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Indonesian Village Struggles With Ban on Muslim Sect

by Peter Gelling

Monday 16 June 2008

(Published in: International Herald Tribune, June 11, 2008)

MANIS LOR, Indonesia — A large sign spans the road just outside the main mosque in this quiet, well-kept village in West Java here reading, in big red letters, “Banned.” Residents pass beneath the sign every day on their way to the market, work or school.

“I am sad, and I am angry,” said a lifelong resident, Ani, 49. “We feel like our hearts are being torn apart. I am frightened, but I can still pray, I can always pray in my heart, even if I can’t pray in my mosque.”

More than 70 percent of the village’s 4,000 people are, like Ms. Ani, members of Ahmadiyya, a 130-year-old Muslim sect that has been denounced by Sunni fundamentalists as heretical. Ater a series of extremist attacks on residents and mosques in December, local officials decided to ban Ahmadiyya in the village.

Then on Monday the Indonesia’s government issued a decree calling on the country’s 200,000 Ahmadiyya adherents to cease practicing their faith altogether or face arrest. With that, rumors swept through Manis Lor and surrounding towns that hard-line Muslim groups were planning protests, demonstrations or possibly an assault.

“I feel abandoned by my government,” said Ms. Ani, who has only one name. “I don’t understand why they don’t accept me.” Meanwhile, Muslim groups across Indonesia, both moderate and conservative, were meeting to consider how to respond to the government’s decision, which had been anticipated for months and appears to have satisfied no one.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed the decree on the recommendation of several of his ministers. He had been under pressure for months to take some sort of action as sect members frequently came under physical attack from fundamentalist Muslims. The situation had been viewed as a test for the reform-minded Mr. Yudhoyono, who also relies on the support of conservative Muslims and is up for re-election next year.

Human rights advocates accuse the president of giving in to a vocal but extreme minority. Lawyers for the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation said they planned to file a lawsuit on behalf of Ahmadiyya. Meanwhile, the Islamic Lawyers’ Organization is preparing a defense of the group responsible for a June 1 attack, when extremists set upon participants in an inter-faith rally in Jakarta.

The sect was founded in the late 1800’s by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad — who claimed to be the Messiah, the Mahdi and the Second Coming of Christ — in what is now the Indian state of Punjab. Many followers fled to Pakistan during the tumultuous partition period, only to see their faith banned there in 1984.

But in Indonesia, the sect’s adherents lived largely in peace from the 192o’s until 2001, when Indonesia’s top clerical body, issued an edict calling them heretics. The group, the Council of Ulemas, acts as an advisory group to Indonesia’s religious affairs minister,

Attacks soon followed on the island of Lombok, where hundreds of Ahmadiyya members were forced to leave their homes and mosques were burned to the ground. There were also attacks on the island of Sumatra.

In Manis Lor, hard-line groups assaulted residents during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in 2003 and 2005, and finally last December, when several mosques were burned and a handful of homes razed. Local government officials then shut down all of the sect’s mosques and posted several police officers around the area.

The head of law enforcement, M. Nurdijanto, justified the ban as a way to keep the peace. “Ahmadiyya was banned here because their views differ from mainstream Islam,” he said. “We are worried they will spread their beliefs to other nearby villages, which could cause further conflict.”

Ahmadiyya is viewed with suspicion, he added, because members pray separately from other Muslims in their own mosques, send their children to Ahmadiyya schools and live together in an isolated community.

Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims. That is the world’s largest Islamic population, with more Muslims than the entire Middle East. The Indonesian Constitution ensures religious freedom, but the government recognizes only five official religions — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Various laws and edicts prohibit blasphemy, heresy, proselytizing and apostasy. In practice, these are applied primarily for perceived offenses against mainstream Islam.

Muslim moderates have argued that Ahmadiyya should be left alone. But hard-liners, many of whom are campaigning to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, pressed for the all-out ban and dissolution of the sect.

Ahmadiyya leaders, although accustomed to persecution, said they were baffled by the government’s decision. An Ahmadiyya elder in Manis Lor wondered why the government, the Council of Ulemas or any of the hard-line organizations could not just talk to them so they might come to some understanding.

“Why don’t we just sit down to talk?” said Kulman Tisna Prawira, an Ahmadiyya elder. “They don’t understand who we are. There is no understanding.”

“I can only pray for them, pray that they learn to be understanding of us.”