Firdaus sits across the table from me at a burger bar in one of central Jakarta’s glitzy malls. Next to us is a store selling Lamborghinis and a mosque sits across the road. “In all honesty, I don’t think Indonesia has ever been ready to be multicultural,” he says as he picks at his chips. “For as long as I can remember, there have always problems for us minorities here.”
Firdaus is a young, outspoken activist from Indonesia’s Ahmadiyya community, a small movement of Islam with around 400,000 adherents scattered across the archipelago. “Both my parents were Javanese,” he says. “My father was an Ahmadiyya priest and I was born in Garut, West Java. But as the son of a missionary I spent my childhood moving from village to village across the Island.”
Perceived by some mainstream Muslims to be heretics, the Ahmadiyya have, since first arriving in Indonesia in 1925, faced religious and political persecution within Indonesian society. As the upcoming presidential election nears, rising minority persecution and religious conservatism mean the Ahmadiyya are approaching an increasingly uncertain future.
“The hardest part is that you just don’t know where you stand in society,” says Firdaus. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to you, or when or where. It feels like us Ahmadis live in limbo.”
The Ahmadiyya movement was established in 1889 in northern India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a preacher who claimed to be a prophet and messiah divinely appointed to reform Islam. While similar to Sunni Islam in most practices, the Ahmadiyya are highly controversial within the Islamic world for their belief that Muhammad was not the final prophet. While mainstream orthodox Islam holds Muhammad to be the last and absolute prophet of God, the Ahmadiyya believe God continues to speak and communicate through lesser prophets, including Ghulam Ahmad.
Because of these beliefs, the Ahmadiyya are seen by some Muslims to occupy a heretical position in society. “At school, I was bullied for being an Ahmadi, not just from my classmates but from the teachers,” says Firdaus. “I remember going to a new school when I was a boy and the teacher found out I was Ahmadiyya. She commanded me to go to the office for questioning, disgusted that we could even be at her school.”
The Ahmadiyya still hold a polarising position in Indonesian society. “The problem for me lies in the relationship between the state and the citizen,” says Firdaus. “Indonesia is supposed to be a secular country but in practice, it definitely is not. I don’t believe the government cares about us, or any minorities for that matter.”
“At school, I was bullied for being an Ahmadi, not just from my classmates but from the teachers”
Andreas Harsono, the director of Human Rights Watch Indonesia, has been researching and writing about minorities in Indonesia for years. “I am very worried about the future of minorities in Indonesia,” he tells me in a busy café in Jakarta.
“Look around you. Sure everyone here is happy now, people are smiling. But this can all slip into chaos very quickly. This is an incredibly violent country. I spent three years travelling around Indonesia and visited 62 mass grave sites from massacres since independence. The sons of the people who committed these killings still hold huge amounts of power today.”
A large part of the problem, says Andreas, lies in the governmental infrastructure within Indonesia that targets religious freedoms. “Indonesia is not stable at all when it comes to minority rights. Within Indonesia, there are hundreds of regulations that discriminate against minorities. Out of hundreds of laws, I would say the blasphemy laws of 1965 and religious harmony laws are the most damaging.”
Indonesia is officially a secular country. The national ideology of Pancasila proclaims unity and equality. Yet increasingly, Sunni Islamic conservatives have found power and influence in the political and social arena. With governmental regulations and policies frequently used to prosecute religious minorities, a rise in religious conservatism over the years has come at the expense of minority rights. As well as the Ahmadiyya, minorities like ethnic Chinese Indonesians and the Gafatar religious community face religious persecution, often dealt out in the form of blasphemy convictions.
Indonesia’s religious minorities are particularly vulnerable to Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy laws. The law, article 156(a) in the Indonesian criminal code, criminalises any deviation from or criticism of Indonesia’s six officially recognised religions. According to Human Rights Watch, 23 people have been sentenced under the blasphemy laws since current President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took office in 2014. By frequently broadening the definition of what constitutes blasphemy, the law is used to target minorities who don’t adhere to their often strict interpretations of what “official” Islam is.
Last year, in protest nine Ahmadiyya members filed a petition seeking the abolition of the law on the basis that it fuelled discrimination of religious minorities. The petition was dismissed by the Constitutional Court who ruled that minority abuse came from “local regulations” instead of the blasphemy laws. It was the third unsuccessful appeal since 2010.
A central perpetrator of the anti-Ahmadiyya movement is the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI). The MUI is Indonesia’s official top clerical body, responsible for guiding “the Islamic community and government”. Whilst the MUI is not officially a government agency, the council holds enormous influence among Indonesian policymakers and in society.
In July 2005, Ahmadiyya persecution increased when the MUI reissued their 1980 fatwa, a non-legally binding pronouncement of Islamic law, labelling the Ahmadiyya as heretics who don’t follow Islam. In response to increasing pressure from hardline Islamist organisations ahead of the 2009 elections, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a decree in 2008 directly ordering the Ahmadiyya to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam” and made the “the spreading of the belief that there is another prophet with his own teachings after the Prophet Mohammed” punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
One increasingly concerning factor causing growing religious conservatism is the role of foreign influences. Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to spread its puritanical brand of Islam in Indonesia through investments in religious educational institutions. It’s an issue Andreas Harsono has been monitoring for years. “Saudi Arabia is always trying to exert influence in Indonesia,” he says. “And I do believe that Saudi Arabian funding has had a direct, negative influence on how the Ahmadiyya are been treated.”
Ahmadiyya spokesman Kandali Lubis says persistent attempts from Saudi Arabia to influence Indonesia’s domestic affairs are worrying. “The government has to learn more about human rights because the influence of the Saudis is concerning for us. Whenever we see a cleric espousing anti-Ahmadiyya views they almost always have a Saudi background, whether through study or ideology.”
An uncertain future
President Jokowi—who is running for re-election this year—has largely remained silent about the Ahmadiyya, neither voicing support nor condemning violence. “For the most part, the status of the Ahmadiyya situation has not really gotten worse since 2008,” says Andreas. “The good news… is that Jokowi has not exploited the Ahmadiyya for political purposes. Unlike the previous President Yudhoyono, who was extremely sectarian and exploited them as a marginalised community for his own politics.”
But while Jokowi has not directly targeted the Ahmadiyya, questions continue to grow about his commitment to protecting religious freedoms. Earlier last year Jokowi selected Ma’ruf Amin, a 75-year-old conservative Sunni cleric, as his vice-presidential running mate. It was a move widely interpreted as an attempt to counter accusations of a lack of religious piety on Jokowi’s part.
Amin is the former head of the 50 million-member strong Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as well as the chairman of the MUI since 2007. With Ma’ruf as chairman, the MUI have drafted numerous fatwa and decrees against minority groups including the Shia and LGBT community. He also chaired the MUI’s fatwa commission during the issuing of the 2005 anti-Ahmadiyya decree.
While Jokowi has not directly targeted the Ahmadiyya, questions continue to grow about his commitment to protecting religious freedoms
“We all liked Jokowi in 2014, but [potential] vice-president Amin is a big problem for us because he said the Ahmadiyya were not Muslims,” says Kandali. “In Indonesia, politics is very hard and sometimes as a minority you are used as a political diversion, that’s what happened under Yudhoyono. At least Jokowi does nothing. I mean he doesn’t do anything for minorities… but at least he doesn’t think we’re an issue.”
Firdaus has a bleaker perspective. “I talk with the Ahmadiyya and I say if you think Jokowi will solve your problems you are a fool!” He remains frustrated by the lack of political engagement by the Ahmadiyya. “Under Jokowi, there is still an opportunity to do something in the national landscape because he won’t prohibit us. So I say it’s time to get up and fight for your rights.”
Jokowi’s rival in the upcoming elections, Prabowo Subianto, also has had a shaky human rights record, to say the least. Accusations over the abduction and torture of 23 pro-democracy activists in the 1990s and questions over his role in massacres in Timor-Leste are deeply concerning. While voicing his support for the Ahmadiyya and Shia in 2014, Prabowo so far has remained silent on the subject of religious minorities this campaign. “Prabowo still has a lot to learn. He believes it’s still the era of Suharto,” says Kandali, referring to Prabowo’s carefully curated strongman image. “I say wake up; this is not Indonesia 30 years ago.”
In this election, increasing religious conservatism has come at the expense of religious pluralism and Jokowi’s willingness to embrace Islamic identity politics is degrading Indonesia’s religious freedoms. Unable to gauge where they stand in society, targeted attacks on Ahmadiyya followers in Lombok last year show the very real danger of sectarian politics in Indonesia. I ask Firdaus if he is worried about the future. He thinks for a while. “I am still an optimist about Indonesia. In terms of tolerance, as we stand now we are doing better than other Islamic countries. But if we don’t accept that there is clear potential for us to turn into a Pakistan and fight, then this country has the potential to become very dangerous.”
I ask him why he thinks the Ahmadiyya continue to face adversity. “It’s because we are small. In Indonesia, religion and ethnicity are so deeply entwined, but they are both used just as an excuse for violence.”
“I’ve been angry my whole life because the way the government treats us is crazy.” Firdaus looks at me and laughs. “But what’s crazy elsewhere is normal in Indonesia.”
Maxwell Lowe is an Australian freelance journalist whose work focuses on international security and religion. He is the editor of the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy's student publication, The Monsoon Project. You can find him tweeting at @maqueslowe.
Dimas Haryo is an illustrator from Indonesia. On a daily basis, he works as an Interior Designer, and he does illustration in his spare time. He explores his style on 3D low-poly artwork, also two dimensional cut-out in 3D and AR environment. Drop a hi at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.behance.net/dimasharyow for his works.