Indonesia’s Shiite minority feels the heat

For decades, members of Indonesia’s Shiite Muslim minority have led a somewhat secluded but peaceful life. Everyone knew of their existence in Indonesia, but no one was going around asking about their faith and practices — and they didn’t go around flaunting their religious identity either. Most Muslims in Indonesia were not aware of their ...


For decades, members of Indonesia’s Shiite Muslim minority have led a somewhat secluded but peaceful life. Everyone knew of their existence in Indonesia, but no one was going around asking about their faith and practices — and they didn’t go around flaunting their religious identity either.

Most Muslims in Indonesia were not aware of their Sunni identity. They could not even tell the difference between Shiite and Sunni, or understand the historic deep-seated enmity that has split Muslims in other parts of the world. The majority of Muslims in Indonesia may follow the Sunni teachings, but many of their daily practices resemble the Shiite traditions, such as the way they pay homage for dead relatives. This suggests that Shiite influence is far larger than the number of people who profess to follow the denomination. It has had a presence in Indonesia long before many educated Muslims were drawn to Shiism after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978. 

The peace and tranquility between Islam’s two main denominations in Indonesia has now been shattered. The Shiite followers, an estimated three million strong scattered throughout the Indonesian archipelago, are rapidly becoming a persecuted minority in Indonesia. They join a growing list of religious groups that now face constant harassment and abuse, not so much by the state as by radical Islamic groups.

In the East Java district of Sampang, two Shiite followers were slain and dozens injured when a mob attacked a convoy of cars carrying Shiite families taking their children back to school after the long Ramadan and Eid break in August. The mob followed up this brutal act with an attack on a nearby Shiite village, burning down houses and mosques, chasing out the inhabitants, and forcing many to flee to the forests.

The Shiites are the latest religious group whose presence in Indonesia is increasingly being questioned and scrutinized by the Sunni majority. Until as recently as three or four years ago, Indonesia still prided itself as one of the most tolerant Islamic societies in the world. That accolade is no longer valid.

The attacks on religious minorities, and now increasingly with fatal consequences, led to one observer describing the trend as the "Pakistanization" of Indonesia. The targets are not only religions outside Islam, but sects within the religion or those that had evolved out of Islam.

Followers of the Ahmadiyah movement have felt much of the brunt of this growing assertiveness of radical Islamic groups in Indonesia. Thousands of them have been chased out of their homes, their houses, schools, and mosques were razed. In one attack in 2011, three Ahmadis were killed by a mob. The court later sentenced 12 of the attackers to up to six months in jail — and the Ahmadi whose house was attacked also got six months for inciting the violence. Now hundreds of Ahmadis live in temporary shelters in many parts of Indonesia, unable to return to their homes and finding that nobody wants to accept them.

Likewise, the followers of the Tijaniyyah Sufi movement were hounded out of their homes by mobs and saw their houses razed in West Java just two days after the Eid celebrations in August, in an incident that did not generate much media publicity. The followers of this sect, with origins in North Africa, have also been harassed in recent months, and local Islamic organizations have been putting pressure to end their Sufi practices.

An uncertain future now awaits the hundreds of Shiite followers in Sampang after their housing complex was attacked last month. Many, including traumatized children who witnessed the brutal attacks firsthand, are now being put up in the town’s sports ground. The government is undecided whether to rebuild their homes and have them return to the area, which has become widely known as a Shiite village (and would thus make them susceptible to further attacks), or to relocate them, which always begs the difficult questions of whether they would be accepted — or any safer — in their new neighborhood.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), an umbrella organization for major Islamic groups but which excludes representatives from Ahmadiyah and Shiites, has also been ambiguous about Shiism. The MUI branch in East Java had proclaimed Shiite as heretic, virtually giving the mobs carte blanche to attack Shiite followers. At the national level, however, the MUI says Shiism is a legitimate branch of Islam.

Until quite recently, smaller Islamic sects have flourished and existed peacefully in Indonesia, but with the attacks on the Ahmadis and now the Shiites, no one is safe. Even Christians, the largest religious minority in Indonesia, have seen their share of physical attacks in recent years.

Muslims whose beliefs and practices do not conform to the majority Sunnis have been singled out and exposed by radical Islamic groups, at times with the support of the MUI. Some of these Islamic sects have felt the wrath of the country’s anti-blasphemy law; the court has often pronounced some religious teachings as "insulting to Islam." The Ahmadiyah has been barred from proclaiming themselves part of Islam. The Bahai were also not recognized as a religion. And a Shiite cleric in Sampang was sentenced to two years imprisonment in July for spreading deviant teachings.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution, but the recent attacks on religious minorities not only puts Indonesia’s claim to be a model of a tolerant Islamic democratic society to test, but also the government’s ability to uphold the constitution to the letter and protect religious minorities.

There is no ambiguity about where Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali stands. He has suggested that the best course for the Shiite followers is to convert to Sunni Islam for their own safety. The minister, who is responsible for upholding the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, had been at the forefront in the campaign to ban Ahmadiyah teachings in Indonesia. He had also openly labeled Shiism as a heretic faith, although he has yet to officially declare it a banned faith.

Indonesia’s increasing failure to protect religious minorities has raised international concerns. The issue arose at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in May when Indonesia had to present a four-year report about its human rights situation. Human rights organizations also pressed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise the issue when she visited Jakarta early this week.

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