Sunni Sectarianism and the Re-emergence of Jihadism in Indonesia

By October 16, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 184

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Events in Indonesia during September 2012 raised concerns that the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation may be taking a turn toward hardline Islamism. A major government official openly called for the elimination of Shiite Islam from Indonesia, and the Buddhist minority was the target of a foiled bombing. These developments may cause the future of Indonesia’s tolerant Islam to be reassessed.

Indonesia experienced two events in September 2012 which may signal a turning point in the campaign run by Indonesia’s Sunni Islamists to install Sharia as the law of the state. The first is the religious affairs minister’s inflammatory statements against Shiite Islam, which may indicate that Sunni Islamists have accelerated their plans to damage the diversity within Indonesian Islam. The second is the discovery of a suicide bombing plot against Indonesia’s Buddhist minority, which could signal that dormant jihadists may be newly emboldened.

A Sunni Sectarian Assault on Islamic Pluralism and Indonesian Civil Society

On September 6, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali declared that the best solution for resolving the growing tensions between Indonesia’s Shiite minority – which totals 7 million, the eighth-largest Shiite population in the world – and Sunni majority was for Indonesia’s Shiites to convert to Sunni Islam. His comments followed attacks by Sunni Islamists on the Shiite community in Sampang on August 26, which forced hundreds to flee. These events represent an escalation of a campaign against Indonesia’s Shiites that began in December 2011 when the Sampang boarding school of Shiite cleric Tajul Muluk was burned down by thousands of demonstrators. Days later, the local branch of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Indonesian Clerics), or MUI, issued a fatwa against Muluk, claiming he “tarnished Islam,” and declared Shiite Islam to be heresy.

That fatwa is part of a larger Sunni Islamist agenda to eliminate all diversity within Indonesian Islam, namely Sunni advocates of the liberal Islamic discourse which underpins Indonesian civil society. Indonesia’s democratic transition was aided by a liberal Islam committed to respecting the diversity within Indonesian society, Islam and other religions alike. Although government-subsidized, the MUI is an ostensibly independent, non-governmental organization that functions as a national deliberative body for Sunni Islam. While the issuance of fatwas was traditionally regarded as a collective process involving dialogue among the different streams of Indonesia’s Sunni Muslim clerical community, the MUI has become dominated by hardline Islamists. Marginalizing liberal voices within the council, the current leadership has transformed the MUI into an instrument for the gradual Sunni Islamist reconstruction of Indonesia, and in 2005 passed an infamous fatwa declaring interpretations of Islam that employ concepts of liberalism, pluralism, or secularism to be non-Islamic beliefs.

The MUI issued another fatwa calling for a complete ban of the small, heterodox Muslim sect known as the Ahmadiyah, which claims 200,000 adherents. Sunni sectarian agitation and violence against the Ahmadiyah was spearheaded by the militant organization Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders Front), or FPI. Over a two year period, a series of attacks were carried out against Ahmadi institutions and communities across Indonesia. These attacks usually resulted in bans against the Ahmadiyah issued by the local or regional authorities of the areas in which the attacks occurred. In 2008, the national government’s Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society, known by its Indonesian acronym Bakor Pakem, issued an ultimatum to the Ahmadiyah to disavow their beliefs. Following the Ahmadi community’s refusal, President Yudhoyono invoked Indonesia’s controversial 1965 Blasphemy Law and signed an official decree declaring the practice of Ahmadi Islam a criminal offense.

A similar pattern of events is unfolding against Indonesia’s Shiite community. In January 2012, following the violent attack on Tajul Muluk’s boarding school, Bakor Pakem urged Indonesia’s attorney general to ban Muluk’s teachings, and blasphemy charges were filed against the cleric. In May 2012, an MUI regional council declared Shiite Islam heretical, and several Sunni Islamist organizations across Indonesia called for a national ban on Shiite Islam. This more ambitious campaign reflects the growing strength of Sunni Islamism in Indonesia.

A Jihadist Resurgence in Indonesia?

Following the October 2002 Bali bombings by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah, a public backlash ensued against all Indonesian militant organizations. Yudhoyono, then serving as President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, vigorously pursued the Jemaah Islamiyah and other militant groups, cementing his reputation as an opponent to Islamic militancy. The FPI was forced underground, later reemerging as a leader of Sunni extremist politics through its successful campaigns of Sunni sectarian agitation, which has seemingly encouraged a shift among segments of Indonesia’s Sunni majority toward Islamism.

The planned series of attacks on Indonesia’s Buddhist minority may indicate that this shift is empowering a jihadist resurgence. On September 8, a bomb rocked the city of Depok, leading to the national police’s discovery of the plot to target Indonesia’s Buddhist community. Bordering the Indonesian capital Jakarta, Depok has been home to many Indonesian terrorists, most notably Umar Patek, the Jemaah Islamiyah member convicted for his key role in the 2002 Bali bombings. The terrorists were allegedly preparing to attack the Indonesia’s Buddhists on the pretext of carrying out reprisals for the mistreatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.

As President Yudhoyono enters the end of his final term in office, his government may find itself in the position of combating a new wave of jihadist militancy as it continues to erode some basic pillars of Indonesian civil society. The mid-September 2012 protests against an American-made, anti-Islam film point to the potential danger. During a week of relatively peaceful protests, an FPI-led demonstration at the US embassy turned violent, forcing its temporary closure. These trends seem likely only to intensify as Indonesia heads toward national elections in 2014 to select a new president.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Dr. Micha’el Tanchum

Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a fellow in the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He also teaches in Tel Aviv University’s Department of East Asian Studies.