Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bridging the Religious Divide Between Muslims in Indonesia

An angry mob torched an Islamic boarding school, an adjacent mosque and a row of houses in Sampang, East Java, last Thursday. In February last year, a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, in Pasuruan, also in East Java, was attacked by a mob for no apparent reason. Four students suffered head injuries.

These incidents were not the first for the two schools. The attacks on these schools, which belong to the minority Shi'ite sect of Islam, raised concern over possible sectarian strife breaking out in Sunni-majority Indonesia, given such conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The attacks placed in a spotlight the Shi'ite minority and its relations with the Sunni majority in Indonesia. Unlike in Malaysia and Singapore, where a Shi'ite minority has always been present, Indonesia's Shi'ites became more prominent only after Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, when some Sunnis converted to Shi'ism and Indonesian scholars returned from study in Iran. Before the revolution, there were a small number of Shi'ites, mainly Arab descendants who kept a low profile.

But Shi'ism is not a new phenomenon as many Shi'ite elements are found in classical Indonesian literature and even in cultural traditions. One such tradition is commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad's grandson. However, the Shi'ite faith is not embedded in Indonesia's religious beliefs.

The conversion of Sunni activists has raised the Shi'ite community's profile, carving out a space as a well-defined religious group, establishing schools, mosques and civil society organizations, and publishing Shi'ite literature in Bahasa Indonesia.

But with this development comes rising tension with the Sunnis. Since the 1980s, various Sunni groups have been asking the government to ban Shi'ism, but the sect cannot be proscribed because it is still part of Islamic orthodoxy. The sect was formed following a political split after the death of Prophet Muhammad, when the minority who wanted his cousin Ali to succeed him became Shi'ites, while the majority who chose Abu Bakar became Sunnis.

The closest that the Indonesian authorities have come to restricting the sect was a 1984 statement by the Council of Ulama (MUI) that Shi'ism was different from Sunni Islam, and that Sunnis must stay clear of its influence. No fatwa has been issued to declare Shi'ism deviant, unlike the MUI ruling on the Ahmadis as heretic because of their belief in a prophet after Prophet Muhammad. The tension created by the opposition to Shi'ism and the Shi'ites' insistence of their right to their faith resulted in last week's attacks.

What then was the trigger? The two boarding schools are located in Java's conservative heartland, where the Muslim populace is normally loyal to its religious leaders. The schools' presence is resented by Sunni clerics who feared competition. Police said their investigation into the Sampang attacks showed how a private dispute between two brothers who were prominent religious figures from opposing sects grew into a sectarian fight.

Second, the perception of a small minority with its boarding schools and other Muslim services posing as a formidable threat to Sunni orthodoxy could be the spark for animosity towards the sect. Agitation by anti-Shi'ite community leaders such as Habib Achmad Zein Alkaf of the Yayasan Albayyinat, who said 'Shias (Shi'ites) are more dangerous than the Ahmadis', feeds into the average Indonesian's ignorance of Shi'ism.

Weak law enforcement also emboldened perpetrators of sectarian violence to commit the crime again. Human rights activists complained that the police were hard-pressed to stop the mob because they were outnumbered and feared the backlash, allowing many culprits to get away scot-free. Those convicted in court were usually given light sentences that hardly served as deterrents.

Sectarian flare-ups are bound to happen again even if the community in Sampang is relocated, and there is no guarantee it would be accepted at the new site. The authorities have shown indifference to the attacks. Top security minister Djoko Suyanto was nonchalant when he shifted the task of finding a solution to Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who he said was 'best equipped' to deal with religious conflict. Mr Suryadharma himself reacted only four days after the incident, not saying much beyond condemning the violence and reiterating that the existing religious harmony committees could tackle the problem.

Perhaps what Indonesia needs is a form of 'Islamic ecumenical' movement to bridge the gap between the two sects of Islamic orthodoxy. In an initiative towards rapprochement in May last year, the Indonesian Sunni and Shia Council was formed by the Indonesian Mosque Council, a Sunni body, and the Association of Ahlul Bayt, a Shi'ite organisation, to promote dialogue and understanding between them. Although a commendable move, it will take time for the council to improve harmony between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Indonesia will have to fall back on its national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or unity in diversity, to strengthen tolerance and the spirit of coexistence. The motto should not only be acceptance of diverse religions, but also of diversity within one religion.

Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. Jakarta Globe .Salim Osman - Straits Times Indonesia

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