Unite Shiites and Sunnis in Indonesia
Salim Osman – Straits Times
One day in December last year, Shiite preacher Tajul Muluk had to be rescued by the police after a mob torched his house, his Islamic boarding school and mosque in a violent rampage in Sampang, East Java.
He was not hurt. But in a twist of events, the preacher was subsequently detained by the police for allegedly insulting Islam in his teachings. His attackers, however, got away scot-free.
Last month, a district court sentenced the preacher to two years’ jail for blasphemy against Islam. His conviction was based on the evidence of witnesses who testified he had told his followers the Qur’an was not original, that Muslims should pray three times a day instead of five, and that pilgrimage to Mecca was not compulsory.
He denied ever telling his followers that, and described the allegations as lies politically fabricated to convict him as a deviant.
The cleric became the first Shiite Muslim to be convicted of blasphemy in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
This is unprecedented as Shiism is part of Islamic orthodoxy, born during the political split over leadership succession after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Its status as a branch of Islam was reaffirmed by a conference of Shiite and Sunni clerics in Amman, Jordan, in July 2005. The recognition was also endorsed in December that year at a conference in Mecca to end the argument over whether Shiism is Islamic because of its theological differences with mainstream Sunni beliefs.
This has been acknowledged by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the highest authority on Islam, which has never declared the sect as deviant, unlike its fatwa on the Ahmadiyah community for its belief in a prophet after Prophet Muhammad.
The case was reported in major newspapers in Jakarta but its significance escaped the attention of many Indonesians, who were fixated on the governor’s election.
MUI chairman Umar Shihab followed the case closely and said the conviction was wrong. “(Shiite) religious teachings are not contrary to Islam,” he said. “If he was indeed convicted because of his teachings, that would be regrettable.”
Many others would find it baffling too in reconciling the prosecution of a Shiite as a deviant with Indonesia’s treatment of Iran, a fellow Muslim country with Shiism as its official religion. Both are close allies in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the grouping that also includes Saudi Arabia.
Shiites are a minority in Indonesia, noticeable only after Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 when some Sunnis converted to Shiism and Indonesian scholars returned from study in Qom, the seat of Shiite learning in Iran.
Before the Iranian revolution, there were small communities of Shiites, mainly Arab descendants from Yemen, who kept a low profile in deference to the Sunnis.
But Shiism is not entirely alien to Indonesia. Several of its elements are found in classical Indonesian literature and even in cultural traditions. One such tradition is the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. However, the Shiite faith is not embedded in the religious beliefs of Indonesian Muslims.
The 1980s conversion of several activists raised the Shiite minority’s profile. They have carved out a space for themselves as a well-defined religious community, with their own schools, mosques and civil society groups, publishing Shiite literature in Bahasa Indonesia that strengthens their presence.
In Sampang, a hamlet on the Madura island in East Java, Shiite converts started a community some years ago. Their presence caused a stir in this conservative Muslim region, sparking conflict with the Sunnis.
Since then, Sunni clerics in East Java have been campaigning to get them to return to Sunni Islam. They managed to get the local MUI chapter to declare Shiism as a deviant sect but it was not endorsed by its Jakarta headquarters.
Tajul’s conviction signals Indonesia’s objection to Shiism becoming rooted in the country. It wants to clamp down on Shiite growth to keep Indonesia Sunni in orientation.
A sectarian divide among Muslims could one day expose the country to religious strife on a scale found in Iraq and Pakistan. Already, signs of such a conflict have been manifested in Indonesia by the random attacks on Shiites and their religious centers.
While concerns over potential sectarian strife are legitimate, the authorities have to grapple with the existence of thousands of Shiite converts who call Indonesia their home. They have the right to be protected and practice their Shiite faith as guaranteed by the Constitution. An “Islamic ecumenical” movement should be encouraged to bridge the gap between the two sects to avert future conflict. Such a rapprochement would go a long way towards maintaining harmony.
Eventually, Indonesia will have to fall back on its national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” or “unity in diversity” to strengthen tolerance and the spirit of co-existence. The motto should mean the acceptance of not only diverse religions, but also diversity within one religion, that is, Islam.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times