Indonesia: Implications of the Ahmadiyah Decree
Asia Briefing N°78
7 Jul 2008
On 9 June 2008, the Indonesian government announced a joint ministerial decree “freezing” activities of the Ahmadiyah sect, an offshoot of Islam whose members venerate the founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. For months hardline Islamic groups had been ratcheting up the pressure for a full ban, while civil rights groups and many public figures argued that any state-imposed restrictions violated the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. The decree demonstrates how radical elements, which lack strong political support in Indonesia, have been able to develop contacts in the bureaucracy and use classic civil society advocacy techniques to influence government policy.
Some senior ministers said publicly that the decree allows Ahmadiyah members to practice their faith, as long as they do not try to disseminate it to anyone else, but this compromise pleases no one. The hardliners want Ahmadiyah either dissolved or forced to declare itself non-Muslim. For them the decree does not go far enough, is worded ambiguously and does not have the force of law. It is also not clear how it will be enforced. They intend to monitor Ahmadiyah themselves and stop any activity not in keeping with their own interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy. For many other Indonesians, the decree is an unnecessary and dangerous capitulation to radical demands that are now bound to increase.
The question no one has answered satisfactorily is about timing. Ahmadiyah members have been living more or less peacefully in Indonesia since 1925 or 1935, depending on whose history one reads. Despite fatwas (religious opinions) on the sect from the Indonesia Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) in 1980, warning that it was dangerous, and in 2005, recommending its banning, there was no action by the government until June 2008. Why now?
At least four factors are responsible:
the systematic lobbying over the last five years of the bureaucracy, particularly the religious affairs ministry, for action against Ahmadiyah;
the search by hardline groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir (Hizbut Tahrir is the Indonesian form of the international organisation’s name), for issues that would gain them sympathy and help expand membership;
the unthinking support given by the Yudhoyono administration to institutions such as the MUI and Bakorpakem, a body set up under the attorney general’s office at the height of Soeharto’s New Order to monitor beliefs and sects; and
political manoeuvring related to national and local elections.
In the week leading up to the issuance of the decree, two other factors came into play. One was the government’s fear of violence. On 1 June 2008 a thug-dominated Muslim militia attacked a group of the
decree’s opponents, sending twelve of them to the hospital and ten militia members to court. Officials were worried that any further delays in ruling on the Ahmadiyah issue could fuel more violence. Another concern was that the government would lose face if, after promising repeatedly to issue the decree, it failed yet again to deliver.
The result was a decree which is a setback for both Indonesia’s image as a country that can stand up to Islamic radicalism and President Yudhoyono’s image as a strong leader. The outcome suggests a government that has no clear vision of basic principles itself but rather seeks compromise between those who speak loudest.
Jakarta/Brussels, 7 July 2008