Sunday, February 12, 2012

Religious radicalism and cultural change

SUNDAY, 05 FEBRUARY 2012 00:00

Sundanese people view difference in new and worrying ways


West Java has long been known for the tolerant nature of its society and culture. ‘Siger tengah’, or ‘the middle road’, is an underlying principle of Sundanese culture that promotes moderation and the avoidance of extremes of both right and left. The Sundanese also reflect proudly on their values of friendliness and courtesy, reflected in expressions like ‘hormat ka saluhureun, nyaah ka sahandapeun, jeung someah ka sasama’ (respect for elders, affection for the young, and courtesy towards peers) and ‘someah hade ka semah’ (politeness and kindness to visitors). Social values of mutual assistance are embodied in the expression ‘resep nulung ka nu butuh, nalang ka nu susah’ (take pleasure in helping those in need and supporting those in trouble). These and similar sayings reflect a West Javanese society that values courtesy, harmonious living, mutual concern and support, and discernment in taking actions and decisions.
Nevertheless, in recent times, it is as though these cultural values have been lost. A significant escalation in acts of violence, particularly in matters of religion, has been evident in West Java. In the 10 days following the issuing of the West Java Gubernatorial Regulation banning Ahamdiyah on 3 March 2011 alone, a total of 56 cases of violence directed at the Ahmadiyah community occurred in West Java, among other places in Cianjur, Majalengka, Ciamis, Banjar, Bandung, Cirebon, Indramayu, Sukabumi and Tasikmalaya. According to the 2010 Report on Tolerance and Intolerance issued by the Moderate Muslim Society, in that year West Java recorded the highest number of incidences of intolerance of all Indonesian provinces - more than half the total 81 cases. This represented a four-fold increase on the figures for 2009 in West Java. Most cases occurred in Bekasi, Bogor, Garut and Kuningan. In Bekasi, the acts of intolerance involved obstruction of religious observances, the denial of access to places of worship, and attacks on members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP). In Bogor, seven of the 10 cases recorded also involved Christians and were connected to church buildings. In Garut and Kuningan, most of the cases involved the Ahmadiyah community.

Tensions explode in Cikeusik

One incident of violence against the Ahmadiyah community that has drawn widespread attention in Indonesia and abroad occurred in Cikeusik, a subdistrict of Pandeglang in the province of Banten. This particular incident resulted in the deaths of three Ahmadiyah community members. According to observers, the incident arose from the concerns of some local inhabitants over the presence of Ahmadis in the village. They accused Ahmadiyah of propagating a deviation from Islamic teachings in regard to the status of Mirza Gulam Ahmad as a Prophet of God, and of offering a financial reward to anyone willing to adopt their beliefs. Meetings were held between the two groups on three occasions in November 2010, sponsored by local civilian and military authorities and representatives of the Council of Indonesian Islamic Scholars (MUI).
A coalition made up of members of the local community, local government representatives and Islamic scholars issued three demands to the Ahmadis: first, that the community should cease all its activities; second, that it should take immediate steps to integrate fully with the local community; and third, that it should formally disband. All three demands were rejected by the Ahmadis, who remained steadfast in their beliefs. From that point, the Ahmadiyah leaders were subjected to intimidation through SMS and verbal accusations, until the situation finally exploded in the events of 6 February 2011 and the deaths of three members of the community.
A number of different versions of the chronology of events leading up to the Cikeusik incident have emerged, including those of the Commission on Missing Persons and Acts of Violence (KontraS), the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the police, popular mass organisations and Ahmadiyah itself. But they all tend towards the same conclusion – that the clash was triggered by the presence in the village of members of the Central Ahmadiyah Militia Brigade (Laskar Ahmadiyah Pusat), who originated from Bekasi, Jakarta and Bogor.
Before the arrival of the Ahmadiyah Militia, the leadership and members of the Cikeusik Ahmadiyah community had been taken into protective custody, following indications that their headquarters in the village of Umbulan were about to be attacked. Militia members reached the village the day before the events took place, intending to stand guard over the Ahmadiyah headquarters and its assets. Some versions of what occurred say that rioting the following day was incited by their arrogance. In video recordings supporting these accounts, they can be seen responding to calls by police intelligence agents to leave the building with their own threats of violence, ‘If the police are incapable [of preventing a mob attack], just turn them loose. Only when the world is bathed in blood does the real fight begin!’ According to some versions, it was these words that ignited the community’s anger.
In the version of events put forward by the MUI, the Ahmadiyah militia were warned by a number of local inhabitants to leave the building, but chose to respond by making their own show of strength, a kind of display of invulnerability that drove their opponents to anger. According to this account, the rioting occurred not because of doctrinal matters, but in an attempt to settle a question of honour between two groups of combatants. Other versions point to the behaviour of local inhabitants as the root cause of the clash, referring to local people waving machetes and shouting threats like ‘police out of the way’, ‘these are infidels’, ‘set fire to Ahmadiyah’, and ‘close down Ahmadiyah’.
Events such as this raise serious questions for West Javanese society in general: What has led to this situation? What is going on in West Java? Has there been a fundamental change to the tolerance and harmony for which Sundanese culture is known?

Culture and conflict

Sundanese culture has been subjected to a series of distortions as a result of the pressures that are weighing upon it. The first of these is the influence of a series of national-level crises whose impacts have been felt also at the local and regional levels. On-going issues such as a crisis of confidence in the government, socio-economic and legal crises, and questions about the integrity of those holding public office and their ability to offer models of good conduct have all had a psychological impact on the Sundanese people. These issues cause anger and contribute to public resentment, evident in demonstrations by students, local non-government organisations, and the broader community. These often end up as riots. The same tendency is evident in the actions of West Java’s motorcycle gangs, which are frequently brutal and anarchic. In part, all these actions are the consequence of a loss of confidence and an absence of role models.
A second distortion has come from processes of modernisation that have made the Sundanese ‘individualistically-minded’, meaning they do not care about the environment surrounding them. Modernisation has resulted in the loosening of social ties, opening up opportunities for individuals and groups to pursue their own interests unhindered by those around them. This phenomenon has been apparent on occasions when terrorists have been apprehended, to the surprise of neighbours who had no previous knowledge of their actions.
The third factor is the reality that the Sundanese are not bound together in clans, such as the Batak marga or the Javanese trah, which function to give individuals from a variety of backgrounds a sense of primordial collective identity. This means that the Sundanese are more likely to regard someone of a different religion or belief system as ‘the Other’, whose existence needs to be marginalised and obliterated. Under this type of social structure, the ideals of co-existence, let alone pro-existence (the encouragement of groups with different religions and belief systems) are very difficult to realise, if not completely unthinkable.
Finally, the culture of mutual assistance has been eroded. In its place comes an orientation towards economic-based transactions, a culture that replaces the norms and values of community with a more materialistic orientation. Under these circumstances, everything is determined by the power of money. Money becomes the new measure of virtue, even of the truth, and of piety. It takes hold of a society’s way of thinking, and forms attitudes to life and goals in life, destroying a society’s community values. Ultimately, it displays the attitude expressed in the saying ‘resep maledog ka nu gede, jeung nalipak ka nu leutik’ (a liking for defying authority and abusing the weak).
The violence that occurred in West Java can also be examined from an historical angle. Conflict and violence in this region form a history of conflict between state and society, sometimes deliberately engineered for particular interests, and sometimes occurring spontaneously. Think, for example, of the Darul Islam movement and its Indonesian Islamic Army, which lasted for more than 13 years and led to untold loss of human life and material wealth. The same is true in the case of Haur Koneng, the Jihad Command, the Imran Movement and a number of other conflicts. The people of the Sundanese region, known for their devotion to religion, have proven to be easily manipulated by political interests, to the point where vertical conflicts between state and society quickly spread to horizontal conflicts among different sectors of the community.
The post-1998 period has seen an increase in this type of conflict, as political openness and democratisation make people more confident about expressing their thoughts and feelings. Against the background of economic hardship and social injustice, the absence of a history of freedom of expression means that the actions of one group have the potential to offend other groups, such as occurs in conflict between radical and moderate elements. This helps explain how so many people objected to Ahmadiyah’s existence, objections which first surfaced after 1998 and have peaked in the last five years.
Many communities have experienced a loss of identity that can lead to panic, which makes them vulnerable to a ‘quasi ethics’ that can turn them into mobs intent on violence. The mobs who took violent action against the Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik and elsewhere did so with pride. They set fire to houses, cars and the Ahmadiyah mosque with a sense of righteous anger, because the Ahmadis were seen as ‘foreigners’, people of a different faith, a different culture. The situation was exacerbated by the exclusive attitudes of the Ahmadis themselves, who refused to take part in religious observances with fellow Muslims with different beliefs.

A return to values

To restore the identity of the Sundanese people, or the people of West Java as a whole, it will be necessary to revitalise the Sundanese values of tolerance, harmony and peaceful co-existence. In the past, these ancestral values were inculcated through the institutions of Sundanese society and provided a guide for individual behaviour. Now they need to be re-examined, disseminated and ingrained in wider society. The cultural principles embodied in the expressions and maxims quoted above must not remain simply slogans. They must be fully revitalised, so that the spirit behind them becomes a frame of reference for life in this multicultural and multi-religious era.
By reviving the wisdom of Sundanese culture, the conception of the ideal Sundanese person of the past may be able to shape a West Java that will be free of violence in the present and the future. This is a collective responsibility which will require the involvement of all sectors of society, beginning with the regional government, religious leaders and the people’s representatives, and incorporating all social groups. The challenge is to work together to limit the opportunities for the rise of radicalism, terrorism and other expressions of violence in the land of Sunda, thereby returning the Sundanese to their original identity of ‘aman, tentrem, kertaraharja’ (Safe, in repose, prosperous).
Prof Dadang Kahmad ( is director of Post-Graduate Studies at the Islamic State University (UIN) Sunan Gunung Djati, Bandung, and is a member of the Muhammadiyah Central Executive. He visited Australia as a guest of Monash University and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.
This article was translated by Keith Foulcher and is part of a series that presents reflections by prominent West Javanese Muslim intellectuals one year after the Cikeusik tragedy. 


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