Shiite’s Conviction Raises Concerns About Intolerance

Jakarta, Indonesia - While the Islamic campaign that blocked Lady Gaga from coming to Jakarta grabbed global headlines in May, human-rights activists say a local court’s decision last week to lock up a Shiite Muslim leader for his minority beliefs are a more worrying example of the growing intolerance in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation.

A court on Madura Island sentenced Tajul Muluk, a local Shiite leader, to two years in prison Thursday for deviant teachings “causing public anxiety.”

“The defendant has been legally and convincingly proven guilty of blasphemy,” said presiding judge Purnomo Amin Tjahjo, according to the Associated Press. “His acts, in principle, have insulted Islam.”

During the trial, some witnesses testified that Mr. Muluk taught that the current Koran wasn’t an authentic text, and that Muslims should pray only three times a day instead of five, and that the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca wasn’t obligatory.

Mr. Muluk denied that he was teaching any of those points or promoting deviant teachings and said he would appeal the decision.

Akhol Firdaus, coordinator for the Task Force for Freedom of Religion and Beliefs, a non-government rights organization, condemned the verdict as an assault on liberty.

“This seems to be an attempt at sidelining religious minorities,” he said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the Indonesian government to repeal the blasphemy law under which Mr. Muluk was prosecuted and free him. The law, which carries a maximum sentence of five years, has been used in the past against members of different religious groups branded as deviant.

“The government needs to reverse the growing trend of violence and legal action against religious minorities in the country,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Indonesian authorities have said they respect religious diversity and have called on citizens to treat members of minority religious groups fairly.

There has been a spate of attacks against members of religious minorities in Indonesia in recent years. Across the country, conservative and sometimes violent Muslim groups have prevented some Christian congregations from conducting services in their churches, arguing that the places of worship had been built illegally.

Meanwhile, the Ahmadiyya, a controversial Muslim minority sect, has also been the target of regular attacks by angry groups who consider their beliefs blasphemous. Ahmadiyya members have been driven from their homes and even killed by mobs and had their places of worship destroyed. Many mainstream Muslims think Ahmadiyya followers are heretical as they recognize a prophet after Muhammad.

In June, a civil servant in the province of West Sumatra, Alexander Aan, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for insulting religion after he set up a Facebook group to discuss atheism and declared “God does not exist” on the social networking site.

Tensions between Sunni and Shiite groups have simmered for years on Madura, an arid island off the north-eastern coast of Java. After a December attack on Shiite Muslims in Madura, local authorities asked Mr. Muluk and other clerics to leave the hamlet to prevent further clashes, but they refused. Indonesia is predominantly Sunni, with Shiites making up less than 1% of its populace.

In April, prosecutors charged Mr. Muluk with blasphemy, saying that his teachings were contrary to Islam.

Umar Shihab, a chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, considered as the country’s highest authority on Islam, said the conviction of Mr. Muluk was wrong.

“Shiite religious teachings are not contrary to Islam,” he said. “If he was indeed convicted because of his teachings, that would be regrettable.”

Mr. Muluk says his sentence was politically motivated and aimed at harassing Shiite Muslims, according to the Jakarta Post.

“This is about my dignity: As if I am an infidel. I have videotaped evidence that this trial was fabricated for political ends,” the 39-year-old preacher told the newspaper.