Sunday, February 12, 2012

Violence in a climate of freedom

FRIDAY, 10 FEBRUARY 2012 12:26

The political reforms of 1998 have enabled conflicts to emerge and grow


A house in ruins, witness to the violent actions of people who, at least in a formal sense, practise religion. Sections of the roof are gone, and the doors and windows have been smashed by rocks and other projectiles. It is just one reminder of the Cikeusik tragedy, when more than 1000 people joined in attacks on buildings like this and, in the process, tore apart a social milieu that had no previous history of unrest. The people living in this house – according to onlookers, four separate families – had fled in fear of their lives. They were all members of the Ahmadiyah religious community.
What was it that made the Ahmadiyah community subject to this kind of treatment? This question is important, because the violence that occurred in the village of Umbulan, in Cikeusik, a subdistrict of Pandeglang in the province of Banten, was not an isolated incident. Similar events occurred at almost the same time in a number of other regions of Indonesia.

The roots of violence

The group that perpetrated the violence on 6 February 2011 seemed to appear out of nowhere, as though driven by a force outside their own control. They appeared to be responding to a call, a sense of devotion that so easily pitted them against another community of believers just like their own. Assailing each other with rocks, insults and accusations, they were soon engaged in all-out warfare that ended up taking the lives of three of the key actors in the affair. Those who survived probably harbour a determination for revenge.
It all happened so easily. But the events that led up to Cikeusik have a long and complicated history. At first sight it seems hard to understand why the attackers appeared just at that time, as though it had all been planned out in advance. The day before, an Ahmadi religious teacher, Suparman, was taken into protective custody on the grounds that steps needed to be taken to prevent anything undesirable from taking place. Some of his followers were apprehended for the same reason. Others were evacuated from the village. They were removed to a location regarded as ‘secure’ in the event of any threats of violence.
At that time, in early 2011, the Ahmadiyah community in Indonesia was a hot topic of debate. At issue was the suspicion that Ahmadiyah was fostering a deviation from genuine Islamic doctrine. A number of prominent Islamic figures added their voice to the concerns, almost all of them declaring Ahmadiyah to be a deviant sect. They called on its followers to disband voluntarily, or else for the sect to be banned. Meanwhile, however, the Ahmadis stood firm, and would not budge from their beliefs. The media joined in, adding to the heated atmosphere with its wide-ranging and frank coverage of the issues at stake.
All this newfound controversy seemed to overlook the fact that Ahmadiyah has been a part of Indonesian Islam since the pre-independence period. For decades its members have lived in harmony with other Islamic groups in various parts of Indonesia, without any major strain in their relationships. They followed separate teachings, but were all part of social environments bound by the local cultures of their regions. They shared the values and beliefs that held communities together, such as the practice of mutual aid (gotong royong), the sense of family, and group solidarity, all of which are reflected in the cultural values of West Java. There were always doctrinal differences between Ahmadis and others over the position of Muhammad as the final prophet, but they did not necessarily lead to tension between Ahmadiyah and other Islamic groups, let alone conflict.
A significant change in this situation began to occur with the outbreak of political reform and political freedom in 1998. In this climate, the free expression of individual rights came increasingly to the fore, not only in relation to political democratisation but also in almost every aspect of social and national life. It affected the democratic process, such as in the horizontal conflicts that now almost always accompany elections of district heads. It enabled spontaneous demonstrations in pursuit of justice, such as those by public transport drivers and factory employees. It changed the lives of communities, as can be seen in the demonstrations that grew out of land disputes in local areas.
It is possible to see these outbursts as the products of a process of political education never before experienced by Indonesian society. The post-1998 freedoms have fallen on such fertile ground that they are now being felt in many different areas of experience, including religious life. And in situations like this, differences in religious practice can produce conflict, especially when one group feels its beliefs oblige them to assert their convictions over those of others. As a result, the diversity of a plural society like Indonesia can change from something to be admired into a source of tension and even violence.
Religious life is especially prone to these tensions. Acts of violence in February 2011 stemmed from tensions felt not only in relations between the Ahmadiyah community and orthodox Muslims in Cikeusik (on 6 February), but also in inter-religious conflict in Temanggung in Central Java (8 February), and Shia-Sunni conflict in Pasuruan, East Java (15 February). This situation has been exacerbated by the introduction of regional autonomy laws, which in many cases seem to have justified moves against adherents of religious beliefs outside mainstream Islam, including the Ahmadiyah sect. These controversies have in turn led to repeated calls for government intervention to curtail Ahmadiyah’s activities, and even to ban the sect altogether.

Regulating Ahmadiyah

The government has responded to these demands by issuing regulations relating to the existence of Ahmadiyah in Indonesia. Apart from the joint ministerial statement on Ahmadiyah, issued by the Attorney General and the Ministers of Religion and Internal Affairs on 9 June 2008, the sect has also been the target of a number of bans issued by regional authorities. In 2011, at least three provincial governors – those of Banten, West Java and East Java – issued new regulations restricting or banning Ahmadiyah activities. These have remained in force despite the controversy they provoked. In each of these provinces, these gubernatorial regulations have become part of the legal armoury of those trying to disband Ahmadiyah and curtail its activities.
Under a 1965 law, the government does indeed have the power to prohibit or dissolve any organisation seen to be causing social unrest or vilifying religion. Some groups have argued that on this basis, the gubernatorial regulations relating to Ahmadiyah are entirely appropriate and not in conflict with national law. That type of backing has in turn strengthened the position of the regulations, and provided the anti-Ahmadiyah forces with a sense of legal justification for their actions. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Ahmadiyah Community (Jamaah Ahmadiyah Indonesia, JAI) regards itself as excluded from the process that led to the issuing of the regulations.
There are nevertheless people who regard the regulations targeting Ahmadiyah as infringements of basic human rights. For example the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has declared the Banten Gubernatorial Regulation No. 5/2011 outlawing JAI and its activities and similar regional regulations to be legally flawed. In its view, these regulations override the national government’s position on Ahmadiyah, as declared in the 2008 Joint Ministerial Statement.
As such, the tragic events which took place in Cikeusik and other places in Indonesia cannot be seen in isolation from a situation that has encouraged and supported the actions of the anti-Ahmadiyah groups. This is of utmost concern. If it is not restrained, it has the potential to wreak havoc on a social order which in the past has proved flexible, harmonious and tolerant of difference.

Doctrinal differences

The conflict between the Ahmadiyah sect and other Islamic groups has its roots in different beliefs concerning the status of the Prophet Muhammad. These beliefs exert a strong influence on the way different Muslim groups involve themselves in society. One Cikeusik villager, Mahmud (not his real name), declared that he would risk everything to defend his religious beliefs. ‘There can be no give and take where belief is concerned,’ he says with conviction. ‘To me, the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and neither Mirza Gulam Ahmad nor anyone else can succeed him.’
It is this doctrinal difference, among other things, that leads to some people to reject the Ahmadiyah sect and call for its members to repent and return to ‘true’ Islam. Before the Cikeusik tragedy occurred, a number of prominent local Islamic figures had urged the Ahmadiyah leaders to encourage their followers to merge with other Islamic groups in the village of Umbulan. Those who made use of the ustadz Parman’s house as a place for their daily religious observances were asked on several occasions to ‘return’ to the Islam practised by the rest of the local community.
In religious practice, just as in the exercise of other types of belief, ‘truth claims’ can have the effect of ‘imprisoning’ their adherents. The same applies to the Ahmadis. Their claims to the truth of their convictions are not easy to forego, nor can they easily embrace different beliefs, because people are more deeply attached to their beliefs than anything else they may possess. An Ahmadiyah follower may leave the community under social or political pressure, but this doesn’t mean he or she will simply be able to adopt another religion or set of beliefs. Examples of this can be found elsewhere in West Java: in the 1970s, followers of the agrarian spiritual movement known as Madrais, based in Cigugur, Kuningan, were pressured to move to a state-sanctioned religion. Its members converted to Islam or Catholicism, but later returned to their previous practices. The Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik is a small minority, occupying only two houses in the village, but it maintains its own exclusive identity in its religious observances, including holding its own Friday prayers.

In search of a solution

In the context of doctrinal differences between adherents of different religions or belief systems, Cikeusik emerges as a straightforward example of the pressures surrounding religious freedom – and also religious harmony – in West Java. The potential for conflict always exists. It is held in check, or allowed to break out, by external factors. In this case, Indonesians’ failure to adapt to rapid liberalisation has been the instrumental external factor. This is how the Cikeusik tragedy should be interpreted.
For this reason, efforts to reinstate religious harmony should include an attempt to ‘soften’ the effects of doctrinal exclusivity. More open discussion of religious beliefs can help open the door to greater levels of tolerance between adherents of different faiths. Insights and understandings derived from local cultural values can serve as a framework for building more inclusive interpretations of religion, as long as they can be protected from outside interests whose goals are in conflict with local ideals of harmonious community life.
Prof Asep Seaful Muhtadi ( holds a chair in the Dakwah and Communications faculty of the Sunan Gunung Djati Islamic State University (UIN), Bandung. 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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