icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Indonesia: Implications of the Ahmadiyah Decree
Indonesia: Implications of the Ahmadiyah Decree
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 78 / Asia

Indonesia: Implications of the Ahmadiyah Decree

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.

I. Overview

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

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.
 

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013