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Indonesia’s Muslim compromise isn’t working
Jonathan Manthorpe, The Vancouver Sun
Published: Monday, June 16, 2008
Indonesia is bracing for renewed religious violence as a government attempt to be even-handed in a dispute between radical and moderate Muslims has only served to inflame passions.
Both Islamic fundamentalists and Muslims preaching religious tolerance are outraged by a government decision announced on Monday to restrict but not outlaw the Ahmadiyah sect, which has about 200,000 followers in Indonesia.
For months, the radical Islamic Defenders Front, which is allied to the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah, itself tied to al Qaeda, has been demanding the Jakarta government ban the Ahmadiyah sect. DFI fanatics have burned Ahmadiyah mosques and 10 days ago attacked an interfaith rally urging religious tolerance.
The violence of the DFI fighters shown on television beating the interfaith supporters with sticks and screaming into the camera that Ahmadiyah should be “exterminated” has shocked many Indonesians.
Although 90 per cent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslim, and while most are devout, their religious style is influenced by the country’s pre-Islamic Hinduism and most pride themselves on their tolerance and secular constitution.
The radicals’ campaign in Indonesia is part of a push throughout Asia against Ahmadiyah, which Muslims regard as heretical because the sect does not believe Mohammed was the last prophet, a central concept in Islam.
In the broader context it is part of the drive for adherents by the fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims of Saudi Arabia flowing from the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The influence of radicals has grown in Indonesia and there have been some terrorist outrages. This presented Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono, better known for everyone’s convenience as “SBY,” with a tough political problem.
He came to power in 2005 as a reformist committed to upholding and enhancing Indonesia’s secular constitution, which recognizes the freedom to follow five religions and sects: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
But SBY faces re-election next year and he needs the support of mainstream Muslim parties that, while abhorring the radicals’ violence, still think Ahmadiyah followers are heretics. In seeking a middle path, however, SBY’s decision has satisfied no one.
The government decree ordered followers of the sect not to use their mosques, to stop trying to convert people to their interpretation of Islam and to return to the mainstream of Muslim belief.
The National Alliance for Religious Freedom accused SBY of being “held hostage by a small group of hardliners.”
Meanwhile, lawyers for the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation said the government was giving in to extremists and said it will launch a lawsuit on behalf of Ahmadiyah.
The Asia branch of Human Rights Watch said, “The Indonesian government should stand up for religious tolerance instead of prosecuting people for their religious views. President Yodhoyono should reverse this decision and make it clear that all Indonesians will be protected in their religious convictions and consciences.”
At the other end of the spectrum, a message from Islamic Defenders Front leader Riziek Shihab, in prison for his role in the attack on the interfaith rally that left 60 moderates injured, called for renewed violence.
“I appeal to all Muslims to keep fighting so that the government issues a presidential decree on the disbandment of Ahmadiyah,” the message said.
Significantly, the message was read by a man who had just visited Shihab in prison, radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is believed by several intelligence agencies to be the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiah and the key link to al-Qaeda.
Ahmadiyah was founded in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who believed himself to be the Messiah, the Mahdi and the second coming of Christ.
The sect was established in Pakistan, created as a predominantly Muslim state after the partition of India in 1947.
The persecution of Ahmadiyah followers in Pakistan by radical Islamists began in the 1970s, prompting the then prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir Bhutto, to begin Pakistan’s continuing movement away from its secular constitution. He declared the Ahmadiyah followers to be “non-Muslims” and in the 1980s the sect moved its headquarters to London.
Jonathan Manthorpe writes for the Vancouver Sun. See www.vancouversun.com/blogs