Jakarta – The homes, mosques and cars belonging to members of the Indonesian Ahmadiyah Congregation (JAI) were vandalised on Sept 19 – the latest attack on a group branded as “heretical” by official Islam in Indonesia. For some observers, the mob attack, which involved hundreds of people, is yet another sign of the rise of Islamic radicalism in a country known for its moderation and pluralism.
In the Monday night attack, the attackers destroyed or damaged four mosques, 33 houses and four schools and set fire to three cars in Campaka, a district some 100km southeast of Jakarta. Nobody was injured in the attack.
The Ahmadiyah is a Muslim group whose teachings differ from the central tenets of Islam. Its followers believe that another prophet, its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, came after Muhammad, the last prophet of God in Islam.
In an earlier attack in July, thousands of people attacked the Ahmadiyah compound in Bogor.
According to a commentary in Malaysia's New Straits Times (NST), the surge in religious radicalism was partly triggered by 11 decrees issued in July by the Indonesian Ulema Council, the official Islamic authority, which banned the Ahmadiyah, liberalism, pluralism and secularism as anti-Islam.
"These radicals are spreading hatred against people who are of different beliefs — Muslims who believe in an Islam which is different from theirs, which is Wahhabism,” former student activist Syafik Alielha told NST's Jakarta-based writer, Amy Chew.
The radicals' targets thus far have been moderate, liberal and non-Sunni Muslims and Christians. From April to September, 16 churches in Greater Jakarta were forcibly shut down by radicals.
The Indonesian authorities have done little to prevent the attacks or take action against the radicals.
"The Government is afraid," said former President Abdurrahman Wahid, who once led the Nahdaltul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation. NU claims 40 million followers and is known as the face of moderate Islam.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's response to the situation has been to order his Minister of Religious Affairs, Mr Maftuh Basyuni, to look into the matter while stressing that the Constitution guarantees religious freedom.
One reason for the muted official reaction is the fear of a backlash from the Muslim majority if the government were to come down hard on the radicals.
Other observers believe the radicals' new-found boldness is also a reflection of the growing conservatism in segments of the government.
A senior police source told NST that some senior officials occupying strategic positions "are people who are for a state based on syariah (Islamic laws) and therefore are not inclined towards taking a firm stance against the radicals".
Writer Chew noted that while the majority of Muslims do not support the radicals and the chances of their numbers growing to a huge mass is slim, the radicals do have good political connections.
"And therein lies their greatest strength, which could well determine their influence in the country and ultimately the fate of this nation," Ms Chew wrote.
* Ahmadiyah mosques destroyed in attack (The Jakarta Post, Sept 21)
* Indonesian radicals in aggressive mode (New Straits Times, Sept 20)