Indonesia: religion and rule of law

The state’s failure to prevent two back-to-back attacks on religious minorities signals a rise in intolerance and impunity.

JAKARTA, Indonesia – The video footage is gruesome. A Muslim mob shouting “Allah akbar” (“God is greatest”) beats half-naked men with bamboo sticks as police stand by and watch. One officer makes a feeble attempt to hold back the crowd that has grown to 1,500. Many of those present pull out their mobile phones to take pictures of the violence.

When the assault, targeted at the home of a religious leader, is finished, three members of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah are dead, and a handful severely injured.

The incident is the latest in a spate of recent attacks against the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic offshoot orthodox Muslims consider heretical because it venerates founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad rather than Muhammad as the final prophet.

Assaults against religious minorities are on the rise in this nation of 240 million, where nearly 90 percent of the population practices Islam. Two days after the Ahmadiyah attack hundreds of vigilantes set fire to two churches in Central Java to protest the five-year sentence for a Christian accused of insulting Islam. They demanded death.

Human rights groups say these incidents have trounced Indonesia’s image as a mainstay of religious tolerance among Muslim-majority countries and turned the spotlight on law enforcement officials who have failed to protect both Christians and the Ahmadis.

“The tragedy here is the absence of the state,” said Syafi’i Anwar, the director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP). “The administration is indecisive about protecting minority groups from attack and police are reluctant to take any action.”

The courts, an even less trusted institution than the police, have also fallen flat on meting out justice.

On Feb. 24, a district court in West Java sentenced 12 people to no more than seven months in jail for an attack on a Christian congregation in which one church member was stabbed and another badly beaten. Other cases involving so-called morality offenders – such as the former editor of Playboy Magazine and a rock star caught in a sex video – have landed suspects in jail for years for violating a controversial Anti-Pornography law championed by orthodox Muslims.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that the courts don’t represent social values,” said Haris Azhar, an advocate with the Jakarta-based commission for victims of violence, Kontras. He cautioned people against viewing such cases as good examples of Indonesian justice.

A tentative peace

A handful of police now guard the Al-Hidayah mosque in south Jakarta since a mob set it on fire last October. A metal door and new glass windows have replaced the damaged wood frames, but little else from the assault remains. The officers are friendly with the Ahmadis, eating snacks and chatting with the men after they finish their prayers.

Epon Juminah says the situation has been peaceful during the 30 years she has lived in Jakarta. “Our neighbors are from NU and Muhamadiyah,” she said, referring to Indonesia’s two largest Muslim groups. “They are Protestant and Catholic, and we all live together in a good way.”

She says the conflict does not come from people within the community, but she worries about rising intolerance from outsiders. Forty-year-old Kamariah moved to the neighborhood in 2002 from the eastern island of Lombok after vigilantes set fire to her home on two separate occasions. The latest incidents seem to have reopened that wound.

“We moved here because it was safer,” she said, her eyes growing moist with tears.

Police have charged nine men with assault in the Feb. 6 Ahmadiyah attack, which carries a maximum jail term of 12 years if the violence leads to death. But human rights groups say the police should be investigated for failing to protect the Ahmadis. And they blame regulations that forbid the sect from worshipping for providing tacit support to hard-liners.

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