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    Southeast Asia
     Feb 12, 2011


Death to minorities in Indonesia
By Katherine Demopoulos

JAKARTA - Indonesia's status as a thriving pluralist democracy is under threat as the country's religious minorities face increasingly violent persecution and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government responds with what critics perceive as passivity and inaction.

An attack on three churches on Tuesday follows the killing on Sunday of three followers of Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect perceived by some here as heretical. Ahmadis believe their founder is a prophet, in contradiction to mainstream Islam which views Mohammad as the final prophet.

Video footage has emerged showing the murders in graphic detail. First a mob armed with knives, sticks and stones attacked a group of Ahmadis defending a home. Rocks fly, glass shatters, a

 

man smiles for the camera and the overwhelmed police mill about helplessly.

Later, two men are shown, stripped from the waist down, lying lifeless and muddied on the ground. Blood oozes into the mud, shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great in Arabic) erupt and the attackers launch another savage volley of blows using sticks and bamboo poles, as others use their phones to record it.

Condemnation of the killings has come from the United States and European Union, as well as human-rights advocacy groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and Indonesian activists.

"The United States joins the vast majority of Indonesians in deploring the violence in Indonesia directed at members of the Ahmadiyah community that resulted in the deaths of three people and the wounding of several others over this past weekend. We also note with concern the recent church burnings in Central Java," US ambassador to Indonesia Scot Marciel said in a statement.

Indonesia has both a history of sectarian violence and internationally respected pluralists, such as Abdurrahman Wahid, briefly Indonesia's fourth president. On Monday, small numbers of protestors of various beliefs, mostly non-governmental organizations, activists and professionals on their lunch hour, gathered at the iconic Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, united by Twitter messages and a common goal of expressing solidarity with Indonesia's religious minorities.

Yudhoyono has promised an investigation into the killings and has now called for violent groups to be disbanded, but critics argue that his government is part of the problem. In 2008, a triumvirate comprising the religious affairs minister, the attorney general and the interior minister passed a decree preventing Ahmadiyah from proselytizing and there are no indications of any intention to revoke the order.

Ismail Hasani, a researcher at the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, says attacks against Ahmadiyah were stepped up since the decree was imposed and calls for it to be revoked. "After the decree was launched the incidents increased. The decree has been used as a tool of legitimation in various incidents," he said, pointing also to comments from the current religious affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali. "I'm sure the violence increases because the minister of religion always provokes the public [with calls] to ban Ahmadiyah," he said.

The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace says attacks on Ahmadiyah rose to 50 in 2010 from 33 in 2009 and 15 in 2008. The local Wahid Institute also records increases from 2009 to 2010 in violations of religious freedom, intolerance and discrimination.

Passive policy
Government passivity in dealing with the attacks is also an issue, says Lutfi Assyaukanie, co-founder of the Liberal Islam Network and a lecturer at Paramadina University. "The roots of the problem lie in the firmness of government and in the religious authority. We are a big nation with no big leader. SBY [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] doesn't do anything. Only statements, statements, statements."

Assyaukanie says the leadership of Indonesia's two main Muslim organizations, Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, is "so weak" and "very political". He says the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) is also to blame because in 2005 it reiterated a fatwa (edict) denouncing Ahmadiyah as heretic.

"As long as the MUI is ultra-conservative like now - they are still issuing fatwas against Ahmadiyah - if they are still blaming Ahmadiyah, we cannot stop the attack on Ahmadiyah. We cannot stop the violence. There is a strong relation between violence and the fatwa of MUI."

Budiman Sudjatmiko, a legislator for Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP), the party of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, said the government is failing in its duty to protect all Indonesians. "The state should protect those citizens and the state failed to do that. They [the government] have been intimidated by the radicals."

The radicals he refers to are small pockets of Islamic networks, which include the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), religious vigilantes with links to the police. FPI members are now on trial in connection with the 2010 stabbing of a Christian pastor from the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan church in Jakarta's suburbs following a dispute over the church's permits.

Luspida Simanjuntak, a fellow leader at the church, was also beaten. She says the government promised land for a new church, but has still not handed over the plot. Although the church is still active, she remains "uneasy" since the attack and says banners are now hanging near the proposed site, saying, "We strongly reject the church's establishment".

Activists say while they don't yet know which specific groups were behind the Ahmadiyah killings, with violence often hijacked for political and economic reasons, it is clear that the attack was organized.

The police, they say, are culpable in their consistent failure to enforce the law and protect Ahmadis, both in this recent incident, when they were warned several days in advance of possible trouble, as well as other assaults on the sect elsewhere on the islands of Java, Lombok and Sulawesi. The police themselves have claimed a lack of capacity to deal with the violence.

The threats to freedoms and the links to Muslim hardliners broadens into other arenas. Pop singer Nazril Irham, known as Ariel, was recently sentenced to three and a half years under Indonesia's controversial 2008 anti-pornography law, in a sex video case seen by many as a useful media distraction from an ongoing corruption saga in Indonesia's tax office. Muslim hardliners demonstrated at the court and were vociferous in their condemnation of Ariel.

The broad concern is that Indonesia is turning back the clock on what is generally viewed as a flourishing democracy and a successful emerging economy with impressive growth. Syafi'i Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, wants the radical groups that perpetrate such attacks to be banned, but contends it won't be easy. He warns that Indonesia is showing regressive tendencies. "Sometimes we are questioning - where is Indonesia heading right now?"

Katherine Demopoulos is a journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She works as a freelance reporter for the BBC and Financial Times and writes extensively on Asian energy markets.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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