Indonesia confronts religious intolerance

Parakan Salak, Indonesia - Before the arsonists struck under cover of night, the green-walled mosque here looked like countless others tucked into the verdant hills of Java, where Islam first took root many centuries ago. On April 28, hundreds of men, some masked and armed with sharpened sticks, set the mosque ablaze and trashed the adjacent school. Today, the mosque is a charred symbol of intrafaith conflict within Indonesia's still-evolving secular democracy.

The mosque belongs to Ahmadiyah, a minority Muslim sect that has suffered scores of similar attacks elsewhere since 2005 by Islamist groups who accuse its followers of heresy.

Last month, the Indonesian government issued a landmark decree that stopped short of dissolving the sect, as Islamists had demanded, but held out the threat of jail for followers who spread its unorthodox teachings, in particular the belief that Muhammad wasn't the final prophet. Ahmadiyah is planning to challenge the decree, based on a 1965 presidential order, as unconstitutional.

The heated theological debate over Ahmadiyah, which has between 80,000 and 400,000 followers in Indonesia, has divided local Muslims. More broadly, the sectarian spark has drawn attention to the rise of Islamist groups in a multifaith nation of 228 million people, whose tolerance has been tested during a turbulent democratic transition, which began in 1998 when US-backed military strongman President Suharto was forced out.

Groups that led attacks on Ahmadiyah mosques have also used violence to force unlicensed churches to close their doors. The attacks have raised tensions between two faiths in a country where only five percent of the population is Christian.

Government officials say the June 9 decree is a compromise aimed at reducing social tensions in Muslim-majority Indonesia. Analysts say it may not succeed, however, as conservatives continue to push for an outright ban while secularists and moderate Muslims decry the decree as a concession to extremists whose agenda is hostile to Indonesia's non-Muslim minorities.

This split could lead to further unrest in hundreds of communities where Ahmadiyah followers are easy targets for vigilantes. "Ahmadiyah may be able to live with this and hope it won't get worse. The real lesson is beyond Ahmadiyah. [Extremist] organizations that are not representative of Indonesian Islam writ large can try to influence the government using the tactics they used so successfully against Ahmadiyah," says Sidney Jones, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, which issued a report Monday on the controversy.

As Indonesia looks ahead to national elections next year, political calculations are at work. Seeking reelection, President Suslio Bambang Yudhoyono is courting the support of Islamic-oriented parties who backed his run in 2004. A recent poll showed a slump in his numbers after unpopular cuts in fuel subsidies in May and a swing to former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a secularist.

Given the election cycle, analysts say Mr. Yudhoyono wants to please coalition partners who line up with Islamists on faith issues such as the Ahmadiyah, even though polling data suggests scant public support for radical groups with violent followers.

Most Indonesians are moderate in their religious views and keen to avoid such strife. "The Indonesia constitution is very clear that it gives freedom of religion. Based on this, we are a secular state," says Ahmad Suaedy, the executive director of the Wahid Institute, a secularist organization that opposes the decree.

For their part, activists seeking to ban Ahmadiyah and force believers to recant are determined to keep up the pressure. At the forefront is the Muslim Defenders Front (FPI), a thuggish morality militia known for carrying out raids on nightclubs. Others include members of Hizb Al Tahrir, an international Islamist group that favors a global Muslim caliphate. None are directly linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al Qaeda funded group that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings, confirms Ms. Jones, an expert on the group.

Siroj Alwi, an FPI founder, defends violence against Ahmadiyah as justified by Islamic law, arguing that the sect has "blemished" the faith. "We talk about tolerance in Indonesia ... but sometimes to uphold our teachings we need to use violence and put aside our niceness. Sometimes we have to be firm," he says.

Ahmadiyah's troubles began in 2005 when the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), a semi-official body, issued a second fatwa against the sect – a measure that emboldened vigilante groups such as FPI to march on its mosques. The first MUI fatwa, issued in 1985, had no effect, as Mr. Suharto's iron-fisted rule left little room for Islamist activism.

The FPI's national profile spiked last month when hundreds of supporters attacked a peaceful June 1 march by Ahmadiyah sympathizers in Jakarta's central square. The violence unfolded in full view of hundreds of police officers who didn't intervene, sparking public criticism of their role. Police later raided FPI offices and detained around 50 members.

For now, Ahmadiyah followers in this village are holding their prayer meetings at home. Asep Saefuddin, the community's leader here, says he hopes that by drawing a line, the government decree will eventually allow him to rebuild the mosque and reopen the school. But he adds that tensions are still running high in the village: "We still greet each other, but it's not the same as before. You can feel the change."