several hours, the police appeared to be woefully unprepared for what happened. Only about 30 police were on hand to attempt to defend the Ahmadiyah members. According to video shot surreptitiously by an Ahmadi, there were no police barricades erected to prevent the clashes.
"Police get out. Burn these Ahmadiyah people!" one man shouts on the video. The mob immediately attacked the house with rocks, forcing the people inside to flee. The footage shows the mob a bit later, swarming around two lifeless bodies covered in mud. The Ahmadi who took the video said the pair were chased to a nearby rice field where they were beaten and killed with wooden staves and stones. The crowd then dragged the bodies along the road. Others were filmed attacking the corpses and cheering.
While most of the video is too gruesome for public airing on TV news channels, it has already made its way to YouTube, where it is likely to remain a deep embarrassment for Indonesia.
Sunday's incident presumably leaves the president little room to maneuver. The question is whether now he will take decisive action. It has been condemned by the House of Representatives faction of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the Ansor youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in the country; the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace and the Wahid Institute, set up in the name of the late President Abdurrahman Wahid, Gus Dur, to defend human rights. The opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) denounced the attacks and called for an investigation of police inaction.
These attacks "threaten the diversity of our national life," said PDI-P lawmaker Eva Kusuma Sundari on Monday. The Wahid Institute called on Yudhoyono to take action. "Do not say in speeches that Indonesia protects religious freedom and then, when there are violations of religious freedom, stay silent and pretend like nothing happened," it said.
The PKB, Gus Dur’s former party, also "strongly condemned" the violence in a statement and lashed out at the assailants as "immoral human rights violators who acted contrary to the peaceful principle of Islamic teachings."
Even though there is little love to for the sect among mainstream Muslims, the brutality of a mob slaughtering unarmed people on the basis of their religious beliefs in a country that prides itself on tolerance appears certain to create a backlash against Yudhoyono, who has attempted to straddle such issues, pleasing the hardliners by waffling while claiming to believe in tolerance.
For instance, Yudhoyono appointed Suryadharma Ali as Religious Affairs Minister. Suryadharma has repeatedly voiced his desire to see the sect banned outright. He also appointed Timur Pradopo, who has strong ties to the violent Islamic Defenders Front, as national police chief. Questioned by members of the House, Timur defended the organization, known by its Indonesian initials FPI, whose members have repeatedly raided nightclubs, harassed women for wearing that they consider immodest dress and taken other violent action. In 2008, hundreds of FPI followers dressed in white robes and wielding bamboo sticks, raided a Jakarta rally for religious tolerance, attacking unarmed bystanders. They routinely attack churches, non-believers and Ahmadis. They also have close ties to the National Police. Despite calls to rein in the group, Yudhoyono has issued only weak statements calling for tolerance and the rule of law.
"The president regrets that there were victims during the incident," Julian Aldrin Pasha, a presidential spokesman, said Sunday. "Steps should be taken against those who violated the law." Pasha said, adding that Yudhoyono had ordered Suryadharma Ali to go to the village and to explain the incident to the public.
Abdul Kadir Karding, chairman of the House of Representatives Commission VIII for religious affairs, said the legislature would summon the national police chief and minister of religious affairs in an attempt to put a permanent end to violence against the sect.
"Possibly also religious figures and the Indonesian Ulema Council [will be summoned]," Karding said. "I must admit that the government seems to be not proactive in detecting the attacks. Violence, in any form, must not happen to our people."
Additional reporting from the Jakarta Globe