The minority Ahmadiyya sect has been much aligned for its purportedly ‘deviant’ beliefs. More should be done to address such unfounded conceptions, and provide a safer environment for the sect’s followers in the public sphere.
On 3 September 2021, hundreds of people attacked a mosque in the Sintang district of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. The mosque belongs to a Muslim minority sect, Ahmadiyya, and has been the centre of their religious life since 2007. In early May this year, similar persecution was inflicted on an Ahmadiyya mosque in Garut, West Java. Since 1998, similar incidents have occurred. The reality is that the minority sect has little in the form of reprieve: an obscure legal basis of religious protection and misanthropic discrimination against the Ahmadis have led to regular and periodic religious violence. The majority groups in Indonesia need to end this vicious cycle of discrimination by refocusing their approach to protecting and respecting minorities.
The Sintang incident has sparked a divided reaction. Indonesian Minister of Religious Affairs and mainstream religious organisations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah expressed utter disappointment and have condemned the act. The local branch of the Council of Indonesia Ulama (MUI) at West Kalimantan claims to be against violence. But it still perceives Ahmadiyya as deviant, following the national MUI’s formal rulings (fatwas) of 1980 and 2005.
A civil society movement called Gerakan Indonesia Kita (We Are Indonesia) has initiated a petition to question the local government’s handling of the Sintang incident, which attracted more than seven thousand signatures. While the local government did not openly call for the attack, its decree to shutter the sect’s activities provided the cover for the attack.
Yet, a group that claims to represent the Sintang Muslim community released a counter-petition to defend the attack and drew less than one thousand people. The petition accuses the Ahmadiyya community of spreading their religious teachings by recruiting locals. In Ahmadiyya’s teaching, to become an Ahmadiyya follower, one should declare an oath of allegiance (bay’ah) to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an Indian Muslim leader. While most Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last prophet on the earth, Ahmad claimed to hear revelations as the community leader and the prophet after Prophet Muhammad.
Ahmadiyya is deemed theologically deviant as they believe in another prophet after Prophet Muhammad and practice pilgrimage differently. As such, anti-Ahmadi sentiment runs deep at the state and society level. At the state level, the government’s primary legal basis for regulating minorities is a grey area for citizen protection and is systematically detrimental to the Ahmadis. This regulation is Law No. 1/PNPS/1965, commonly known as the blasphemy law. Based on this law and MUI’s fatwas, three government ministers signed a letter of agreement (SKB 3 Menteri) in 2008 that restricts Ahmadiyya and its followers from practicing their religious rituals and spreading their beliefs. This is perceived as discriminatory towards the Ahmadis. Despite the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ claim that the letter is supposed to regulate all parties to live in harmony, intolerant local authorities have often misused it to legitimise their acts of persecution.
Najib Burhani, a respected scholar, argues that the conception that Ahmadis are deviant is misguided and prejudiced. He adds that the accusations are unqualified, unreliable, and possess insufficient evidence.
This is borne out in their actions. In end-April, the local government in Sintang released a decree limiting and prohibiting the Ahmadi activities in their places of worship. They then locked the mosque. The authorities had also excluded the Ahmadis from forums discussing their place of worship. As a result, the majority groups are assuming the right to decide the Ahmadis’ future collectively. Perceived as a justified act in supporting the government, a local group called the Islamic Alliance (Aliansi Umat Islam, AUI) further destroyed the mosque and burned down the storage next to it later in September. The local leaders show inconsistent attitudes in treating the Ahmadis: they expressed verbal agreement to mosque establishment while being indulgent to majority decisions when it comes to violence. Police and the local authorities are also relatively lenient toward the attacking parties, perhaps due to the close relations between the local officials and the AUI members.
At the society level, the Ahmadiyya community suffers from negative labelling. Since the 1980 fatwa by MUI, the community has been labeled as heretical. However, Najib Burhani, a respected scholar, argues that the conception that Ahmadis are deviant is misguided and prejudiced. He adds that the accusations are unqualified, unreliable, and possess insufficient evidence. A group of scholars at the State Islamic University (UIN) Yogyakarta, including Muhammad Said and Abd Aziz Faiz, also subscribe to Burhani’s views. They argue that Ahmadiyya’s caliphate system is peaceful and non-political, which differs from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Hizbut Tahrir (HT). Recently, Burhani listed the latest attacks during the desperate time of the Covid-19 pandemic and diagnosed them as a ‘virus of hatred’.
While the hatred problem is often theological, multiple socio-economic issues may also contribute to such attacks. For years, Ahmadis have responded to widespread negative perceptions about them. They have resorted to profound internal solidarity regarding the organisation, family, economy, and social network. One source of economic solidity is candah, a philanthropic system that relies on members’ donations for religious and humanitarian missions. This system has enabled them to survive until today. In actuality, this might have contributed to a vicious cycle: because Ahmadis live humbly and have less ostentatious lifestyles, they might come across as vulnerable and more prone to bullying.
Such collective discrimination and violent acts notably impact the well-being of the Ahmadiyya followers. The Ahmadis’ vulnerable groups in Sintang, especially women and children, suffer from post-attack trauma. Beyond Sintang, reports and stories about Ahmadi women in West Nusa Tenggara, for instance, illustrate a long history of their daily struggles.
The latest violent incident in Sintang is a stark reminder that constant, systemic religious intolerance generates a mutually-enforcing and vicious circle of prejudice. The majority, including the state authorities and dominant Muslim groups, should be more compassionate in dealing with minorities. The first step should be revoking the discriminatory SKB3Menteri and creating a safe environment for the Ahmadis in the public sphere, including school and workplace. Should humanity be the fundamental value of religion, implementing such acts collectively should not be too onerous. In fact, it behooves the majority to do the necessary.
Ahalla Tsauro is a graduate student at the Malay Studies Department, National University of Singapore.
Aninda Dewayanti was a Research Officer in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.