News / Asia

Rising Religious Violence in Indonesia Gaining National Attention

A police officer inspects the damage at the house of a member of Ahmadiyah sect after it was attacked by Muslim mob in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, February 7, 2011
A police officer inspects the damage at the house of a member of Ahmadiyah sect after it was attacked by Muslim mob in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia, February 7, 2011


In Indonesia religious violence has been on the rise for the past few years but the recent brutal attack on the Ahmadiyah sect has focused national attention on the problem.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called for disbanding any Muslim groups involved in violence.

One video shows more than 1,000 Muslim men attacking 20 Ahmadiyah followers in western Java. Human rights organizations distributed the video, which shows brutal scenes of a mob throwing rocks, setting fires to cars, and chasing down and beating people to death. Parts of the video were too graphic for TV news organizations to air.

There have been a rising number of attacks on religious minorities in the past few years. The Setara Institute, a nongovernmental group that monitors religious freedom, says violent incidents against Ahmadiyah have gone from three in 2006 to 50 in 2010.

Human rights organizations have called upon the government to do more to protect minority rights in Indonesia, a country of more than 200 million Muslims. While Indonesia’s secular government allows other religions, Christian groups they say are often restricted by regulations that make it impossible build new churches and freely worship.

Many Muslims here consider followers of the Ahmadiyah sect to be heretics, because they do not believe Muhammad was the last prophet. Human Rights Watch Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono says for many, this label and a 2008 government ban preventing Ahmadiyah from trying to attract new members legitimize attacks against the group.

"Once you discriminate [against] a minority, you will open the gate, the toll gate, the gate for violence against this minority and it has been proven,” he said. “There are hundreds of attacks against Ahmadiyah over the years."

Fundamentalist Muslim organizations have been accused of organizing the violence against religious minorities here. Murhali Barda, the Islamic Defenders Front leader in Bekasi was at the center of the 2010 anti-Christian protests. He says while he supports diversity, his group will not tolerate other groups trying to convert Muslims or insulting their religion.

He says when it comes to core principals like the prophet or Allah, for instance, insulting Allah, in the name of Allah they will raise their weapons.

Murhali was later arrested for alleged involvement in the Bekasi violence.

After the video showing the attack on the Ahmadiyah, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said groups involved in planning violence will be disbanded.

Sunny Tanuwidjaja is a political analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. He says the rise of religious violence threatens the country's democratic foundation.

"If you allow this to flourish, in the long run it will become a security threat whether you like it or not,” he stated. “And a political threat and destabilize the region."

He compares the threat to terrorism. Indonesia continues to take strong action to dismantle Islamic terrorist groups. Police have arrested or killed hundreds of suspected terrorists. Abu Bakar Bashir, a radical cleric who was alleged to be involved in deadly 2002 bombings in Bali, is currently on trial for the third time.

In contrast the video of the attack on Ahmadiyah members shows police either unable or unwilling to stop the violence.

Tanuwidjaja says the president has in the past been reluctant to act because he needs the support of Islamic organizations sympathetic to fundamentalist groups.

"The government has to act,” he said. “The question is does the government have the will and have the political interest to act on this."

To curb religious violence in Indonesia and to sustain the country’s democratic development, Tanuwidjaja says, the government needs to support the rule of law over mob rule.

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