Islamic “heretics” persecuted in Indonesia

From the International Herald Tribune, Nov. 15, links and emphasis added:

Unorthodox sects face prosecution in Indonesia
JAKARTA — Indonesian human rights lawyers are again questioning the country’s commitment to religious freedom after the recent arrests of several unorthodox Islamic leaders and the banning of their organizations.

On Nov. 9, the Indonesian Supreme Court sentenced Abdul Rachman, who is the No. 2 leader of a religious group known as Lia Eden and who claims to be the reincarnation of the Prophet Muhammad, to three years in prison for blasphemy.

Although Indonesia’s Constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion, the government extends this protection to only six officially recognized faiths: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Various laws and edicts prohibit blasphemy, heresy, proselytizing and apostasy. In practice, these are applied primarily for perceived offenses against mainstream Islam. Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims.

Last week, the attorney general’s office said it would continue to pursue legal action against Ahmad Moshaddeq, the leader of an Islamic sect known as al-Qiyada, on charges of blasphemy, even after he declared from the steps of a central Jakarta police station that he had realized his teachings were misguided and would return to mainstream Islam.

The attorney general’s office banned al-Qiyada on Nov. 8. Moshaddeq, whose house was burned down this year by a mob, has said that he is the next Islamic prophet and does not require his followers to pray five times a day or toward Mecca. The belief that Muhammad was the final prophet is a central tenet of Islam.

Several of Moshaddeq’s followers remain in police custody
in various parts of the country.

A spokesperson for the attorney general said a 1965 presidential decree allows the government to ban religious organizations that “distort or misrepresent” official faiths. But human rights lawyers defending nonmainstream religious organizations argue that banning such groups and arresting their leaders violates the Constitution.

“We want to reform the penal code, especially articles on banning sects for blasphemy,” said Uli Parulian Sihombing, a human rights lawyer who has often defended religious groups. “These people are nonviolent and peaceful. These laws are simply a justification for the government to intervene on issues of faith.”

Sihombing points out that while the government bans peaceful religious groups, like the minority Ahmadiyah sect, it refuses to ban Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist network that is believed to be behind most of Indonesia’s major terrorist bombings in recent years.

The government has said it lacks the power to ban Jemaah Islamiyah because it is not a formal organization.

“It is certainly ironic,” Sihombing said. “These Islamic sects only threaten religion, they do not threaten the security of the country or its citizens, yet they are banned and persecuted.”

Although Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, it is not an Islamic state. Indonesia’s Constitution does not declare a separation of mosque and state, which has allowed Islamic leaders to play a central role in defining government policy on religious matters.

The Ulema Council, which is Indonesia’s top clerical body and receives government funding, has issued fatwas condemning both Lia Eden and al-Qiyada.

“The Ulema Council tries to educate these groups about true Islam before the police are involved,” said Utang Ranuwijaya, a spokesman for the council.

“And we advise the government about which sects we believe deviate from the central tenets of Islam.”

According to the People’s Religious Monitoring Agency, a government body charged with keeping track of potentially heretical sects, there are 250 Islamic sects in Indonesia classified as “deviant.” The Ulema Council has issued 86 fatwas against them since 1975.

Ranuwijaya said the criteria used to determine “deviance” are those used to define Sunni Islam: complete acceptance of the Koran as the word of God, belief that Muhammad was the final prophet and adherence to the five pillars of Islamic practice—declaration of faith, prayer, alms, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Before Moshaddeq renounced his views, he spent several days discussing Islam with the Ulema Council and other mainstream Muslim leaders inside the police station.

“I’m sorry if I have hurt the feelings of Indonesian Muslims,” he told a crowd of reporters Friday. “I hope that they can forgive me and my followers.”

Indonesia’s minister of religious affairs, Maftuh Basyuni, ordered the group banned in 2006 following a fatwa by the Ulema Council.

Government intervention is a hot topic among Indonesians and often dominates the Indonesian media. The debate rages within the government, human rights groups and within mainstream Islam.

See our last posts on Indonesia and the struggle within Islam.