The Shi’as and Freedom of Religion under Joko Widodo’s Presidency
This Long Read argues that under the current Joko Widodo presidency, the Shi’as have suffered less harassment and intimidation from the Sunni majority than under previous governments.
There is a consensus among scholars on Indonesia that the quality of democracy in Indonesia under the current Joko Widodo government is in decline. Mietzner posits that the executive branch of the government does not hesitate to use illiberal measures to curb opposition groups. Aspinall and Warburton separately point out that the Jokowi regime has been increasingly authoritarian, using the supposedly neutral state apparatuses, such as the police and the prosecutor’s office, to repress political dissent. Aspinall and Warburton further argue that there is “an incremental deterioration in the protection of minority rights” in the government of Joko Widodo in which the violations of minority rights still occur.
By contrast, the government claims that draconian measures are necessary to stem polarisation. In agreement, this article argues that freedom of religion in Indonesia today, especially regarding the protection of minority rights, is not as negative as these Indonesianists have contended. People of minority faiths, especially Shi’a, suffer less social pressures due to Jokowi’s more pluralist, yet authoritarian policies than during the time of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. These policies are manifested, among others, by his sterner approach against anti-minority vigilante groups and the appointment of more pluralist ministers to helm religious affairs.
Despite claims by Indonesianists that Shi’a followers’ social well-being is deteriorating, this article argues that they are now better protected under the Joko Widodo government, as evident in the fewer incidents of physical violence and intolerance perpetrated against them since 2014.
Shi’ism has a long history and tradition in Indonesia. A closer look at its improved status challenges critical views about religious pluralism in Indonesia under Jokowi. To be sure, persecutions against Shi’a followers have been less frequent and not as sensationalised by the media under the current government than under the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) administration (2004-2014). The last major Sunni-Shi’a clash occurred in 2012, in the Sampang regency, East Java province, where neighbouring Sunni residents attacked resident Shi’ad, killed a Shi’a, and destroyed 49 houses belonging to Shi’a followers. Many dissertations and journal articles then sought to explain the string of violence against Shi’as during the SBY presidency. At the same time, few scholarly works have appeared to explain the relatively greater freedom of religion Shi’as enjoy today.
THE GROWTH OF SHI’ISM & SHI’A ADHERENTS
Scholars are not in agreement on when Shi’ism actually arrived in Indonesia. Abubakar Aceh argues that native people who were previously Hindus, disseminated Islam to their fellows around the end of the seventh century, or the eighth century. Muslims from Hindustan, India, were responsible for bringing the faith to the archipelago. He further argues that although these people claimed that they disseminated the Sunni version of Islam, “many daily human problems [were] solved by using Shi’a teaching.” Abubakar implies that Shi’ism was already present in the region since the first arrival of Islam.
People of minority faiths, especially Shi’a, suffer less social pressures due to Jokowi’s more pluralist, yet authoritarian policies than during the time of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
In turn, a group of writers argue that Muslim sailors from Saudi Arabia, Persia and Gujarat introduced Shi’ism to Indonesians simultaneously. However, Azyumardi Azra refutes this argument, stating that none of the academic works proves that Shi’ism arrived in Indonesia during that period.
Whatever the case, Shi’ism has been influencing local cultures in many parts of the archipelago; suggesting that this branch of Islam and its adherents have been here for a substantial length of time. For example, most of the residents in Pariaman city are Sunni, but they have been celebrating and taking part in the Tabuik festival, a Shi’a tradition, since the 1830s. A group of Sepoy soldiers under British military command, who were Shi’as, had introduced the religious event to the locals. The Tabuik festival is Pariaman’s local name for the Ashura festival, which is one of most important Shi’a religious events.
Also, before the first half of the 20th century, at least three Shi’a figures (Sayyid Aqil bin Zainal Abidin, Sayyid Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Muhdar and Sayyid Ali bin Ahmad Shahab) stood out for having contributed to the development of the Shi’a faith and traditions through establishing foundations, schools and organisations, or publishing scholarly works. There is no data on the total number of Shi’a, be they Indonesians or foreigners, who lived in Indonesia, before the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. But given the strong presence of the Shi’a tradition and the Shi’a community figures described above, the number must be substantial.
The political brand of Shi’ism grew significantly in strength and influence after the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The revolution, which toppled the Western-backed regime in Iran, was inspirational for some Indonesian Muslims, as Islam’s victory over Western civilisation. As a result, many Indonesians began to study Shi’a Islam.
Concerned with the growth of Shi’a Islam and the rising influence of Khomeini’s teachings, the Suharto government mobilised its resources to contain the Shi’a faith. In 1984, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), a semi-state Islamic body, released a warning that Indonesian Muslims (Sunni Muslims) need to be vigilant against the dangers of Shi’a and Ahmadiyah infiltration. The council also warned Sunni Muslims to reject Shi’a and Ahmadiyah faiths because these could threaten “Indonesia’s social harmony.” The Ministry of Religious Affairs issued an internal circular warning its employees to stick to their Sunni faith.
Despite pressure from the government and other social groups, Shi’a followers grew in numbers in Indonesia. Zulkifli, who wrote a dissertation on Shi’a development in Indonesia between 1979 and 2004, found that a substantial number of university students in major Indonesian cities converted to Shi’a. This was attributed to their admiration of the Iranian revolution and their exposure to Shi’a Islam through Shi’a scholars such as Ali Shari’ati, Murtada Mutahhari, and others. Shi’a foundations have grown significantly since then, and Zulkifli estimates that by 2013 there were 80 such foundations across the country.
The collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 allowed the Shi’a to express their faith publicly and to establish Shi’a organisations. In 2000, what would become the most prominent Shi’a organisation, Ikatan Jamaah Ahlul Bait Indonesia (IJABI), was established under the Abdurrahman Wahid government. The organisation split, however, and some IJABI members left the organisation to found a new organisation, called Ahlul Bait Indonesia (ABI), in 2010. ABI grew substantially, and by 2019, it had 24 chapters and 120 branches, which shows that this organisation has developed quite well.
There is as yet still no accurate data on the exact number of Shi’as in Indonesia. An official with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, however, has stated that Shi’as constitute less than one percent of Indonesia’s population of 260 million. A scholar estimates the number of Shi’as in Indonesia to be 2.5 million people.
SHI’A & FREEDOM OF RELIGION
Sunni-Shi’a conflicts in the Middle East brought repercussions to Indonesia from the beginning of 2000 and onwards. Following these conflicts, certain groups picked up on the trend, and began to spread anti-Shi’a messages in Indonesia. Politics exacerbated persecution against Shi’as, with politicians often manipulating anti-Shi’a sentiments to win elections. The Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) government and the state apparatus did little to prevent persecution against Shi’as, fearing public backlash against them. As a result, persecutions of Shi’as frequently occurred, with the Sampang incident in 2013 being the most notable case. While SBY was praised for bringing political and economic stability to the country during his two presidential terms, his failure to guarantee the rights of religious minorities, including Shi’as, should not be ignored.
An executive of a major Shi’a organisation in Indonesia, Ikatan Jamaah Ahlulbait Indonesia (IJABI), claimed that under the Jokowi government, the Shi’a community still faces problems in organising religious events such as commemorating Ashura due to continued opposition by groups that often manage to persuade local governments not to issue permits for Shi’as to organise such events. However, he acknowledges that incidents of physical violence against Shi’a followers occur less frequently under the Jokowi government.
Certainly, incidents of intolerance and violence against minority faiths still occur under the current government. However, prospects for religious freedom are better under Joko Widodo than during the preceding era. In 2020, Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, a human rights institute, researched on the freedom of religion in both eras; and looked into the situation of minority faiths such as Christianity, Shi’ism, Ahmadiyah and another Islam sect, Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar). The researchers found that incidents of violence and intolerance against people of minority faiths—adopting these as a parameter for religious freedom—have been fewer under the Jokowi government than during the SBY era. During SBY’s second term (2009-2014), 1,095 incidents of violence and intolerance against minority faiths occurred. While in the first five-year term of the Jokowi government (2015-2019)), there were only 846 such incidents.
In particular, the followers of two minority sects, namely Ahmadiyah and Shi’ism, enjoyed a relatively better environment in practising their faiths. In the whole five years of Joko Widodo’s first term as president, only 63 incidents that occurred against Ahmadiyah were recorded. The number was higher during Yudhoyono (over 80 incidents in the second term of his presidency). With regard to Shi’a, a total of 81 incidents occurred against them in the first five years of Joko Widodo’s presidency. The corresponding figure during SBY’s second term was at least 89 incidents.
Figure 1 below sheds light on the kinds of violence and the intolerance cases that occurred under the two presidencies. Due to limited space, this article only presents a sample of major incidents of violence and intolerance against the Shi’a community during those periods.
Besides the result of the Setara research, there is evidence that incidents of intolerance and violence against Shi’as under the Joko Widodo government have become less frequent. Narratives of Shi’a, alongside Ahmadiyah and Christianity as the subjects of persecution, often appear in the media reports or scholarly works during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This is much less common under the Jokowi presidency.
An executive of a major Shi’a organisation in Indonesia, Ikatan Jamaah Ahlulbait Indonesia (IJABI), claimed that under the Jokowi government, the Shi’a community still faces problems in organising religious events such as commemorating Ashura due to continued opposition by groups that often manage to persuade local governments not to issue permits for Shi’as to organise such events. However, he acknowledges that incidents of physical violence against Shi’a followers occur less frequently under the Jokowi government. He praised Jokowi’s stern measures against anti-Shi’a vigilante groups such as FPI and HTI, for limiting the organisations’ “room to manoeuvre”, especially in persecuting Shi’a communities.
GOVERNMENT’S SIGNAL TOWARDS PLURALISM
Protecting freedom of religion was one of the nine promises that Joko Widodo announced during his first term of presidency in 2014-2019. This was reiterated when he sought re-election in 2019. His pluralist vision has also been reflected in his key minister appointments. He chose pluralist-oriented ministers to assume a ministerial portfolio related to freedom of religion. Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin is a moderate Muslim who served in during Joko Widodo’s first term. In the beginning of his second term, Joko Widodo appointed an anti-religious radicalism minister, Fachrul Razi. When Fachrul, who lacked political backing otherwise, functioned ineptly in managing public communications, Joko Widodo replaced him with another pluralist minister, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas.
Yaqut Qoumas, who has strong political backing, has built a strong reputation for defending minority rights. He was active in the Ansor Youth Movement, Nadhlatul Ulama’s youth and paramilitary wing, and served as its chairman between 2015 and 2002. Ansor has earned a reputation for being pluralistic as this movement regularly provides security and protection for churches during their Christmas celebrations. As soon as Yaqut assumed the ministerial position in December 2020, he quickly asserted his pluralist credentials by launching a public statement that “the state affirmed the rights of Ahmadiyah and Shi’a followers (to practice their faiths).” All these appointments showed Joko Widodo’s serious intent in promoting pluralism, including safeguarding the freedom of religion and protecting minority faiths.
By contrast, the state apparatus under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono looked passive when dealing with violence against minority faiths. In many cases, the president failed to mobilise state resources to stem intolerance and even physical violence against the followers of minority faiths. For example, he failed to discipline key aides who were either against or indifferent to the rights of people of minority faiths, for political reasons. Instead of protecting minority faiths, Suryadharma Ali (Minister of Religious Affairs in Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government) often supported anti-minority narratives, including ones against anti-Shi’a. As a result, his government policies were not in favour of minority faiths, and in some cases, the policies even encouraged majority Sunni people to perform acts of intolerance or even to commit violence against people of minority faiths, especially Shi’a followers.
This situation contributed to the eruption of violence, especially against followers of Shi’ism, between 2006 and 2013.
Previous research, such as the one done by Samsu Rizal Panggabean and Ihsan Ali-Fauzi (2014), documents how anti-minority groups have been inciting violence and perpetrating intolerance against people of minority faiths. Hence, the state needs to take stern measures against these groups. Jokowi exhibited a stern approach against anti-minority groups such as FPI and HTI, and against their leaders who often floated anti-minority narratives in public and even provoked violence against minority faiths, including adherents of Shi’ism.
This stern approach has contributed to stemming violence against minority faiths, especially Shi’ism.
Shi’a freedom to exercise their religious practices has improved under the Jokowi government; however, there is still much work to be done. The adherents of this minority faith still face intimidation, social harassment and even physical attacks. The government needs to work together with mainstream Muslim organisations, such as NU or Muhammadiyah, to defend the rights of Shi’a. This can be done, for example, through joint workshops or interfaith dialogues attended by Shi’a and mainstream Muslim figures; and facilitated by the government.
Harmonious relationships among the elites will positively affect grassroots relations between the followers of Shi’a and Sunni.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2022/62 published on 14 June 2022. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.
A'an Suryana is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.