This is not the first time that Ahmadiyah followers - who see themselves as Muslims but whose beliefs diverge from those of mainstream Islam - have come under attack by fundamentalists. Across Indonesia, their homes and mosques have been burnt, their women and children terrorized.
Neither is this the worst episode of sectarian conflict in Indonesia’s recent history. Over 10 years ago, beheadings took place in ethnic clashes in Kalimantan, and when Christians and Muslims faced off in Sulawesi.
But last Sunday’s brutal killings come at a time when global perceptions of an economically ascendant Indonesia are at their most positive. It begs the question of whether this rising Asian power and investor darling is experiencing a wave of hate crimes against minorities. And if that is indeed the case, what is driving it.
On one level, the question is ironic. The country’s ethnic Chinese community - banned from expressing their identity and speaking their language during the time of strongman Suharto - celebrated the lunar new year peacefully last week, amid a flood of festive publicity in malls and the media.
Community leaders urged them to pledge their loyalty to the Indonesian state, and to forget the dark days of the economic turmoil in May 1998, when they were the target of lootings and murders.
Yet the signs of creeping fundamentalism and intolerance are hard to ignore, as an increasingly vocal group of hardliners lobby for tougher Islamic laws and commit violent acts in the name of religion.
At least 90 per cent of Indonesia’s 237 million people are Muslim and they are usually moderate and tolerant of other faiths. But this tradition is under siege.
The Setara Institute, which monitors religious tolerance, recorded 75 instances last year in which religious freedom was violated. This was up from 17 cases in 2008 and 18 cases in 2009.
Last week in Bandung, West Java, hardliners beat up the supporters of Nazriel Irham - a pop star jailed for making a sex tape that someone else uploaded on the Internet - as they felt the 3-1/2 year jail term given was too light.
And on Tuesday, a 1,000-strong mob attacked a courthouse and churches in Temanggung, Central Java. They demanded that prosecutors seek the death sentence for a Christian man convicted of blasphemy against Islam.
These incidents have thrown up the question of who is to blame for the surge in violence, and how a brake might be applied to it.
Clerics with extremist leanings, like preacher Abu Bakar Bashir, have been instrumental in feeding radical ideology. The 72-year-old is now on trial for his role in allegedly supporting and financing a militant training camp in Aceh. Prosecutors say they will push for the death sentence, although it is more likely that Bashir will receive a long jail term.
The courts have also been blamed for meting out light sentences to mobilisers of violence, while the police have been caught on camera standing by when violent acts are carried out. In 2008, when a mob of religious zealots attacked a peaceful pro-Ahmadiyah gathering in downtown Jakarta, policemen in the vicinity did little to stop them, according to human rights activists.
In their defense, the police are usually outnumbered in such situations or fear the wrath of hardliners should they step in. It also does not help that government regulations do not empower law enforcers to act decisively, says activist Usman Hamid. He and others point to how a ministerial decree bans Ahmadiyah followers from holding prayer sessions in public despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
The current administration has sent mixed signals at best about its commitment to tackling these hate crimes. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has condemned the Ahmadiyah killings and ordered a full investigation, but stopped short of saying that the hardline groups behind the violence would definitely be disbanded.
Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who had previously said the Ahmadiyah should be banned, has now suggested that Ahmadiyah followers protect themselves by dissociating themselves from Islam.
Indonesia should strengthen the rule of law by coming down hard and punishing those who commit crimes in the name of God. It must also send a message that all citizens - whatever their faiths - will be equally protected by the state.
Beyond that, the government must also address the social conditions that have fed this regime of hate. There are no quick fixes but more oversight of religious education and boosting job growth could help drain the pool of people who might be easily brainwashed by an ideology of intolerance and have enough free time on their hands to take part in mob attacks.
The mobs have been made up mostly of young men in their teens and 20s who are poor, jobless and uneducated. They are called preman berjubah - thugs in Islamic robes.
Nurtured on radical teachings and free food, they are easily “mobilized and manipulated” by disingenuous men looking to amass followers to serve their own political interests, says moderate Muslim intellectual Syafii Anwar, who was injured in the 2008 mob attack.
At least a hundred of these young men showed up at Bashir’s trial in South Jakarta lstweek, their youthful faces turned up in snarls, audibly describing those present in the courtroom as kafir (infidels). One youngster, upon seeing a Caucasian cameraman filming the proceedings, referred to him as babi (pig).
If these feelings are left to fester, it is likely that last Sunday’s shocking murders will not be the last.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia.…