Ever since a violent attack in early February by a mob of some 1,500 people killed three sect followers in a small village in West Java, it has seemed obvious that the campaign against the Ahmadis is coordinated and systematic beyond whatever “threat” an estimated 200,000 members could pose to Indonesia’s roughly 205 million Muslims.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera English attempted to answer that question by airing long-whispered reports that “senior retired generals” are supporting Islamic hardliners to incite religious violence and overthrow Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“The generals are using the groups in their efforts to topple President Yudhoyono because they feel he is too weak and too reformist,” Al Jazeera correspondent Step Vassen said in the report.
Ahmadiyah, which is reviled because it believes its founder was the last prophet, not Mohammed, is an easy target with few allies. The attacks have put Yudhoyono in the position of having to reluctantly defend Indonesia’s tradition of tolerance against mob violence—a stance the Islamist hard liners use against him.
The network acknowledged that reports that the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), which has been linked to attacks on Christians and moderate Muslims in addition to Ahmadiyah, had powerful backing were not new. “This can now be confirmed for the first time,” Vassen said.
“This revelation shows that behind religious violence, a dangerous political power play is happening,” she said.
It is widely known in Jakarta that the police and military have long made use of groups like the FPI as a political battering ram. Businessmen often complain privately of FPI harassment, for example, saying it amounts to little more than a shakedown for money. And while the leadership may profess adherence to Islamic ideals, the rank and file of the hard-line groups are little more than the ubiquitous street thugs known here as premen.
If what the network says is true, however, it means that a more sinister game than extorting bribes with a fearsome street militia is at work.
In the Al Jazeera report, Chep Hernawan, leader of the Islamic Reform Movement (Garis), said, “The generals are fed up with the president’s lies.”
Chep said the generals had previously attempted to use a number of issues, including corruption, to foment a backlash against the president, “but they failed.”
A retired general himself, Yudhoyono is said to have numerous enemies among his fellow former officers, although in recent months, his political party has been in talks about joining forces with Gerindra, the party headed by former Gen Prabowo Subianto, who is likely to run for president in 2014.
Prabowo, a former in-law of the late President Suharto, has been linked to human rights violations and was once thought to be intractably opposed to Yudhoyono.
The one thing he has in common with Yudhoyono, however, is an apparent commitment to secular nationalism.
Insiders say Prabowo’s party might even supplant the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, which has supported calls to disband Ahmadiyah and numerous other efforts to strengthen the hand of Islam in Indonesia.
According to Chep on Al Jazeera, the ex-generals wanting Yudhoyono’s head “are using the Ahmadiyah issue and it works.”
“The generals say Ahmadiyah has to be disbanded or we’ll have a revolution,” Chep said, adding that he was approached on the issue by a retired three-star general in January.
“He told me that we should keep fighting a jihad, we should not back down so the liar can be toppled.”
In December last year, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace named Garis as one of seven radical Muslim groups working to forge political alliances with moderate clerics. The FPI was also named as one of the seven.
In Tuesday’s report, retired Army Chief Gen. Tyasno Sudarto, a staunch government critic, told Al Jazeera about his support for groups that he said aimed to topple Yudhoyono in a “revolution.”
“We work together to enlighten each other. Our angle is different. They fight in the name of Islam, we use national politics but we have a common goal, which is change. We want to save our country, not destroy it. The revolution should be peaceful, not anarchist or bloody.”
Al Jazeera cited a Web site that detailed a proposed cabinet line-up for the so-called Islamic government, which listed Tyasno as security minister.
Muhammad Al Khaththath, secretary general of the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI), a leader of the anti-Ahmadiyah protests, said he was one of those that had drafted the line-up.
“I have met with generals who want to overthrow the president,” he said.
“I won’t say anything more.”
Al Jazeera said that most experts rated the chances of Yudhoyono being toppled as “slim.”
“But with former generals supporting hard-line groups, the battle to end religious violence seems hard to win,” correspondent Vassen concluded.