Violence in a climate of freedom

BY ASEP S. MUHTADI
Mar 29, 2012

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

1215 Asep Saeful Muhtadi: Liberalisation has enabled enmities and resentments to erupt in the public sphere. PHOTO: Greg BartonA 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.