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Here is an important announcement. Indonesia has officially stopped being the tolerant nation it has always proclaimed to be, especially when it comes to religion. The country with the world’s largest Muslim population, one that has long prided itself for its diversity and peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths, is no longer a safe place, particularly for religious minorities.
Never mind what the Constitution and the state ideology Pancasila say — that freedom of religion is guaranteed and that citizens are protected to practice their faith. Today, those are mere ornamental words. The reality on the ground is the state has started to persecute people for their religious beliefs.
On Wednesday, a government panel decided that Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect that has its origins in India but now has followers worldwide, including in Indonesia, is heretic and contravenes the tenets of Islam. The Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs — comprising government prosecutors, police and officials of the religious affairs and home ministries — issued a recommendation that Ahmadiyah, as a religious organization, be banned, along with all its activities.
The ball is in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s court, being the person authorized to ban any organization. But there is real fear that before he makes his ruling, the recommendation itself will be sufficient for various vigilante groups to start attacking and harassing followers of Ahmadiyah.
Many followers of Ahmadiyah have already had to live in makeshift shelters after coming under violent attacks in recent years from vigilante groups who acted on the fatwa (religious edict) of the Indonesian Ulema Council declaring Ahmadiyah heretic. The police, whose duty it is to ensure that every religious minority is protected, did not make much of an effort to prevent the violence. Typically, they only evacuated Ahmadiyah followers to safety and then gave the thugs free reign to destroy and burn down property belonging to the group.
Now, the same vigilante groups and many others like them will be encouraged to resume their attacks. Even the police will be required to act upon a ban and start rounding up the followers of Ahmadiyah. If this is not state-sanctioned religious persecution, then we don’t know what is.
No wonder the first reaction from Ahmadiyah leaders when the ban recommendation came Wednesday was to brace themselves for violent attacks and to defend themselves. They knew too that they no longer could count on the protection of the state and the police against future attacks.
What is most disturbing is the way representatives of the conservative Muslims flexed their muscles to secure the ban, at times using violent language, forcing the government to comply.
This is the first time in the republic’s history that the state, which proclaims to be neither theocratic nor secular, has interfered in the substance of the religion. In the past, the state restricted its role to ensuring freedom of religion and the right for everyone to practice their faith. It leaves the question of the right or wrong of particular teachings to religious leaders. Wednesday’s recommendation broke the long-held taboo and clearly shows the state siding with the Muslim conservatives by agreeing Ahmadiyah is heresy and contravenes the tenets of Islam.
This is setting a dangerous precedent, for no religion is safe now from the possibility of having its beliefs probed and judged to contravene Islam. That literally means just about every existing religion. One wonders, now that the conservative Muslims have had their way, who they will target next. They know the state will again be submissive to their will.
This is the state playing God, a dangerous game that would spell the end of the religious diversity that has always underpinned this republic. We may as well declare Indonesia an Islamic state. At least the rules of the game for the religious minorities are clear. Today, we have a government that is failing in its constitutional duty to protect the religious minorities.
It is encouraging to see that Muslim leaders from the moderate camp quickly distanced themselves from the recommendation by the government panel and denounced it as a violation of the Constitution (which, incidentally, is an impeachable offense).
Former Muhammadiyah chairman Syafii Ma’arif and leading Islamic scholar Azyumardi Azra both said the recommendation reflects the views of “extremist” elements in Islam rather than the “moderate” that continue to preach peace, tolerance and respect for religious differences.
More of them should come out of their shell and speak out about the real Islam.
If the state can no longer be counted on to defend Ahmadiyah followers, then the task should be taken up by moderate and peace-loving Muslims. They, along with leaders of religious minorities, should join hands in fighting religious extremists in our society (and apparently, in our government) and prevent this country from degenerating into a lawless state.
This republic was built upon, among other things, religious diversity and religious freedom. You take those away and you may as well forget about the republic. May God be with us.