People attend the first Ramadan prayers in a mosque in Surabaya, East Java. (AFP Photo/Juni Kriswanto)

Groups Question Government's Lack of Actions on Shiite, Ahmadiyah

JUNE 21, 2015

Jakarta. A coalition of rights groups are urging President Joko Widodo to stay true to his campaign promises to protect minority groups and ensure the safe return of a Shiite community to their home village on Madura island, East Java, nearly three years after their forced eviction.

In a joint statement released on Saturday, the coalition of local and international NGOs criticized the Indonesian government’s lack of action to allow at least 300 members of the displaced Shiite Muslim community to return safely to their home village in Sampang district, Madura.

They were forced to abandon their homes after an anti-Shiite mob attacked their village in August 2012, with their leader Tajul Muluk convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to four years' imprisonment.

Ten months later, in June 2013, the local authorities forcibly evicted the Shiites from a sports complex that was used as a temporary shelter for refugees in Sampang, to another refugee facility in Sidoarjo, another East Java district.

The Shiites have been denied many of their rights during their lives as refugees, according to the statement.

Most of the adults are tobacco farmers who lost their farms following the eviction, which directly impacted their families’ livelihoods. The Shiites have also been denied access to a range of essential services, which activists say is contrary to Indonesia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“Without acknowledgment of their residential status, many families are unable to apply for identity and family cards, which are required to access social and health services, as well as to marry and obtain birth certificates,” the statement says.

“The forced evictions have also had a dire impact on education for children in the community,” it adds, citing an example how the local government has provided only two rooms for classes in the housing facility for at least 50 children between five and 11 years old, with teachers visiting only intermittently.

The joint statement was issued by Amnesty International, the Surabaya office of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Paramadina University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy and the Indonesian chapter of the Asian Muslim Action Network.

The groups “urge” the government to take immediate steps to ensure the “safe, voluntary and dignified return” of the community to their homes, adding that local authorities’ precondition that the Shiites must first convert to Sunni Islam before they can return is out of the question.

“Such pressure amounts to coercion which violates their freedom to have or adopt a religion of their choice, contrary to Article 18[2] of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR], of which Indonesia is a State Party,” the groups say.

“The Indonesian authorities must ensure that all religious minorities are protected and allowed to practice their faith free from fear, intimidation and attack.”

The groups remind Joko of his campaign promises, which include protecting the rights of marginalized communities and the principles of pluralism and diversity.

“[The president's] words have failed to translate to tangible results. The community remains in limbo, uncertain of their future.”

The Shiite community from Sampang is among a slew of displaced minority groups, whose future remains in limbo.

Another rights group, Jakarta-based Setara Institute, last week raised the issue of members of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in West Nusa Tenggara, who had been forced to leave their homes nine years ago and have been living in a refugee facility in Mataram ever since.

“The Setara Institute urges both the local and central governments to take immediate action that would return the Ahmadi and Shiite refugees to their homes,” Setara deputy chairman Bonar Tigor Naipospos said in a press statement last week.

Setara also pointed out that several Ahmadiyah places of worship have been forcibly shuttered by religious hardliners, including three mosques in the West Java town of Tasikmalaya and two others in Jakarta.

The group urges the government to remove the seals and allow the Ahmadis to perform their religious rituals in peace, especially now that Muslims around the world are observing the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Setara research director Ismail Hasani has called the government’s lack of action a “serious stagnation."

“There has been no meaningful progress whatsoever in terms of improving and advancing religious freedom,” Ismail said.

He added that he understood Joko and Vice President Jusuf Kalla had only been in office for less than a year, but the public's high expectations for them to resolve issues related to religious intolerance had begun to wane, with no solution in sight for any major cases of intolerance the previous administration was unable to settle.

“The public is actually beginning to feel angry, but they have decided to wait and see. However, if [the government's inaction] continues, it may turn into a dangerous situation,” Ismail said.

Intolerant sentiments have also been brewing among the Sunni community, which makes up the majority of Muslims in Indonesia.

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin’s recent call for mutual respect and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims during Ramadan, for example, has been met with criticism from conservative politicians and clerics.

Lukman, in a series of tweets earlier this month, urged followers not to compel street-side food stalls, known as warungs, to close during the 30-day fasting period.

“There is no need to force any warung to close during the fasting month. If there are those who close their warung voluntarily, we of course respect that. But good Muslims don’t force others to give up their source of livelihood,” he said through his Twitter account @lukmansaifuddin.

“We are obliged to respect the right of those who are not fasting because they are not Muslim. We must also respect the right of Muslims who are not fasting because of [certain] conditions.”

But even a politician from his own party, the Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP), said the minister’s appeal has “hurt the faithful and had a [negative] impact on the PPP.”

“We have received quite a number of messages from clerics asking us to address this issue,” Fernita Darwis said. “The minister must immediately cease taking positions that hurt the Muslim faith and cause negative stigma in the community.”

Both Joko and Kalla, meanwhile, seem to be playing ignorant of the situation while continuing to tout Indonesia’s brand of Islam as a tolerant one.

Comparing the situation in the archipelago with conflict-ridden Middle Eastern nations such as Yemen, Syria and Iran, Joko told a forum in Jakarta last week that “Ours [Indonesia’s] is an Islam that is polite, full of courtesy and tolerance.”