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Indonesia confronts religious intolerance

A government decree regarding the controversial Ahmadiya sect causes a rift between extremists and moderate Muslims as well as secularists.

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As Indonesia looks ahead to national elections next year, political calculations are at work. Seeking reelection, President Suslio Bambang Yudhoyono is courting the support of Islamic-oriented parties who backed his run in 2004. A recent poll showed a slump in his numbers after unpopular cuts in fuel subsidies in May and a swing to former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a secularist.

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Given the election cycle, analysts say Mr. Yudhoyono wants to please coalition partners who line up with Islamists on faith issues such as the Ahmadiyah, even though polling data suggests scant public support for radical groups with violent followers.

Most Indonesians are moderate in their religious views and keen to avoid such strife. "The Indonesia constitution is very clear that it gives freedom of religion. Based on this, we are a secular state," says Ahmad Suaedy, the executive director of the Wahid Institute, a secularist organization that opposes the decree.

For their part, activists seeking to ban Ahmadiyah and force believers to recant are determined to keep up the pressure. At the forefront is the Muslim Defenders Front (FPI), a thuggish morality militia known for carrying out raids on nightclubs. Others include members of Hizb Al Tahrir, an international Islamist group that favors a global Muslim caliphate. None are directly linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al Qaeda funded group that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings, confirms Ms. Jones, an expert on the group.

Siroj Alwi, an FPI founder, defends violence against Ahmadiyah as justified by Islamic law, arguing that the sect has "blemished" the faith. "We talk about tolerance in Indonesia ... but sometimes to uphold our teachings we need to use violence and put aside our niceness. Sometimes we have to be firm," he says.

Ahmadiyah's troubles began in 2005 when the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), a semi-official body, issued a second fatwa against the sect – a measure that emboldened vigilante groups such as FPI to march on its mosques. The first MUI fatwa, issued in 1985, had no effect, as Mr. Suharto's iron-fisted rule left little room for Islamist activism.

The FPI's national profile spiked last month when hundreds of supporters attacked a peaceful June 1 march by Ahmadiyah sympathizers in Jakarta's central square. The violence unfolded in full view of hundreds of police officers who didn't intervene, sparking public criticism of their role. Police later raided FPI offices and detained around 50 members.

For now, Ahmadiyah followers in this village are holding their prayer meetings at home. Asep Saefuddin, the community's leader here, says he hopes that by drawing a line, the government decree will eventually allow him to rebuild the mosque and reopen the school. But he adds that tensions are still running high in the village: "We still greet each other, but it's not the same as before. You can feel the change."

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