Indonesia sect fears more attacks

Los Angeles Times
Three members of the Ahmadiyah, a minority sect, were slain by Islamic hard-liners in February. Ahmadis fear the attackers’ light sentences signal tacit government acceptance of religious violence.
Nurhayati, a member of the Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect, and her child are among those seeking refuge at a safe house in Banten, Indonesia. (Dita Alangkara, Associated Press / September 3, 2011)

Nurhayati, a member of the Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect, and her child are among those seeking refuge at a safe house in Banten, Indonesia. (Dita Alangkara, Associated Press / September 3, 2011)
By Kate Lamb, Los Angeles Times
September 3, 2011

Reporting from Jakarta, Indonesia— Arif Hakim recalls that deadly day in February when a thousand machete-wielding Islamic hard-liners descended upon his tiny congregation in rural West Java.

“I saw them coming, screaming that we were infidels and should be killed,” the 32-year-old welder said. “The police just watched and I panicked. I escaped and ran through the rice fields, but I could still hear the sounds of my friends being captured and [attacked].”

Three of Hakim’s fellow worshipers were killed in the melee. Their offense: They were members of a minority Islamic sect called Ahmadiyah, which has been under growing pressure by Islamic extremist groups.

The sect, which has adherents worldwide, is nonetheless banned in many Muslim countries because Ahmadis have divergent beliefs about the coming of the second messiah.

Across Indonesia, Ahmadiyah members have in recent years been the target of attacks, but the incident in the village of Cikeusik, West Java, stands out for both the level of violence and the fact that it was recorded on video.

The video, distributed worldwide on YouTube, shows a mob chanting religious slogans as they beat three Ahmadis to death with rocks, wooden clubs and machetes.

Many say the violence signals a dangerous wave of intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, one that had long prided itself on its acceptance of minority religious groups.

In recent years, harassment and attacks have been on the rise, with Christian groups, as well as Ahmadis, facing intimidation.

Many believe the attacks have come with tacit government acceptance in a nation where 200 million of the 237 million citizens are Muslim.

Bowing to political pressure, the Indonesian government in 2008 issued a decree calling on Ahmadiyah to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam.”

Although officials say the decree was intended to defuse religious tension, attacks against the minority group increased to 50 in 2010 from three in 2006, according to the Setara Institute, a nongovernmental group that monitors religious freedom.

The 12 men charged in the West Java deaths were sentenced to between three and six months in prison, court rulings that critics say give a virtual green light to the violent persecution of minorities.

Meanwhile, an Ahmadi man involved in the incident was sentenced to six months in prison, convicted of having provoked the violence because he called on fellow sect members to help defend Ahmadi property before the attack.

“I think the verdicts were appalling and underscore an image that the Indonesian government is going to have to confront, which is of a place of growing intolerance,” said Sidney Jones, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group.

The U.S. State Department has also criticized the sentencing of the Ahmadi man.

Islamic hard-liners, on the other hand, continue to defend their anti-Ahmadiyah campaign. A group called the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, which has previously attacked brothels, nightclubs and the editor of Indonesian Playboy, denies that it was involved in the West Java incident but says Ahmadiyah must go.

“Ahmadiyah is not Islam; they are an insult to Islam,” said the group’s Jakarta leader, Habib Salim Alatas, wearing a yellow sarong and heavy eyeliner, seated in a living room lined with portraits of stern-faced imams. “It is like a religion for rats.”

On Aug. 16, the eve of Indonesia’s Independence Day, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defended the country’s pluralistic reputation against growing criticism at home and abroad. But many Ahmadiyah followers are not reassured.

“People attack Ahmadi homes, their children are bullied in school, their businesses are boycotted and others are injured. I think it is a scary life,” says Firdaus Mubarik.

Ahmadiyah, which originated in India in the 19th century, has 200,000 followers in Indonesia. Many who fled Cikeusik after the attack are afraid to return. On Lombok island, the 138 members of another group of Ahmadis have lived in a shelter for six years since an attack there.

Hakim, the Cikeusik welder who sought refuge in a neighboring village but was later interrogated and beaten by a second knife-wielding mob, worries about a similar fate.

“I thought that would be the end of my life,” he said, sitting under a fuchsia bougainvillea tree at the entrance of a Jakarta mosque. But “I am trying to think the incident is not the scariest thing in my life, but the sweetest because I still live.”

Lamb is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times
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