JAKARTA – Liberal Indonesians accused the government of caving in to extremists yesterday after it placed restrictions on a minority Islamic sect in the face of violent protests by Muslim hardliners.
Islamic conservatives welcomed the move and demanded an outright ban on the Ahmadiyah sect, but liberals in the world’s most populous Muslim country condemned Monday’s ministerial decree as unconstitutional.
“The government has been weakened by this decision, weakened in the sense that aggressive or extremist fundamentalist Muslims have taken a good lesson from this. They know they can put pressure on the government,” said Adnan Buyung Nasution, a lawyer and advisor to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“I would say this is the beginning of a further war between Indonesians who want to maintain a secular state, an open democratic society, and those who want to dominate [and turn] the country into a Muslim country.”
Jusuf Kalla, the Indonesian Vice-President, defended the move yesterday, saying the Ahmadiyah sect can continue in Indonesia. Followers were allowed to worship in their homes and mosques, but they must not preach or try to convert others.
“No, [the government has] no plan to ban Ahmadiyah,” provided it follows the law, he said.
The decree simply reiterated what is permitted under the constitution, he added.
Ahmadiyah leaders said they did not recognize the decree and would appeal.
“In the decree, it’s not detailed what kind of activities are forbidden, so we’ll keep doing all our rituals,” Zafrullah Pontoh, a senior leader of the sect, told a press conference.
He asked whether the group’s frequent blood-donation drives were among the activities forbidden under the decree. “We are also the biggest eye donor of any Muslim organization in this country; is that also forbidden?” he asked.
Television reports showed Ahmadis praying at home instead of their mosques out of fear of further attacks by radical vigilante groups emboldened by the decree.
The edict requires Ahmadiyah, which claims between 200,000 and two million followers in Indonesia, to “stop spreading interpretations and activities which deviate from the principal teachings of Islam” or face five years in jail.
Ahmadis believe the sect’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the final prophet of Islam and not Muhammad, breaking one of the basic tenets of the religion.
“The ban is against the Indonesian constitution that guarantees freedom of religion,” said Lutfi Assyaukani, chairman of the Liberal Islam Network think-tank.
Mr. Yudhoyono “should have been firm toward the radical Muslim groups but he is bowing to their pressure instead. It’s a very shameful decision.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian President to reverse the restrictions immediately.
“The Indonesian government should stand up for religious tolerance instead of prosecuting people for their religious views,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.
The move comes less than a year ahead of elections and as the archipelago struggles to define its Islamic identity following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in the late 1990s.
Top clerics have ruled the sect is “deviant” and a government panel overseeing religious affairs recommended a ban in April, fuelling extremists’ demands for the government to act to “protect Islam.”
Thousands of hardliners threatened to launch jihad against Ahmadiyah in angry protests outside police headquarters in central Jakarta on Monday.
The sect’s mosques have been burned and even mainstream Muslims who gathered in Jakarta this month in support of freedom of religion were attacked by stick-wielding fanatics.
Nine of the radicals allegedly behind that attack, including preacher Rizieq Shihab, who has declared “war” on Ahmadiyah, are in custody.
Munarman, the man who allegedly led the June 1 attack, turned himself in late Monday, saying his mission to ban the “infidel” Ahmadis had been accomplished.
For his part, Mr. Shihab called Mr. Yudhoyono a “coward” for failing to explicitly outlaw Ahmadiyah.
“Ahmadiyah has corrupted Islam. They cannot be contained or protected. They have to be disbanded,” he said in a statement released by another radical cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, who visited him in police custody.
FACTS ABOUT AHMADIYAH
– Modern Islamic sect founded in Qadian, a village in India’s Punjab, in 1889.
– Followers in 190 countries, including 200,000 in Indonesia.
– Estimates of the number of Ahmadis worldwide range from 40 million to 200 million.
– Most Sunnis and Shiites consider them heretics. They are persecuted in Pakistan, but allowed by Saudi Arabia to take part in the hajj.
Among their beliefs:
– Founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (c. 1839-1908) is both the mahdi, a figure expected by some Muslims at the end of the world, and the messiah.
– The Prophet Muhammad brought prophethood to perfection and was the last law-bearing prophet and the apex of man’s spiritual evolution. New prophets can come but they must be subordinate to Muhammad and cannot exceed him in excellence nor alter his teaching nor bring any new law or religion.
– Jesus, contrary to mainstream Islamic belief, was crucified and survived the three hours on the cross. He was later revived from a swoon in the tomb and died in Kashmir of old age.
– Reject the notion of jihad as a war on non-Muslims, believing hate should be answered by love.