Indonesian government blamed for religious violence

The gruesome murder of three members of the Ahmadiyah religious sect by an Islamist mob  has left Indonesia’s image of pluralism and religious tolerance in tatters. On February 6, a mob of 1500 people attacked 21 Ahmadiyah members in Cikeusik, a village in Banten province in Java, killing three and seriously wounding five others. Around 30 police officers were present but did little to stop the attack. An amateur video posted on YouTube shows the gruesome beating of the men with wooden sticks, hoes and machetes.

The public outcry was immediate and loud, condemnation coming from ordinary Indonesians, moderate Muslim leaders, NGOs and rights activists. Human rights NGO Imparsial condemned the police inaction: “Once again, the police, as a state apparatus, failed to guarantee religious freedom by protecting the Ahmadis from violence”. The Wahid Institute blamed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono: “Violence against Ahmadis is an almost daily occurrence, yet the President does nothing to address this”.

The Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy urged national police chief General Timur Pradopo to summon the Pandeglang police chief and Yudhoyono to sack religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali for repeatedly failing to react to or even acknowledge acts of religious violence. The February Jakarta Post 8 called the murders “a concrete example of state-sponsored terrorism against the country’s own citizens”. However, the major political parties have made little effort on the government to harden its defence of religious freedom.

Legitimising discrimination

Ahmadiyah was founded in India in 1889. It holds that the group’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last prophet, which orthodox Islam considers the position of Muhammad. The sect is banned in Pakistan, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Formally recognised in Indonesia in 1953, it has around 300,000 followers here.

In 2005 Indonesia’s top religious body, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) issued an edict against Ahmadiyah, calling its teachings blasphemous. That year President Yudhoyono said his administration would “embrace the views, recommendations and edicts of the MUI”. In June 2008 the government enacted a decree requiring Ahmadiyah to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam”. Yudhoyono’s governing coalition includes all of the conservative religious parties in the parliament.

Discrimination is also legitimised by the 1965 blasphemy law, which recognises only Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Other religions are officially banned. A 2006 decree set stringent requirements for the establishment of places of worship. Muslim groups frequently use this to justify closing churches. Official state ideology includes a “belief in one god”, which both excludes atheism as well as polytheism.

Scores of sharia-based by-laws have also been enacted by regional administrations. The National Commission on Violence Against Women says there were 154 discriminatory by-laws against women enacted in 2009 and an additional 35 by September 2010.

Increasing attacks

Persecution and violence against Ahmadis rose dramatically following the 2005 edict, Islamist groups attacking the group’s headquarters near Bogor. Assaults continued through 2006 and 2007.

Things deteriorated further following the 2008 ministerial decree. In 2008 and 2009, there were attacks against the Ahmadiyah in Ternate, Lombok, West Java, West Sumatra, South-east Sulawesi, North Sulawesi and Kalimantan. More incidents followed in 2010. Less than two weeks before the Cikeusik murders, police “evacuated” members of Ahmadiyah from their mosque in Makassar following threats by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which later vandalised the property.

In almost all these incidents, police were present but failed to stop attacks or hold accountable those responsible. In the few cases where perpetrators have been brought to trial, courts have handed down light sentences. There has also been a rise in incidents of mobs intimidating judges and prosecutors.

According to the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, attacks have steadily increased, from three in 2006 to 15 in 2008 and 33 in 2009. In 2010 there were 64 incidents, ranging from physical abuse to preventing groups from performing prayers and burning houses of worship.

A survey by the Moderate Muslim Society recorded 81 cases of religiously motivated attacks and discrimination in 2010, up 30% from 2009. A report by the Wahid Institute recorded 193 instances of religious discrimination and 133 cases of non-violent religious intolerance, up by half from the year before. At least 11 churches and Christian institutions in Greater Jakarta were either destroyed or sealed in 2010.

In September two leaders of the Batak Christian Congregation (HKBP) in Bekasi were assaulted and stabbed after the FPI pressured local authorities to close a church. Thirteen defendants, including the head of the FPI’s Bekasi chapter, were later sentenced to a few months’ jail for what the judges called “unpleasant conduct”

Spreading hatred

While local people often become embroiled in these attacks, religious leaders spreading hatred play a central role. Rights activists say that both the Cikeusik murders and an attack on two churches and a Christian school in Central Java were whipped up.

In February 2008, a shocking video circulated on the internet showing Sobri Lubis, an FPI cleric, calling on an audience of hundreds to kill Ahmadis. “Kill them, don’t worry. [FPI leader] Rizieq [Syihab] and I will take responsibility”, he said. In 2008 Syihab was sentenced to 18 months for inciting violence at a Jakarta interfaith rally, but Sobri has never been prosecuted.

Outside provocateurs have also played a role. Claiming to represent local residents, in 2009 hard-line Islamic groups began calling for the closure of HKBP in Bekasi. In August 2010 the congregation came under repeated attack by the Islamic Community Forum (FUI), culminating in the assault on two officials. Many local residents, however, said they did not object to the HKBP. “For dozens of years we have never had any problems with the congregation”, said Ery, a Muslim who has lived in the area for about 20 years. The problem started only in 2009, when dozens of men in traditional Muslim attire began protesting. “I don’t know where they came from. They just showed up out of the blue”, she told the Jakarta Post.

According to a 2010 Setara report, local governments are the principal violators. The sealing of churches and the refusal to grant building permits top the list of violations, followed by the closure and burning of churches and the obstruction of services. Political motives, extortion or “intolerant groups” underpinned most cases. “The local administration sees these groups as assets for local elections”, Setara deputy chairperson Bonar Tigor Naipospos told the Post.

Not just religious minorities are targeted. On January 13 police in Surabaya broke up a meeting on tolerance hosted by Setara after members of the Force of the Defenders of Islam tried to do so. Four days later a transsexual beauty pageant in Jambi province was broken up by members of the Muslim Students Association.

Setara said police scrapped an event scheduled for January 21 because of pressure from the FPI. “Indonesia and the World in 1965” was to have addressed the alleged coup attempt of 1965, which the military and government officially blame on the now-banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The FPI has broken up several similar meetings.


The national police - which claimed on March 6 that Ahmadis wanted the Cikeusik attack to happen - have long been criticised for allowing hard-liners to rampage with impunity. Despite video evidence showing who led, directed and perpetrated the attack, no one has been indicted, and police have failed to identify the group involved.

Last year the national police issued a regulation implementing a shoot-on-sight policy during ethnic, religious or racially based conflicts. It was not used during the Cikeusik or other religious attacks, in stark contrast to 317 cases recorded by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment in which police have used live ammunition against unarmed farmers defending their land against palm oil companies or property developers. On January 15 members of the notorious Mobile Brigade shot six unarmed farmers in Jambi province for allegedly trespassing on a privately owned oil palm plantation.

President Yudhoyono condemned the Cikeusik attack and vowed a full investigation. On February 11 General Pradopo removed the Banten and Pandeglang police chiefs.

Yudhoyono also ordered that groups advocating violence be shut down. Instead, on February 17 Home Affairs minister Gamawan Fauzi met leaders of the FPI and FUI to hear their suggestions on what to do about Ahmadiyah. Fauzi described the meeting as “warm and friendly”. In an interview  posted on the group’s website the following day, FPI chairperson Habib Rizieq Syihab stated: “... if today, just three infidel Ahmadis were murdered, possibly tomorrow or the next day there will be thousands of Ahmadi infidels who will be slaughtered by Muslims”.

Despite the 2005 edict and 2008 decree being used to justify attacks, the government has steadfastly defended them. Lawmakers from Yudhoyono’s party have called for Ahmadiyah to repent, recognise their sins and return to mainstream Islam. Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP) chairperson and Religious Affairs minister Suryadharma Ali, who has repeatedly called for the sect to be banned outright, denied that the 2008 decree was to blame, saying it was aimed at “protecting” Ahmadiyah.

Emboldened by the government’s inaction, on February 18 around 500 people held an anti-Ahmadiyah rally led by the FPI in Jakarta, demanding that the government disband the sect. “Ahmadiyah teachings say that non-Ahmadis must be killed, so they must be eliminated first”, an FPI speaker told the crowd.


Several regional administrations have enacted by-laws prohibiting Ahmadis from practising their faith. On February 28 the East Java government outlawed the display of Ahmadiyah mosque and school signs and the use of “electronic media” to extend their teachings. In February and March, nine other provincial and regency administrations enacted bans.

West Java went further, coordinating with the local military command to urge mainstream Muslims to occupy Ahmadiyah mosques. Police and military officers also visited Ahmadi homes across West Java, bribing or coercing members to renounce their faith. Imparsial said it had recorded 56 such cases. Soldiers have entered mosques, gathered sect followers and “forced them to repent and convert to Islam”, it said.

The West Java regional military commander called for Muslims to conduct “an attack of prayer rugs”, occupying Ahmadi mosques and “filling them with the correct teachings of Islam”. The government admitted that soldiers had been entering Ahmadi mosques but denied there had been forced conversions. Justice and Human Rights minister Patrialis Akbar told reporters the soldiers entered to protect Ahmadiyah followers. However, an army (TNI) spokesperson conceded that the West Java administration had asked the TNI to “help them more effectively phase out the activities of Ahmadiyah”.

Orthodox clerics in East Java are now ratcheting up their rhetoric against Shiite Muslims, claiming that their “ideals are so deviant that their teachings need to be exterminated”. In February a mob hurled rocks at the Alma’hadul Islam boarding school in Pasuruan, East Java, seriously injuring four Shiites. Ignoring eyewitness reports, officials dismissed the incident as a “student brawl”.

Political backing

The majority of Indonesians are accepting of other faiths, and most parts of the country are at peace. Critics say President Yudhoyono’s ruling coalition, which relies on the support of Islamic parties, is to blame for the violence.

The PPP, a leftover from the Suharto regime with a traditional base among Muslims, has suffered a steep decline in its vote in the last two elections. Suryadharma Ali was recently accused by political opponents of using the Ministry of Religion to bolster the PPP’s flagging electoral fortunes.

The conservative Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) in recent years has campaigned primarily on issues such as clean governance, but, like the PPP, its agenda remains turning Indonesia into an Islamic state. The PKS was a staunch supporter of the 2008 anti-pornography law and even pushed for a clause to imprison people for up to 10 years for kissing in public. PKS chairperson and information minister Tifatul Sembiring claims immorality is to blame for recent natural disasters.

In February these parties threw their support behind the FPI following calls to disband the organisation. Senior PPP official Hazrul Azwar said it would be better for the government to build a partnership with the FPI. “This is an important thing because they must help the government to uphold stability”, Azwar said.

The government is also fostering a conservative and moralistic atmosphere that feeds into the agenda of extremist groups.

All of the political parties in Yudhoyono’s coalition support neoliberal polices. Yudhoyono, who when first elected five years ago set out an agenda to eradicate corruption, reform the economy and combat terrorism, has done little other than draft policy blueprints and fend off criticism over embarrassing scandals. The political parties and lawmakers have been embroiled in a string of corruption scandals. The general public, who see them as enriching themselves at the country’s expense, hold them in contempt.

Opinion polls consistently show 60-70% of respondents having no confidence in the government to resolve key economic and political issues. Unwilling or unable to address the real issues, which would threaten the interests of the political elite, the government has increasingly turned towards morals campaigns, which prominent Indonesian feminist and author Julia Suryakusuma describes as “moral panic” and a “policy of distraction”.

Voter abstention of around 40% is already evident in recent regional elections. Many candidates are trying to counter this by seeking electoral support from hard-line Islamic groups. Parties across the spectrum have pledged to pass sharia-based by-laws, place restrictions on places of worship or ban “deviant” religious sects.

Police, military links

When founded in 1998, the FPI had links with the commander of the Jakarta police. It was set up along with other military-backed vigilante groups to counter student demonstrations. It later adopted a conservative religious platform and was best known for vandalising Jakarta nightspots. There have been numerous allegations of it extorting money from gambling and prostitution and hitting only establishments that skip payments to local police.

Timur Pradopo is reportedly a founding member of the FPI. Last August, Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo and Pradopo - then Jakarta police chief - attended the FPI’s 12th anniversary celebrations, one day after the FPI offered its services to enforce a city by-law banning some entertainment establishments from operating during the Muslim fasting month.

Islamist links with the TNI go back to 1965, when Suharto and the military employed Islamic groups in the slaughter of an estimated 1 million communists and left-wing sympathisers. In 1999 the military supplied and transported jihadist recruits to Ambon in Maluku and Poso in Central Sulawesi, escalating a sectarian conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives.

In June an FPI mob broke up a meeting in Banyuwangi, East Java, attended by lawmakers overseeing health affairs. The FPI claimed it was a reunion of former PKI members. Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle lawmaker Kusuma Sundari accused the security forces of secretly supporting Islamist vigilantes as a paramilitary force to intimidate opponents and commercial rivals. “There is information saying the FPI is a pet of the TNI, and the police hesitate to deal face-to-face with the military”, Sundari told the Jakarta Post.

On July 2 FPI deputy secretary general Awit Mashuri told the TVOne channel that the FPI had always “coordinated” with the state apparatus before acting. “The information that ex ’65 people [communists] were gathering came from district military intelligence unit”, Mashuri said, referring to the Banyuwangi meeting.

Dangerous alliance

Security analysts warn of a growing alliance between hard-line Muslim groups and fundamentalists with terrorist links. In Jakarta on March 2, Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group said groups like Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), which has links to convicted terrorists and seeks to implement sharia law across the archipelago, and Mujahidin Kompak, which has been linked to the violence in Ambon and Poso, usually did not see eye to eye with the FPI and FUI. But there now appeared to be a merging of extremist agendas. The success of the moral conservatives in pushing for sharia-inspired by-laws and regulations had led the two factions to cooperate.

Terrorism analyst Noor Huda Ismail told the discussion: “The FPI and FUI are using JAT’s vast international connections for funding”, and: “These groups would not normally form a coalition because of the huge ideological and tactical differences between them, but these issues [of religious minorities] are glue that binds them together”.

A series of “book bombs” started in Jakarta on March 15 and spread to several other cities. The first device was sent to moderate Islamic scholar and pluralism activist Ulil Abshar Abdalla, who has received death threats since 2001. The second and third were sent to National Narcotics Agency chief General Gories Mere and Pancasila Youth chairperson Yapto Soelistyo Soerjosomarno. Gories is known as a Catholic activist, while Yapto is half Jewish and the leader of an organisation whose members are mostly engaged in protection rackets. The bombs fortunately did not go off as planned.

According to a March 22 report by Al Jazeera, “senior retired generals” are supporting the FPI and other hard-line groups to incite religious violence and overthrow the government. “The generals are using the groups in their efforts to topple President Yudhoyono because they feel he is too weak and too reformist”, said the report.

Retired army chief of staff General Tyasno Sudarto, who in 1999 was allegedly involved in a counterfeit money operation to finance pro-Indonesian militias in East Timor, told Al Jazeera that his aim was to topple Yudhoyono in a “revolution”. “We work together to enlighten each other ... They fight in the name of Islam, we use national politics but we have a common goal, which is change.”