Islamic Indonesian Sect Becomes a Lightning Rod

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Syafi'i Anwar walked across the dusty expanse of Jakarta’s Merdeka Square. It was June 1 and the Islamic scholar was taking part in a rally celebrating the 63rd year of Pancasila, Indonesia’s state ideology that promotes religious tolerance. Nearly 3000 people were already milling about and Anwar, the head of the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism, was expecting at least another 6000. Pancasila had taken on extra meaning this year amid increasing calls for the government to ban the “deviant” Islamic sect, Ahmadiyah, which believes its founder, a 19th century Indian mystic, was a prophet.

But by the time the day was over, Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance would be severely shaken and the minor religious sect would become the focus of a power struggle within the government, which is continuing to dither over what to do about both Ahmadiyah and the zealots who would disrupt the rally.

Anwar didn’t get very far across the square as hundreds of masked men, dressed in white robes and wielding bamboo sticks, ran among the crowd, attacking unarmed and innocent bystanders. He was forced to the ground by three members of the hard-line group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and a blow to the head left him unconscious and in hospital for a week.

“They were so very young,” Anwar says. “I don’t want revenge against them. Their leaders promote an ideology of hatred.”

The FPI was set up 10 years ago, just after the fall of the Suharto regime and claims to have 10 million followers across Indonesia, although the number is disputed by some Muslim scholars. The group has become renowned for smashing up nightclubs during the holy month of Ramadan and attacking places of worship which conflict with its own beliefs.

The violent attacks at the June 1 rally, which left about 90 injured and subsequently outraged Jakarta, forced a reluctant government to respond. While no arrests were made at the rally, in the days that followed 59 FPI members were rounded up by police, including the group’s leader.

At the same time, calls for the government to ban Ahmadiyah became louder as the sect was accused of provoking the violence and after two years of waiting, conservative Muslim groups got their ruling. But it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for.

The ministerial decree issued this week says that people found “spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principle teachings of Islam,” will face up to five years in jail. It stops short of officially banning Ahmadiyah.

The ruling left no one happy. The quasi-ban has been condemned by moderate Muslim groups, who are calling on the violence-prone FPI to be outlawed instead while conservative Muslim groups don’t think it has gone far enough.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has tried to stay as far away from the issue as possible leaving the decree to be signed off by his Religious Affairs and Home ministers and the Attorney General. This is exactly the debate he wanted to avoid ten months out from an election.

“The president comes from the small Democratic Party,” Anwar says. “He needs the support of Islamic parties, some of which support a ban on Ahmadiyah, and he doesn’t want to put his Muslim constituents offside.”

SBY, as he is often called, won the presidency in 2004 with more than 60 per cent of the vote but his party only won 7 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections and relies on the support of the Islamic parties.

Bivitri Susanti, executive director at the Indonesia Centre for Law and Political Studies agrees that this issue has become bogged down in politics.

“This case is about a power struggle within the government,” she says. “There was pressure from some factions pushing the government to issue this decree.”

Vice President Jusuf Kalla has done his best to water down the government action in public. Ahmadiyah can still worship, he says. They just can’t spread their beliefs to other people. But politics aside, this issue has divided the country.

“Religious tolerance is under attack,” says Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jakarta-based Jesuit priest and philosophy professor. “It’s increasingly difficult to get permits for building churches. And places where Christians worship that are not churches are often attacked by FPI.”

Still, Magnis-Suseno says it is much easier to change religions or marry someone of a different faith in Indonesia compared to other countries with a Muslim majority. He is concerned the ruling on Ahmadiyah will change all of that.

“No state has the right to say what people may or may not believe or worship” he says. “Religious belief is not a question of majority.”

Ahmadiyah was set up in the 19th century in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be a prophet like Jesus. The religion, which is banned in Pakistan, came to Indonesia in 1925 and a spokesman for the group claims it has 500,000 members.

In 1980 and again in 2005, the conservative Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa stating the sect was heretical and its followers were infidels.

Then in April this year, the government advisory board for “monitoring mystical beliefs in society,” recommended the sect be banned.

Syamsir Ali, a spokesman for Ahmadiyah in Indonesia, said attacks against its members have increased over the last 10 years, particularly in Lombok, where many displaced Ahmadis have been forced into a refugee camp without adequate food or water. He says in some places, children have to be escorted to school by police.

The group has been given no formal briefing from the government about what the decree means. Its members have been advised to “stay strong and in some areas, keep a low profile,” Ali says.

Most Indonesians condemn the violence against the Ahmadis but there are strong objections to the sect’s practices and in particular, its belief that Muhammad wasn’t the last prophet.

“I don’t mind what they believe in but why do they call their religion Islam when it’s not?” says Chaerul, a hairdresser in Jakarta. “I don’t agree with the violence but I do agree with the decree.”

Zuhairi Misrawi, head of the Moderate Muslim Society, is against any ban, or indeed any ruling from the government at all on religious matters.

“It goes against laws we have on religious freedom and human rights,” he says. “The government is caving in to pressure from radical Muslim groups.”

Ahmadiyah has said it will challenge the ruling in the constitutional and supreme courts but some legal experts believe it will struggle to have its case heard.

“It’s pretty clear that this goes against the constitution but the Constitutional Court can only review whether laws are in contradiction with the constitution and this isn’t a law,” says Bivitri Susanti from the Indonesia Centre for Law and Political Studies.

“They could try to go to the Supreme Court but it also might say that it isn’t authorized to rule on this. I think it will have to go to the Administrative Court.”

Meanwhile, the government hasn’t said how it will deal with the FPI.

Franz Magnis-Suseno believes the violent attacks by the group at the Monas rally may be “a blessing in disguise.”

“It was such a stupid, brutal thing and a lot of people are outraged. It’s encouraging to see that a broad range of Islamic groups that have condemned the attack.”

See Also:

Dangdut and Drilling in Indonesia

Book Review: Islam in Indonesia