Indonesia: Religious Liberty, Polarisation and Danger.

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By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

On Monday 9 June 2008, the Indonesian government issued Joint Ministerial
Decree Number 199/2008 that imposes restrictions on members of the Ahmadiyya
sect of Islam, banning them from spreading their religious practices and
interpretations, on the pretext that they deviate from orthodox Islam. Anyone
who violates the ban risks a five-year prison sentence. However, Islamic
hardliners from the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) and Hizb'ut Tahrir Indonesia
(HTI) continue to agitate for a total ban on the sect. (Link 1)

International Herald Tribune reports: "The decision is sure to anger human
rights groups and moderate Muslim organisations that promote pluralism in
Indonesia. One prominent group of human rights lawyers said they planned to
bring the case of Ahmadiyya to the Supreme Court and the constitutional court.
'The government's action today, to stop the activity of Ahmadiyya, is clearly
against the constitution,' said Uli Parulian Sihombing, a human rights lawyer
who represents minority religions groups. 'We will be bringing this to
court.'" (Link 2)

The Ahmadiyya community refuses to recognise the ministerial decree and has
urged its followers to "pray, stay calm and obey 'existing laws'" while it
prepares its legal response. (Link 3)

By this decree, the government is elevating itself to the role of judge,
defender and enforcer of orthodoxy, dictating to people what they may legally
believe. Furthermore, by siding with the violent rather than protecting the
fundamental human rights of the victim, they are declaring loud and clear that
violence works. The implications of this decree are profound, and involve not
only Islamisation, Talibanisation and religious liberty, but also the unity of


The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National broadcasts a weekly
30-minute program called "The Religion Report", hosted by Stephen Crittenden.
The subject of the 18 June program was "Indonesia, the Ahmadiyya and radical

Crittenden interviewed three experts:
1) Jakarta-based Maya Muchtar, a Muslim woman who chairs the organising
committee of the National Integration Movement that advocates for religious
2) Professor Merle Ricklefs, who until 2005 was Director of the School of
Asian Languages and Societies at Melbourne University. He is now Professor in
the Department of History at the National University of Singapore.
3) Bali-based Anand Krishna, the founder and leader of the Anand Ashrams that
are centres for study and meditation. He also advocates for Indonesia's
religiously-pluralist constitution and writes for the Jakarta Post.

The program provided detailed and revealing insights into the issues -- I
highly recommend it. It is available for download as a transcript or
audio-file at:
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC),
Radio National, "Religion Report", 18 June 2008
Host: Stephen Crittenden.
"Indonesia, the Ahmadiyya and radical Islam"


For decades (even up to two centuries) Indonesia has been undergoing creeping
Islamisation and Arabisation. This process escalated through the 1990s (after
the Afghan war). Due to this, conservative Islamic bodies have been able to
gain a status and power they have not historically had. This is especially
true of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI: Indonesia's most senior body of
Islamic clerics).

In July 2005 the MUI issued an 11-point fatwa that, among other things,
condemned "religious teachings influenced by pluralism, liberalism and
secularism" as being "against Islam". The Ahmadiyah sect of Islam was
specifically singled out as a deviant sect whose followers were to be
considered murtad (apostate). As would be expected, persecution by militant
Islamists against everything they perceive as being "against Islam"
subsequently escalated. Persecution has included church closures, mosque
burnings and street violence.

The MUI and various hard-line militant and radical groups such as the Islamic
Defenders Front and Hib'ut Tahrir Indonesia have been agitating for the
government to ban the Ahmadiyya sect. The government however only equivocates,
repeatedly postponing decisions and refusing to make a stand for religious

On 1 June 2008, Islamic militants violently attacked some 1,500 peaceful
religious liberty advocates in Jakarta who had assembled about an hour before
their planned event -- a parade to celebrate the religious pluralism of
Pancasila: the official ideology of religious liberty and pluralism in Indonesia.

On 9 June 2008, the government issued its Joint Ministerial Decree which bans
the spreading of non-orthodox interpretations of religion.


The Ministerial Decree will be challenged in the Constitutional Court, which
will doubtless rule that the Ministerial Decree is unconstitutional. This will
most certainly extinguish President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's political
career whilst igniting the flames of Islamist indignation. Indonesia's
disparate Islamist groups, united by their indignation, may decide to join
forces to contest the next elections in the name of Islam. Militants will
increase their violence and intimidation.

Greater radicalisation and violence from Islamists will lead to greater social
and political polarisation which will increase the likelihood of communal

An Islamised, Talibanised state -- if it could be achieved -- would lead to
the disintegration of Indonesia.


Regarding the phenomenon of polarisation, Prof. Merle Ricklefs offers an
observation: "There certainly are radical characters in Indonesian history but
a lot of it is simply very pious people trying to lead a more pious life as
they understand it . . ."

And while some of these people do choose to adopt the more "pure" Islam,
others, according to Ricklefs, tend to say: "'Well look, that's what Islam is
and maybe I'm not very interested.' And just to give you one example: one of
the places most subject to religious violence in Indonesia, religious
extremism today is in Surakarta, in Central Java, where I've done a lot of
research work. Surakarta if I remember my statistics correctly, in the early
1970s had something like 15 percent of the population was Christian. Now
there's been a lot of Islamic violence in the streets of course where Abu
Bakir Bashir is, where the military school is, and now the percentage of
population which is Christian is at least 26 percent. In other words, the
opposition created is so great, it isn't just people say, 'Well I'm not that
kind of Muslim,' a very substantial number of people say, 'Well I'm not Muslim
at all, I'm going to become Christian instead.' That's the most extreme form
of polarisation which has been driven, in my view, by religious extremism."

Prof. Ricklef's forecast is: ". . . that the use of violence by these
[Islamic] groups, the manifest ability of these groups to intimidate
government, will first of all lose SBY the election, but also very likely will
make a lot of people say this is intolerable and turn them away from Islamic
parties. I suspect you're going to see a lot of social and political
polarisation, and polarisation of course is always dangerous in a society, it
could easily lead to violence."

Elizabeth Kendal


1) UPDATE (Indonesia): Decree banning religious group must be revoked
Asian Human Rights Commission – Urgent Appeals Programme
Urgent Appeal Update: AHRC-UAU-036-2008. 12 June 2008

2) Indonesian officials order Ahmadiyah sect to return to mainstream Islam
By Peter Gelling, 9 June 2008

3) Indonesia sect mulls legal action against decree. 10 June 2008http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/news/stories/200806/s2270653.htm

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