A Camouflage for Religious Violence
Analysis | Sumanto Al Qurtuby
In a press conference after a meeting on the deadly Sampang riots of Aug. 26, Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi, Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali, and National Police Chief Gen. Timur Pradopo announced that the attack, in which a group of Sunni Muslims attacked Shiites, killing three, was not driven by religion, but by a family conflict.
Gamawan said “the Sampang incident is a purely criminal case that developed out of a family conflict and later gained momentum within the local community.” It is, therefore, “not an anti-Shiite situation,” as he was quoted in the Jakarta Globe.
Stemming from a sibling rivalry between Shiite leader Tajul Muluk and his brother Roisul Hukuma that has been brewing since 2004, the initial conflict might be interpersonal in nature rather than interreligious. And there is evidence that the clash was triggered by competition over a woman.
The question remains, however, why it degenerated into a religious riot or, more precisely, an anti-Shiite campaign. Why did the mob — made up of Sunni Muslims unconnected to the brothers — angrily assault the Shiite community, resulting in deaths, injuries and the destruction of property? Were the attackers driven by economic-political calculations or religious considerations?
The religious overtones make it difficult to believe that the riot was simply the result of a long-brewing “family conflict” finally boiling over.
Statements from the government, such as Gamawan’s, might have a calming effect on the masses and reduce tension, but they do not address the “real” problems of Shia-Sunni relations. It is significant to note that the Sampang tragedy was not the first time Shiites have been attacked in Indonesia. And anti-Shiite riots are not unique to Indonesia.
Violence against Shiites occurs all over the Muslim world, particularly in countries where followers of the Shia branch of Islam have been a religious minority group. Anti-Shiite violence has been reported in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Malaysia, to name but a few.
Graham Fuller and Rend Francke, two experts in Shia history who co-authored “The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims,” wrote that in the Arab world and the Middle East, particularly in countries where Sunnis are the dominant religious group, Shiites have been the “object of systematic, official, legal religious discrimination.” This is not to suggest that Shiites have never attacked Sunnis. In countries like Iran, Lebanon, or today’s Iraq, Sunnis have been targeted for discrimination and persecution based on their beliefs.
If the violence in Sampang was an overblown family feud, as the government alleges, it is still difficult to ignore the signs that point to the prolonged history of Sunni-Shiite antagonism. These two Islamic sects have been coming into conflict since the earliest days of the religion, meaning that Islam has almost always contended with inter-sect violence.
In brief, the Sampang incident should be seen as belonging to broader Sunni-Shiite conflict, one that is deeply rooted within their religious traditions and socio-political history.
Given the historical roots of the Sunni-Shia conflict, Minister Gamawan’s official statement on the matter seems like a calculated move to simplify the Sampang riot.
Gamawan’s remark, “It just so happens that the two are of different sects — one is a Shiite and the other is a Sunni, ” reflects the government’s oversimplification of the conflict. Seen from another perspective, Gamawan’s words neglect the facts of the history of rivalry between the two sects.
It is time for the government, then, not just to detain those who took part in or instigated the attack, but also to protect religious minorities. Unfortunately, rather than making attempts at reconciliation and the creation of mutual understanding between the two groups, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, based on a fatwa issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), condemned the Shiites as a deviant religious sect.
It is the job of our leaders to provide security for every citizen, offer asylum for refugees, create stability in the nation, guard the interests of minorities and, most importantly, act swiftly and firmly with those who break the law and seek to spread religious intolerance. Such offenders need to be brought in front of a judge and if they are found guilty, thrown in jail.
Muslim religious leaders, moreover, need to come together to denounce any act of violence, whether on behalf of religion, differing schools of thought, sects and other divisions in religious life. Violence is violence. There is no legitimate or sacred violence.
Muslim leaders and ulema, furthermore, need to instill a culture of religious tolerance by supplying pluralist Islamic materials to Islamic schools, actively teaching democratic and pluralistic forms of Islam, and spreading the significance of unity, harmony and respect among religious believers.
Above all, government and religious authorities need to endlessly endorse a process of dialogue between Shiites as the victims and Sunnis as the offenders. As the noted scholar Daniel Philpott said in his new book, “Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation,” by promoting a process of dialogue and reconciliation among victims and offenders, a community that was once in conflict could “respect one another as citizens and commit themselves to civility.”
Sumanto Al Qurtuby is a co-founder of the American branch of Nahdlatul Ulama and a visiting research fellow at The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He can be reached at email@example.com.