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Indonesia: pluralism vs vigilantism

A pattern of violence against the Ahmadiyah religious community, in which the perpetrators enjoy near-impunity and official indulgence, is disfiguring Indonesia. It also presents a wider challenge to the country’s vital search for a model of religious tolerance in public life, says Charles Reading.

Indonesia’s political and social progress is shadowed by the indulgence of violence towards members of the country’s Ahmadiyah religious community. An example is the fallout of an attack in Cikesuik on 6 February 2011 that killed three people, of which a disturbing and graphic recording was made and used in evidence at the trial of led of twelve men accused of inciting hatred and mob violence. In the event the district-court verdict on 28 July found the men guilty only of a secondary charge of “participation in a violent attack that resulted in casualties”, and they were given lenient sentences of three and six months’ imprisonment.

A worrying aspect of the trial is that the judges held the Ahmadiyah community itself responsible for the assault on the grounds that it had not left the scene as the police had requested, but rather stood its ground in face of the mob. One of the Ahmadis, Deden Sujana, was even prosecuted (and convicted on 15 August 2011) on charges of provoking the violence; he will serve six months in prison, more than some of the assailants.

This clearly sends the dangerous message to vigilantes that violence can be perpetrated with impunity or at best very mild punishment. These actions pose a very real threat to local communities, and contribute to the growing political influence of vigilantes despite their proportionally small numbers. More broadly, the confrontational approach of vigilantism sidelines other actors in the important and vibrant debate concerning religious identity in modern Indonesian society.

The assault on the Ahmadiyah

The attack against the Ahmadiyah in Cikeusik cannot be described as a one-off, as members of the group have faced repeated targeting, stigmatism and intimidation. The Ahmadiyah, who number around 200,000 in Indonesia, revere the founder of their sect, Mirzan Gulam Ahmad, as a messenger; because of this, some Muslims consider them heretical. In 1980, the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Ulama / MUI) issued an edict declaring Ahmadiyah heretical, and reiterated this in 2005.

The situation was exacerbated in 2008 when a joint ministerial decree (SKB No 3/2008) from the religious-affairs and interior ministries and the attorney-general’s office called, if not for the outright banning of the Ahmadiyah, then for severe restriction on their activities. Some of the decree’s supporters - such as Itoc Tochiya, the mayor of the city of Cimahi in West Java province - had claimed the ban would be in the interest of the Ahmadiyah’s own security; and in May 2008, independently of the national government’s restriction Itoc Tochiya officially outlawed Ahmadiyah in Cimahi.

Violence has continued, as in the burning of an Ahmadiyah mosque in Cisalada, West Java, in October 2010 and the gruesome attack of February 2011; so has persecution, as in the banning of the group in West Java by the province’s governor, Ahmad Heryawan, in March 2011.

Several civil-society organisations - backed by Islamic organisations like the Muhammadiyah - have called for the protection of the Ahmadiyah community; they include the Bandung Legal Aid Institute (LBH-Bandung), the inter-religious network Jakatarub, and the Institute for Culture and Religion Studies (Incres). Indonesia’s government has paid little heed, and failed to counter regional prohibitions against the Ahmadiyah; rather, the minister for religious affairs, Suryadharma Alihas, regularly expresses his determination to ban the sect. 

The rise of vigilantism

This climate of stigmatism and violence is the context for the attack against the Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik and the tolerance shown by the courts towards the perpetrators. This paints a worrying picture of impunity for those who commit violence “in the name of religion”.

Indeed only two days after the verdict, the vigilante group Front Pembela Islam (FPI) marched on the presidential palace to call on the government to ban Ahmadiyah. The FPI regards itself as a defender of Islamic norms, and - through the militant Laskar Pembela Islam (LPI) command - is continuously involved in attacks on bars, clubs or even (in March 2010) an international sexual-rights conference in Surabaya. Almost none of this aggression carries serious consequences for the agitators.  

The numerous cases where the FPI has taken the law into its own hands show that the relationship between the group and the police is complex. In the past the police have done little to deter FPI violence towards Ahmadi and minority groups, though in 2011 they stated their wish to ban FPI vigilante raids during Ramadan. Members of the government maintain relations with the group, as was evident in August 2010 when the FPI’s twelfth anniversary was attended by the governor of Jakarta, Fauzi Bowo and Jakarta’s then police chief inspector, Timur Pradopo. Moreover, the group maintains friendly links with conservative elements within the MUI, the department of religious affairs, and Bakor Pakem (the Coordinating Body for Monitoring People’s Mystical Beliefs in Society).  

The FPI also involves itself in political issues with no obvious religious relevance - such as its demand that Greenpeace (which has waged a high-profile campaign against Indonesia’s palm-oil industry) leave Indonesia. The group plays on the argument that juxtaposes the “Islamic world” against “the west”. Its use of such civilisational logic helps explain why the FPI quite easily can oppose anything it views as western but remains quiet when, for example, Saudi Arabia beheads an Indonesian maid, an act that caused uproar in Indonesia. A dextrous stance of this kind allows the FPI to exploit an imaginary religious solidarity that overrides the rights of individuals and, conveniently, aligns with vested interests within business and governmental circles.

The worlds of faith

A less visible consequence of the growing impunity towards vigilante groups is the way such violence limits the debate concerning the role of religion within Indonesian society. In a time when violations of religious freedom are (according to the Setera institute) on the rise, the inclusion of further voices becomes ever more necessary.

The Wahid Institute and UIN Syarif Hidayatullah’s Pusat Pengkajian Masyarakat dan Islam (Centre for the Study of Islam and Society / PPMI) - although they lack the mobilisational ability of conservative groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir and the FPI - offer two examples of highly distinguished institutions that are analysing how Islam holds relevance in contemporary Indonesia. In this they represent an alternative standpoint from which to approach religion, based less on a dichotomy of the Islamic vs non-Islamic world and more on modern transformations within society itself.

Indeed, the seeming resurgence of Islam (on all sides) should not be seen as a regression into an outdated religious authority but rather linked to economic and political developments in Indonesia since Suharto’s “new order”. Mass urbanisation and new access to education (for example) may have brought an influx of ideas associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb-ut Tahrir; but these processes also led to the growth of a new urban Muslim professional class that expressed their emerging identity through Islamic clothing and fashion, banking and business models as well as discussion groups, such as Paramadina, that undercut traditional lines of Islamic authority.

In this context, the relative ease with which vigilantes can act with impunity sets a dangerous precedent, and greatly detracts from the image Indonesia is striving to build of itself as a multi-ethnic, multi-faith country of tolerance. The thuggish behaviour of a small group of radicalised individuals and organisations deflects from the vibrant debates that take place more quietly under the rubric of a range of institutions and social organisations linked to Indonesian universities, think-tanks as well as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama.

Amid these islands of progress, the government has failed to take leadership in building a more inclusive society and protecting its minorities. The result is to create a vacuum and set a disturbing example. If Indonesia is to build religious pluralism and tolerance between religions, it should start by recognising the plurality of different positions amongst Islamic groups themselves rather than allowing a coercive minority to paint a distorted picture of “Indonesian Islam”.  

About the author
Charles Reading is the pseudonym of a Jakarta-based security analyst
More On

Charles Reading is the pseudonym of a Jakarta-based security analyst

Also by Charles Reading in openDemocracy:

"Indonesia: bombs and politics" (20 July 2009)

"Papuan autonomy: the blocked road" (7 December 2009)

"Papua: the elusive dialogue" (23 April 2010)

"Indonesia's far east: security and politics" (18 August 2010)


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