By Didin Nurul Rosidin
The Ahmadis are once again in the front and centre of Indonesian media. And yet when it comes to media coverage of the violence directed against Indonesia’s Ahmadi community, one quickly realises that the discourse is dominated by political and religious elites. In virtually all media outlets, politicians and religious leaders are the most vocal groups on this conflict.
We rarely hear what people at the grassroots level actually think, and rarely seek input from the communities where Indonesia’s Ahmadis live.
The Ahmadis arrived in Indonesia early in the 20th century from India. They consider themselves to be a Muslim community. However, mainstream Muslims consider them a heretical group due to their belief that their founder, 19th century Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the second advent of Jesus, which mainstream Muslims believe has not yet come.
Since their arrival in Indonesia, Ahmadis’ presence has been controversial. Clashes between Muslim groups and Ahmadi followers have coloured the relationship between the Ahmadis and Indonesia’s majority religious groups for the past four decades.
Muslim groups, such as Indonesian Ulama Assembly (MUI), Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Islamic Reform Movement (GARIS), condemned the Ahmadi community and demanded that the government ban it. On June 9, 2008, the government responded by issuing a decree ordering all Ahmadis to stop conducting activities considered heretical, especially proselytising.
This decree opened a floodgate of hostility, which resulted in clashes that sometimes became violent, such as those in July 2010 in West Java, just before the fasting month of Ramadan. Dozens of people were injured in those clashes, which made headline news in both local and national media coverage for several weeks.
Realising the severity of the situation, different figures from civil society, academia and the government began proposing solutions to this decades-long conflict. Abdul Kadir Karding, a member of parliament from the National Revival Party, argued that the Ahmadis, in spite of their different religious tenets, should be treated the same as other Indonesian citizens. Muslim scholar K.H.N. Abdullah Dunun urged the government to recognise Ahmadiyyah as an independent religion like Islam and Christianity, allowing its followers to practice their religious beliefs freely in Indonesia. However, Dr H. Amidhan, a prominent leader of the MUI, requested that the government brand the Ahmadiyyah religion as unlawful in accordance with Islamic principles and force its followers to convert to one of Indonesia’s five recognised religions.
These perspectives are the views of the elite. Even those that advocate constructive solutions tend to neglect the reality at the grassroots, and instead reinforce the issue as a political or religious problem to be solved.
In actuality, Ahmadis interact with their Muslim neighbours and often cooperate closely. When I visited the village of Manis Lor in Kuningan, West Java, where the Ahmadis have their own mosque, I met a villager who described how locals from different faiths participate in one another’s wedding celebrations and lend a hand in building homes. In fact, one Ahmadi that I talked to added that without the help of his neighbours, his house would never have been completed.
And there is further evidence of such daily collaboration.
During the 2009 clashes involving Indonesian Ahmadi communities that destroyed dozens of houses and injured several Ahmadi and Muslim demonstrators, leading figures from these two groups came together to establish positive relationships between fellow villagers. They founded the Manis Lor Unity Forum, which has launched programmes that involve all Manis Lor residents, including house construction projects, volleyball competitions and public awareness campaigns for peace.
Local people play active roles in these positive activities. However, these efforts are often eclipsed in the media by violent actions carried out by extremists from outside their villages, influenced and sometimes funded by religious and political leaders who ignore the daily reality of peaceful coexistence between the Ahmadis and other Indonesians.
Resolving conflicts without hearing the voices at the grassroots will only make matters worse. If the government and certain Muslim groups continue to focus only on what the elites are saying and ignore the daily realities of the people, the situation will never be permanently resolved.
Didin Nurul Rosidin is a lecturer of the history of Islamic civilisation in the Department of Humanity and Arts at the State Institute for Islamic Studies Syekh Nurjati Cirebon.