Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Tolerance Tested in Indonesia ; Tension between Sunnis and Shiites Rises, Casting Doubt on Moderate Image

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Tolerance Tested in Indonesia ; Tension between Sunnis and Shiites Rises, Casting Doubt on Moderate Image

Article excerpt

The assumption that Indonesia is a model of moderation, a place where Islam can work with democracy, has been repeatedly tested lately by Sunni and Shiite tensions.

When a Sunni mob set fire to a Shiite boarding school and several homes here last December, many Shiites saw it as just the latest incident in a simmering religious conflict -- one they say has been ignored by the police and exploited by Islamists claiming to preserve the purity of the Muslim faith.

Tensions began shortly after the school's founding in 2004 by Tajul Muluk, a Shiite cleric in a predominantly Sunni community. In 2006, the school was attacked by thousands of villagers, many of them wielding sickles. Analysts say that Mr. Muluk challenged the Sunni-led power structure in his village, making him a target of local leaders tied to a growing anti-Shiite movement in East Java.

"Most conflicts are hitched to local politics," said Ken Conboy, a security consultant who has tracked rising religious intolerance in Indonesia. "They're based in communal, ethnic, tribal differences, but it's something that can be wielded by community and religious leaders to their advantage."

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, has long been considered a model of moderation, a place where different religious and ethnic groups can live in harmony and where Islam can work with democracy.

But that assumption has been repeatedly tested of late. In East Java, where Mr. Muluk lives, local Sunni leaders are pushing the provincial government to adopt a regulation limiting the spread of Shiite Islam. It would bar the country's two major Shiite organizations from organizing activities like prayer gatherings and sermons.

As a Shiite, Mr. Muluk is now part of an increasingly threatened minority in an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim society. Last Thursday, he was sentenced to two years in prison for violating a 1965 presidential decree against blasphemy by promoting a heretical interpretation of Islam. Mr. Muluk plans to appeal. He denies the charges and says the verdict was politically engineered to appease local officials and religious leaders.

Meanwhile, only one person has been tried in connection with the arson attack on Mr. Muluk's school and home. The district court in Sampang sentenced him to three months in prison, a term that matched his detention period and led to his immediate release.

Throughout his trial, Mr. Muluk appeared both stoic and incredulous. His wife, Ummu Kulsum, sat in the back of the courtroom, the couple's five children left behind in the room they share in place of the home that was destroyed. They are rebuilding from the fire, she said, but relations in the village remain fraught.

"People in the village are trying to force us to join their religion," she said. "We will hold out, because it is our right. We have the freedom to choose our religion."

Days after the arson attack against Mr. Muluk and his followers, the local branch of the Indonesian Ulema Council, or MUI, an influential grouping of Muslim clerics, issued a fatwa against Mr. Muluk, saying his teachings "tarnished" Islam, were heretical and should be subject to prosecution.

"In Islam you have to be clean, focused and unified," said Bukhori Maksum, the chairman of the council in Sampang.

Mr. Maksum said that Shiite teachings match the 10 criteria for heresy issued by the national council in 2007. Those include denying the authenticity of the Koran and changing fundamental aspects of worship -- for instance, holding that prayer is only required three times daily, rather than five.

Mr. Maksum said that Shiites in Sampang practice Islam in a way that disturbs society and could lead to deeper conflicts. "MUI Sampang has the obligation to respond to this situation, because if we did not, there would be bigger problems," he said.

The Shiite minority is not the only target of rising intolerance in Indonesia. …

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