Hardliners Emboldened by Sect Decree: Think Tank

JAKARTA ~ Muslim hardliners have been emboldened by the government’s caving in to pressure to ban a minority Islamic sect, an independent think tank said in a report this week.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) said a decree issued last month ordering the Ahmadiyah sect to stop spreading its beliefs in a prophet after Mohammed would increase social unrest.

“One official told us that this was not about freedom of religion but about law and order – without a decree, social unrest would increase,” ICG Southeast Asia Project Director John Virgoe said in a statement.

“But the prospects of unrest have in fact increased because of the way in which hardline groups have worked the issue both at the grassroots and top levels of government. Having won this victory, they’ll look for others.”

The report on the factors leading to the decree found that hardline groups including Hizb ut-Tahrir were targeting the sect, which has practiced its faith peacefully in Indonesia since the 1920s, to expand support and membership.

They were using their influence with the Islamic Scholars Council (MUI), the country’s main Islamic body, to influence policy despite their minimal political support in the wider community.

Pressure from hardliners for the government to outlaw Ahmadiyah despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion escalated after the MUI issued a fatwa describing the sect as “deviant” earlier this year.

“The result was a decree which is a setback for both Indonesia’s image as a country that can stand up to Islamic radicalism and President (Susilo Bambang) Yudhoyono’s image as a strong leader,” the ICG report said.

“The outcome suggests a government that has no clear vision of basic principles itself but rather seeks compromise between those who speak loudest.”

The ICG said Yudhoyono had allowed the MUI to have “unprecedented influence” over policy in the world’s most populous Muslim country, which has a tradition of tolerance and pluralism in keeping with its diverse religious minorities.

“The Yudhoyono government made a serious error in 2005 by inviting MUI to help shape policy,” ICG Senior Adviser Sidney Jones said.

“It opened the door for hardline groups to press for greater state intervention to define orthodoxy and legislate morality.”

The ICG also said the decree ordering Indonesia’s 200,000 to 500,000 Ahmadis to stop “spreading” their faith was related to “political manoeuvring” ahead of national elections next year.

The decree fell short of the total ban sought by extremists but resulted in the voluntary closure of Ahmadi mosques across the country.

Ahmadis say they have been forced underground and fear attack by extremists who declared war on the sect and violently attacked a rally for religious tolerance in Jakarta on June 1.

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