An Indonesian woman and her child are greeted by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, center, upon arrival in Jakarta on Sunday, part of a batch of more than 100 Indonesians evacuated from Yemen as the country descends into sectarian violence. (Antara Photo/Muhammad Iqbal)

Echoes of Middle East Strife Rattle Indonesia

APRIL 07, 2015

Jakarta. It wasn’t until a few years ago that the word “Shiite” suddenly began to inspire a negative, if not hateful, tone among some members of the Indonesian Sunni community.

In the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population, where the overwhelming majority who practice the faith identify as Sunni, the word “Shiite” probably struck as something foreign and strange — but never had it triggered so hateful a tone in sermons at mosques or daily conversations among Indonesian Sunni Muslims.

And then the Syrian war broke out in early 2011, with President Bashar al-Assad of the minority Shiite sect, the Alawites, fighting against Sunni-dominated rebels.

A year later, a conflict erupted between local Sunni and Shiite residents in a village in Sampang, in Indonesia’s Madura Island. Houses belonging to Shiite members were torched, and two Shiites were killed.

And then somehow, suddenly, Shiites became public enemy number one among some conservative members of the Indonesian Sunni community.

A campaign declaring the Shiites heretics began to be preached at mosques; last year, presidential candidate Joko Widodo was rumored to be a pro-Shiite agent ahead of the election in July; and more recently, a government ban (and subsequent backtrack) on 19 websites deemed to be spreading extremist ideology was lambasted as part of a pro-Shiite conspiracy — with many of the websites known to publish articles containing hateful sentiment against the Shiites.

Fajar Riza Ul Haq, an Islamic scholar and executive director of the Maarif Institute, says there has always been some kind of a strain in the relationship between Indonesia’s Sunni and Shiite communities.

Over the past few years, though, that tension has increased, prompted partly by the failure of the administration of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to protect members of the country’s religious minorities amid acts of violence and discrimination by hard-liners, Fajar says.

When the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq escalated, followed by the Syrian war, the ramifications spread far beyond the Middle East, reverberating in Indonesia.

Fajar says he is concerned that the tension will only get worse with the latest conflict in Yemen, which international analysts see as yet another proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran.

The Indonesian Muslim scholar says the “internal dynamics” between Sunnis and Shiites in Indonesia “have been influenced by the development of conflicts in the Middle East.”

“And now that the conflict in Yemen is likely heading for worse [...] I observe a deliberate attempt to exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite relations in Indonesia by blurring the conflict in Yemen and presenting it as a Sunni-Shiite conflict, when this is actually a political conflict,” Fajar says.

Yemen has been wracked by violence since last year, when Shiite Houthi fighters seized the capital Sanaa and forced President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee into exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. The conflict intensified nearly weeks ago with a relentless series of air strikes against Houthi positions by a Saudi-led coalition.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Monday said approximately 700 Indonesian nationals had been evacuated from Yemen since December last year, amid the growing conflict.

Another Islamic scholar, Azyumardi Azra, says that the Sunni-Shiite tension in Indonesia has grown in line with the “escalating rivalry” between Saudi Arabia and Iran to spread their influence.

The former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University in Jakarta, however, says he doubts that the hostilities are registering with the majority of Indonesian Muslims, whom he calls moderate.

“Anti-Shiite groups are trying to fuel a sectarian conflict in Indonesia, but such a conflict won’t be supported by moderate Muslim groups in Indonesia, such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah,” Azyumardi says, referring to Indonesia's two largest Muslim organizations.

“The majority of Muslims here aren’t affected by the conflict because of the involvement of NU, Muhammadiyah, etc.”

Fajar, nevertheless, says groups such as NU and Muhammadiyah need to do more to prevent the growing tension from spilling over into more violence.

“Indonesian Muslim communities must understand the map of the problems, the situation in the Middle East. Arab nations under Saudi Arabia are using the sectarian issue against the Shiites to unite themselves, when this is all actually about Saudi Arabia versus Iran,” he says.

Fajar urges the Indonesian government and civil society groups such as NU and Muhammadiyah to proactively disseminate understanding among Indonesian Muslims that the conflicts in the Middle East are not Shiite-Sunni conflicts.

"The Indonesian public must be smart and not get caught up in it."

Furthermore, Fajar says Indonesian Muslims should stop viewing Saudi Arabia as the center of the Islamic universe, arguing that the kingdom is merely engaged in a “selfish effort” to spread its hard-line Wahhabi ideology and keep its monarchy in power.

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