Indonesia's Religious Violence: The Reluctance of Reporters to Tell the Story

By Harsono, Andreas | Nieman Reports, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Indonesia's Religious Violence: The Reluctance of Reporters to Tell the Story


Harsono, Andreas, Nieman Reports


On Sunday morning, February 6, 2011, about 1,500 men approached a house in Cikeusik village in West Java, about a seven-hour drive from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. The villagers were led by Idris bin Mahdani of the Islamist militant Cikeusik Muslim Movement. Twenty members of the Ahmadiyah religious community were inside the house and guarded by police.

"Infidels! Infidels! Police go away!" bin Mahdani shouted at the 30 or so police officers who surrounded the house.

The Cikeusik police chief, Muh Syukur, tried to persuade bin Mahdani not to attack. Bin Mahdani waved him away. As soon as the chief left, bin Mahdani led the mob inside the compound, shouting, "Banish the Ahmadiyah! Banish the Ahmadiyah!"

The Ahmadiyah are a minority sect who identify themselves as Muslims but differ with other Muslims as to whether Muhammad was the "final" monotheist prophet. Many mainstream Muslims perceive the Ahmadiyah as heretics, and their faith is banned in several countries, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

An amateur video shows what happened when the mob entered the Ahmadiyah compound. Deden Sujana, the Ahmadiyah's security adviser, confronted bin Mahdani and hit him in the face. This prompted the villagers to start throwing stones. Stepping back, bin Mahdani took out his machete. The Ahmadiyah men used bamboo sticks and stones, but were in no position to stop the large mob. In less than five minutes, the villagers overpowered the sect's men; they caught several of them, ordered them to strip naked, and several villagers beat them brutally with sticks. These beatings can be seen on the video. A teenager took a large stone and smashed the head of an Ahmadiyah man lying on the ground. They also burned the house, two cars, and a motorcycle. Three Ahmadiyah men--Tubagus Chandra, Roni Pasaroni and Warsono--died and five others were seriously injured.

Reporting the Attack

By Monday morning word of the attack had reached Java's main cities, and news media published and broadcast stories about it. Jawa Pos, Kompas, Pikiran Rakyat, Republika, and Suara Merdeka, five of the largest newspapers in Java, as well as TV One and MetroTV, Indonesia's most important news channels, used the word bentrokan or "clashing" in describing what happened, leaving the impression that it was a fair fight. The channels broadcast the first part of the amateur video--showing villagers throwing stones--but they did not show the killing.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera, ABC Australia, Associated Press Television Network, BBC and CNN used the verb "attack" in their reporting, and this word helped them place the news story in the context of the rise of Islamist violence in Indonesia. They blurred the brutal video scenes, but they broadcast them. Al Jazeera even broadcast a report on Islamist attacks against Christian churches and Ahmadiyah properties in Indonesia.

Welcome to post-Suharto Indonesia where impunity for violence against religious minorities has fostered larger and more brutal attacks by Islamist militants. According to the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, there have been attacks on more than 430 churches since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004. According to Jemaah Ahmadiyah Indonesia, the national Ahmadiyah association, mobs have attacked Ahmadiyah properties more than 180 times since President Yudhoyono issued a decree in June 2008 restricting the Ahmadiyah's religious activities. More than 80 percent of these attacks took place on Java, the main island of Indonesia. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged Yudhoyono to act against these militants, to rein in religious violence, and revoke the 2008 decree.

On the day the reports about the Cikeusik attack were first broadcast, an Ahmadiyah activist who was meeting with me complained about Metro TV. He had given the Cikeusik footage to Metro TV earlier that day. …

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