190 August 2008

Aug 2008

Bulletin no. 190

Freedom of religion tested: the case of Ahmadiyah   

On 9 June President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) announced that members of Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect, would be allowed to continue practicing their religion but were prohibited from proselytising. He had struck a compromise after months of violent attacks against members of the sect and against their houses, shops and mosques. The Ahmadiyah case is a basket case of problems the SBY government has been facing to uphold secularism and freedom of religion in general.

Alhadiyah is a small but vibrant Muslim sect which has been functioning in Indonesia since the days of Dutch colonialis, back in the 1930s. The members of the sect are conservatively estimated to number around 200,000. Until recently, they were able to practice their religion in pluralistic Indonesia without disruption. But in the last few months, Ahmadiyah villages have been the target of vicous attacks by fundamentalist groups, in particular the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI). It has been singled out for vilification because of its unorthodox views regarding acknowledgement of the Prophet Muhammad as the last prophet. The government’s restriction order which requires members to confine their religious activities to their own homes has been strongly criticised for violating their constitution right to freedom of religion.

Although the decree stops short of an outright ban, members of the sect are liable to imprisonment of up to five years for certain ill-defined activities. But it requires the security forces to protect members of the sect from acts of violence.

Three months ago, on 16 April, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society, Bakor Pakem, called for Ahmadiyah to be banned. While this encouraged fundamentalist groups to attack the sect, it also led to a number of civil society groups and individuals, including Muslim scholars, Catholic priests, representatives of other religions such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as poets, writers and human rights campaigners to sign a petition urging the government to protect Ahmadiyah from attack. The FPI campaign hence has triggered actions by a wide range of organisations and individuals to uphold the principle of secularism.

The 9 June decree was signed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, the Minister of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General. In response, Human Right Watch criticised this as a violation of Indonesia’s ratification in 2006 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The human rights lawyer, Adnan Buyung Nasution warned that the government had been ‘weakened by this decision, weakened in the sense that aggressive of extremist fundamentalist Muslims … know they can put pressure on the government.’ [Column on Indonesian Justice, UPI Asia Online, 11 June 2008]

A month before the decree, the UN Committee Against Torture at a meeting in Geneva, recommended that Indonesia should drop its plan to outlaw Ahmadiyah, arguing that it would legitimize crimes against members of the sect. The Committee noted the failure of the Indonesian security forces and authorities to provide sect members with adequate protection or to conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations into the recent violence against its members. It also proposed that the UN special rapporteur on religion should visit Indonesia.

Under attack for two decades

Harassment of Ahmadiyah goes back more than two decades. In the 1980s, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) issued a fatwa (edict), in June 1980 followed up by a second one in July 2005. The first edict declaring Ahmadiyah to be ‘heretical’ and since then its followers have been under repeated attack. Members of the sect were evicted in 2002 when residents of Lombok Island in West Nusa Tenggara raided their homes. In 2005, some 12,000 Ahmadiyah members were attacked as they were holding an annual meeting in Mubarak College, Parunng, Bogor. Sixteen people were injured in the attack and less than a week later, the homes of two Ahmadiyah members located near the college were damaged.

While members of Ahmadiyah have not been known at any time to resort to violence against anyone, they have been subject to unprovoked attacks in their homes, in their mosques simply because of their adherence to a belief that puts them at odds with fundamentalist groups.

According to one leading Indonesian columnist: ‘The anti-Ahmadiyah fatwas have since provided an on-going rationale which is providing a legitimizing platform for some religious leaders and some real and moral protection and cover for those who want to implement the fatwas in the name of religion. This has formalised the role of the MUI (founded in the late 1970s) as a state institution and made its fatwas appear more authoritative for all believers.’ [Aboeprijadi Santoso, The Jakarta Post, 12 June 2008]

Public rally attacked

A rally held on 1 June in Central Jakarta, on the site of the National Monument, Monas, to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Pancasila, was confronted by a group of thugs, most of them from the FPI. Participants in the rally were physically attacked and 34 people were injured as a result. The organisers of the rally, the National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith and Religion (AKKBB), had announced their intention to hold the rally through the media, stating that they endorsed pluralism and urging people not to be intimidated. A co-ordinator of the event, Nong Darol, explained that they had been warned by the police that a counter demonstration would take place, as a result of which, they had decided to hold the rally for only one hour.

‘We were shocked when FPI members chased and beat us with bamboo sticks, mostly those who were already inside Monas. We ran away, but they had already hurt many people.’ Some of those injured had to be treated in hospital. One of the injured, Muhammad Guntur Romli, was rushed to hospital for surgery because his cheek bone had been fractured by blows from FPI members wielding sticks.

Another AKKBB co-ordinator, Anik HT, said: ‘They hit u s with wooden sticks and cudgels, and sprayed us with pepper that hurt our eyes.’ A young student from the Az-Zaman Islamic boarding school in Cirebon was injured on the chin and needed treatment in hospital.

Although police were present in large numbers and witnessed the attack, they decided not to make any arrests on the spot, for fear of triggering further riots. Jakarta’s police chief, Comr Budi Winarko, said that they had enough evidence to make arrests on a later occasion.

Muslim leaders condemn the violence

The attack on the peaceful rally was condemned by a number of human rights organisations, while the leaders of Indonesia’s most influential Muslim organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama, also raised the voices in protest, making it clear that the thuggish actions of the FPI did not represent the feelings of the country’s millions Muslims.

Masdar Farid Masudi of Nadhatul Ulama said: ‘The NU opposes any violence for any reason. There is no religious justification that tolerates violent actions. I urge the government to take immediately proper measure against the perpetrators. If the state ignores this case, its authority will be destroyed and anarchy will emerge.’

Din Syamsudin, chairman of Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organisation, Muhammadiyah, said: ‘This action is not in line with Islam’s image. It is a crime that must be prosecuted. I hope everyone can control himself or herself and avoid violence and anarchism.’

KontraS, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence, also condemned the attack and urged the President to pay attention to the incident, while the police were urged to arrest the FPI members involved. [Jakarta Post, 2 June 2008]

Former president, Abdurrahman Wahid also criticised the perpetrators of the attack. In his opinion, the FPI should be banned because it threatens the freedom of faith in Indonesia.

As the storm of protest grew, the FPI again showed their true colours by threatening to ‘wage war’ on Ahmadiyah if the president failed to act within three days.

As the conflict continued to fester, the government appears to have lost its nerve and issued a decree on 9 June restricting the activities of Ahmadiyah. A spokesman for the Indonesian Ahmadiyah Assembly (JAI) commended the government for maintaining neutrality and acting fairly. Abdul Syukur from the sect’s base in Manis Lor village, West Java, said: ‘We respect the government for its fairness. The decree is a reminder to us all the government is protecting each and every citizen.’ He declared that Ahmadis in Manis Lor would continue with their normal routines until further notice. ‘Prayer and worship are the personal responsibilities of each Muslim, as well as a requirement, so we will continue to do this.’

Giving assurances of ‘round-the-clock’ protection, a local police officer in Manis Lor said that a number of officers had been mobilised following issuance of the decree and would ‘protect Ahmadiyah members and their assets from the risk of attack from certain groups.’ [Jakarta Post, 4 June, 2008]

Tolerance safe and well in Indonesia

It fell to one of the country’s foremost Catholic intellectuals, Franz Magnis-Suseno, to declare that recent events could lead to global misconceptions about Islam in Indonesia.

‘The whole world gets the impression that this is Indonesian Islam. But this is nonsense…. There is no problem in Indonesia. Even changing a religion from Islam to another religion is possible. It is a very substantial thing.’ He insisted that Indonesia still adheres to plurality, tolerance and the State ideology, Pancasila.’ Speaking during a discussion hosted by the Centre for Islam and State Studies at Paramadina University, he also reminded his audience that ten per cent of the population were Christians, adding: ‘There is no hatred against the minority.’ [Jakarta Post, 12 June 2008]

Police make many arrests

Three days after the violent attack on the public rally in Jakarta, the police announced that they had detained 57 members of the FPI. Announcing the arrests, a police spokesman said they had rounded up FPI members at the group’s headquarters and in several houses in Jakarta on suspicion of being involved in the attacks.

President Sudilo Bambang Yudhoyono condemned the attack on 1 June and said that he had asked ministers to examine the options for banning the FPI. [AFP, 3 June, and Reuters, 4 June 2008].