Indonesia’s top body of Islamic jurisprudence is the stimulus behind recent attacks on religious minorities, which many are describing as the worst-ever wave of intolerance in the history of this archipelago.
Fatwas of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (locally known as MUI) shape government policies on religious minorities which in turn facilitate Islamist extremists to gather support for attacks.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, Deputy Chairman of the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy, told Lapido that Christians and Ahmadiyyas are bearing the brunt of Islamist violence in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
‘The level of religious extremism is at an all-time high and it is the religious fatwas that are behind it’, he said.
Last Sunday, a mob of over a thousand extremists beat to death three Ahmadiyyas in West Java province. Two days later, a similar mob attacked three churches in Central Java province.
The Ahmadiyya sect does not accept Muhammad as the last prophet of Islam and is therefore seen as heretic by mainstream Sunnis.
An editorial in the influential Asia Sentinel on 10 February also reported the worsening religious climate, saying that‘Indonesia today seems more bitterly divided along religious lines between moderates of all faiths and fundamentalist Islam than at any time in living memory’.
Last month, the Setara Institute published a list of 216 cases of violations of religious freedom, not all violent, that occurred in the country in 2010 alone. Out of these, 75 were against Christians and 50 against Ahmadiyyas.
Sources say Christians are the main target because their number is larger (around 20 million) while the Ahmadiyyas are only around 300,000.
The Setara report said that the Ulema Council was directly responsible for 22 of the violations it recorded.
Another report released by the same organization in December 2010 showed that Islamist groups were infiltrating the Ulema Council and forging alliances with political parties, liberal Islamic groups and moderate clerics to expand their influence.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) are the most adept at such tactics, according to this report, alongside the Islamic People’s Forum (locally known as FUI), whose leader, Muhammad Al Khaththath, it described as an ‘expert lobbyist’.
The HTI, which still operates unbanned in the UK, is part of a global organisation seeking to unify all Muslim countries into one Islamic state.
Leaders of the two groups were made Board members of the Indonesia Ulema Council in 2005.
Naipospos said a majority of the attacks could be attributed to a 2006 joint-ministerial decree limiting church building rights for Christians, and one passed in 2008 banning religious propagation by Ahmadiyyas.
Fatwas by the MUI were behind the passing of both decrees, Naipospos added.
The 2006 decree requires signatures from congregations and residents living nearby as well as an approval from the local administration to build a church. The 2008 decree provides for a jail term of up to five years if an Ahmadiyya is found preaching.
Naipospos said the two decrees were vaguely worded which made it easy for extremists to allege violations before launching attacks, and that the central government was doing little to ensure action against rioters.
Commentators point to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono 2005 announcement that his administration would ‘embrace’ the edicts of the Ulema Council, as giving succour to the discord.
Endy Bayuni, former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post, told Lapido that growing intolerance among sections of the Muslims towards minorities was making attacks more common, and lack of police action was leading to a climate of impunity
Kristanto Hartadi, former editor-in-chief of the news daily Sinar Harapanin Jakarta, said the growth of extremism could be a symptom of Indonesia’s transition to democracy following the fall of President Suharto in 1998.
‘Extremist elements are still far fewer in number than tolerant Muslims,’ he added.