The Politics of Heresy

The Politics of Heresy

Let’s take a rest from talking about the revolution. While the Arab Peninsula is now experiencing a series of demonstrations demanding for greater political and social reforms, what has happened in Indonesia in the last couple of weeks seems to deserve attention.

In this world’s biggest Muslim nation which embarks upon the path of democracy, three threats on interfaith tolerance have just occurred. First, in Pandeglang, Banten, the attack on the Ahmadiya community has caused at least three deaths and several injuries. Second, just a couple of days after the Ahmadiya incident, three churches in Temanggung, Central Java were attacked and destroyed by angry mobs during a blasphemy trial. Third, Pondok Pesantren YAPI, a Shiite Islamic boarding school in Pasuruan, East Java was also attacked by an unknown group of assailants.

These cases clearly are a setback upon pluralism and further democratization of Indonesia. These religious minorities are part and parcel of Indonesian society, meaning that they have been a part of community and contributed significantly as members of society. The problem comes when due to the major differences in doctrines and religious interpretations, some of these groups, such as the Ahmadis, are considered as heretics. Using this “heresy” issue, a significant number of politicians and public officials use this opportunity to declare Ahmadiya as heretics, and thus, legitimize calls for the banning of its teaching and propagation activities. One of the major initiators of this proposal is Religious Affairs Minister and Chairman of the Islamist Party PPP, Suryadharma Ali. At local level, this plan has been endorsed by the Governor of East Java, Soekarwo, through a Governor’s Decree which outlaws the spread of Ahmadiya ideas and the usage of Ahmadi symbols, especially in mosques and educational institutions.

This politicization of heresy is supported by the President’s indecisiveness and lack of leadership in upholding religious freedom even for those who are considered as heretics. This risk-averse attitude explains why President Yudhoyono’s government leaves the matters now to the lower-ranking officials at local level. A rising rate of violent activity, especially towards religious minorities committed by Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) and others has jeopardized the President’s credibility. Indeed, the FPI has staged a number of protests and gatherings to demand the prohibition of Ahmadiya teachings and usage of Islamic symbols and even gone as far as threatening to wage a ‘revolution’ if the government does not disband the Ahmadiya. The Indonesian Council of Ulemas or MUI’s fatwa (religious edict) on the heretic elements of Ahmadiya’s religious principles in 1980s has also triggered a series of violent actions towards the Ahmadis. A number of MUI’s branches in some provinces, cities, and regencies have even asked the local government to assist in banning Ahmadi teachings.

Surprisingly, East Java’s branch of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a moderate Islamic mass organization which is famous as a bastion of moderation and tolerance and a home for many progressive Islamic intellectuals recently declares its support for East Java’s Governor Decree on the banning of Ahmadiya teachings and its dissemination. In the beginning of March, another demonstration organized by the Islamic Community Forum (FUI) at the heart of Jakarta also demands the government to dissolve the Ahmadiya despite the fact that the Ahmadi community in Indonesia (JAI) has been registered as a legal organization since a long time ago.

It is an alarming fact that this conservative rhetoric has reached even moderate organizations such as the NU and some politicians and MPs who even come from secular parties. Putting aside the debates on heresy and legal process of the three incidents, there have been some allegations regarding recent attacks and political powwows in response to these incidents. Some suspicions are addressed towards the attacks which happened all of a sudden and in a relatively short period of time (three incidents in a month). Furthermore, further political moves by FPI, other Islamic fundamentalist groups and some politicians have attracted many inquiries from the citizens in general. In the commemoration on NU’s 88th Anniversary Seminar in East Java, FPI Chairman, Habib Rizieq and Chairman of the secular Golkar Party, Aburizal Bakrie said that they feel ‘at home’ and ‘secure’ in NU community. The seminar, interestingly, was also attended by some other party cadres such as Anas Urbaningrum from the incumbent Democrat Party and KH Noes Iskandar SQ from the Islamist PPP. In the latest news report, FPI’s Chairman Habib Rizieq and some other representatives from the organization have entered the Presidential Palace to have a discussion with President Yudhoyono and other high-ranking state officials, such as Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, Internal Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi, and Head of Jakarta Metropolitan Police Sutarman.

Judging from the current political situation, a political-economic analysis might be needed. A fluid and unpredictable coalition pattern of political parties along with the use of political violence and paramilitary groups in politics and the attempt to gain Islamic and populist credentials through the anti-Ahmadiya campaign are some perspectives that may help in seeing things more clearly. A better understanding of the political-economic nexus behind these political thugs like the FPI will explain who initiates these groups, what the real purposes behind them are, and whom the targets of this violent operation are. Since the state is now silent to debunk these mysteries, it is a primary task for civil society activists and concerned citizens to reveal the truth.

*Iqra Anugrah is a Master student at Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan. He is actively involved in a number of student movements.

Posted on March 5, 2011