Monday, October 15, 2012

Persecuting, Prosectuing Minorities

Persecuting, prosecuting minorities

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The assault on the Shiite group in Sampang on the East Java island of Madura is definitely a display of sectarian violence motivated mainly by religious sentiments that have been occurring across Indonesia lately. Denials of the role of religion in the incident, such as Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi’s earlier claims, are absolutely irrelevant.

Rather than this conflict being a family affair as the minister suggested, narrow-minded understanding about religion in the case cannot simply be ignored. Keep in mind that religion cannot be ruled out in this case of harassment of a minority.

The minister has to differentiate between hundreds or thousands of family disputes related to divorce, children guardianship, inheritance, etc. and the recent human rights abuses carried out in the name of religion, or more precisely, the persecution of minority religious groups.

It is useless to deny the religious conflicts blatantly occurring before our eyes in order to defend the “political image” of the current government. Denying the new reality that Indonesian society has lost its religious harmony helps us to find neither causes nor solutions. Honesty is indicative that we are serious in handling cases like the Sampang tragedy. The government, in this vein, is either avoiding honesty or simplifying the problem.

Persecution of minorities in our society (such as Lia Aminuddin’s Eden group in Jakarta, Christian churches in Jakarta and West Java, and Ahmadiyah followers in West Java, Nusa Tenggara and other parts of the country), as well as their prosecution for their beliefs and faiths amount to a systematic abuse of human rights with religious legitimacy. The Sampang riot has only extended the list.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s immediate call to enforce the law in the Sampang case is rhetorically entertaining. However, upon carefully examining his statement, many will realize that his words convey unclear messages. Which law is the President referring to? The outdated 1965 law on blasphemy or the Criminal Code?

It is worth noting that under the two laws, many criminals and perpetrators of attacks on minority groups were set free, whereas the victims were put in jail. Leaders of minority groups—Lia Aminuddin, Abdul Rachman, Andito Putro Wibisono, Ahmad Mushoddeq, Buki Syahidin, Tajul Muluk, and dozens of others were convicted and sentenced to an average of 2.5 years in jail although their groups and followers came under threat and suffered serious wounds.

Who should be punished? Who should be blamed and cursed? Based on the 1965 blasphemy law and Criminal Code’s Articles 156 and 335, the court convicted Sampang Shiite leader Tajul Muluk while the perpetrators of a previous attack on the Shiite community were allowed to roam free so that they could perpetrate the most recent assault on Aug. 26.

The police and the intelligence apparatus should not be left to shoulder the responsibility for the Sampang attack and other religious riots alone as they only followed orders. As in other cases, the police quickly took measures in the aftermath of the Sampang attack including arresting suspected perpetrators. Whether those people will be punished or not is not the police’s business.

Nevertheless, the government’s mindset and the whole justice system should be seriously reviewed. Only in 2010 did the Constitutional Court, under the leadership of Madura-born Mahfud MD, turn down a judicial review request filed against the 1965 blasphemy law. Not only had radicals and conservative figures successfully terrorized numerous NGO activists, intellectuals and scholars who filed the judicial review motion, they also exercised intimidation in the process of the review.

In fact, the Constitutional Court knelt down to the radicals’ agenda. The law was kept intact and is ready to prosecute anyone accused of insulting religions. Neither criticism nor challenge to religion is allowed in this country. Religion, particularly the one that is embraced by the majority, is well protected.

Persecuting and prosecuting minority groups, including the Shiites, for their beliefs and faiths is blatantly supported by the edicts of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali has publicly supported the MUI’s stance over and over.

According to the council, the Shiia, like the Ahmadiyah, the Eden Community, and various new Islamic sects founded by local prophets across Indonesia, are deviant. It appears that to embrace a faith that is different from the majority’s is a crime. During the reform era, the MUI had more room to maneuver with its religious edicts and political opportunities. Note that the MUI’s deputy chairman is also part of the presidential advisory team.

All in all, at the national level, the position of minorities is indeed at risk. They are weak in the eyes of the national laws and the central government has no clear mechanism to protect them. Any movement initiated by a minority group that arouses the suspicion of radical groups that on behalf of the majority will be scrutinized.

Even though the perpetrators are fully aware the violence they commit is forgiven by the law, the state’s obscure commitment to protection of the minorities has created opportunities for various groups to carry out such attacks. Let us wait and see who the court will convict and imprison in the latest attack on Sampang’s Shiites.

The minorities’ demand for justice is just wishful thinking in this country. They are apparently destined to live in constant danger.

The writer, a lecturer at the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, is a visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.


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