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Religious ‘deviancy’ and law

Religious ‘deviancy’ and law
Published: Aug 28, 2011

The escalation of violent attacks prompts some local governments to ban the activities of Ahmadiyah

An anti-Ahmadiyah poster: ‘Ahmadiyah is the enemy of Islam…’
Melissa Crouch

Melissa Crouch

In February 2011, three Ahmadi followers were killed and at least five were injured in a brutal attack on an Ahmadiyah community in the subdistrict of Cikeusik in the province of Banten. Graphic footage of this disturbing attack circulated widely on the internet and brought the issue of Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect, to the attention of international media.
The plight of Ahmadiyah remains an ongoing issue of concern. The Cikeusik incident has not only prompted renewed debate about Ahmadiyah, but also led to the enactment of measures by provincial and district governments to further restrict Ahmadiyah activity. This is at odds with the history of relatively peaceful co-existence that Ahmadiyah has enjoyed in Indonesia throughout much of the twentieth century. 

Origins of the movement

Ahmadiyah has been present in Indonesia since the 1920s, when Ahmadi teachers first came as part of the Ahmadi missionary movement from India. This religious movement originated in India in the mid-1880s, and was named after its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. From the beginning, Ahmad declared Ahmadiyah to be an Islamic movement. His teachings, however, differ in several respects from traditional Islamic doctrine and have therefore been a source of tension for many conservative Islamic religious leaders. The greatest conflict with orthodox Islam is caused by Ahmad’s claim that revelation did not cease with the Prophet Muhammad, but that he himself was the spirit of the Prophet incarnate or the mahdi, the Messiah expected by Muslims to arrive before the end of the world to lead the faithful.

Since Ahmad’s death in 1908, there have been ongoing differences within Ahmadiyah over the leadership of the group and over the status and authority of the founder. As a consequence of disagreements about these issues, Ahmadiyah split into two factions, Lahore and Qadiani. Ahmadiyah Lahore, named after the birthplace of its first leader, Muhammad Ali of Lahor, accepts the founder Ahmad as a reformer, but not as another prophet after the Prophet Muhammad. On the other hand, Ahmadiyah Qadiani, named after the birthplace of Ahmad, accepts Ahmad’s claims to prophethood. 

These two factions are known in Indonesia as Gerakan Ahmadiyah Indonesia (GAI), which is the Lahore branch, and Jemaat Ahmadiyah Indonesia (JAI), which is the Qadiani branch. Although the disputes concerning Ahmadiyah in Indonesia have primarily involved the Qadiani branch, which is the larger group, those who oppose Ahmadiyah do not always distinguish between the two streams. Together, these groups claim a membership of between 100,000 to 300,000 followers across the archipelago.

Opposition to Ahmadiyah

Since its arrival in Indonesia, some mainstream Islamic religious leaders have denounced Ahmadiyah and its teachings as ‘deviant’. Most prominent among its opponents is the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) which issued a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) against Ahmadiyah in 1980 and again in 2005. Many radical Islamic groups continue to express their opposition to Ahmadiyah in the form of demonstrations and violent attacks.

One of the most prominent incidents was the attack on supporters of Ahmadiyah by radical Islamic groups that took place on 1 June 2008 at the National Monument in Jakarta. On this day, a peaceful rally was held by activists of the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Faith, a coalition representing over 70 organisations in support of the right to religious freedom. During this rally, around 400 members of radical Islamic groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front, Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia and the Islamic Community Forum, violently attacked the Alliance demonstrators with clubs and sticks. Around 70 people were injured, some hospitalised, with many also suffering trauma as a result of the attack. 

Demonstrators assembled at the National Monument in Jakarta on 1 June 2008 to show support for
Ahmadiyah. The banner reads ‘Stop violence in the name of religion’
Salbiyah Mushanif

This incident prompted the Department of Religion, the Attorney General and the Department of Home Affairs to issue a joint regulation several days later as a ‘warning’ to followers of Ahmadiyah. It made four key points. First, it warned citizens not to support or conduct activities that ‘deviate’ from the teachings of the six state-sponsored religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism). Second, it warned followers of Ahmadiyah not to promote ‘deviant’ teachings, namely the belief in a prophet after Muhammad. Third, it informed followers of Ahmadiyah that if they did not comply with this warning they would be liable to penalties under existing laws, although such penalties were not specified in any further detail. Fourth, it prohibited vigilantism, presumably in response to the National Monument incident, by warning the public that vigilante action against Ahmadiyah would not be tolerated.

This warning, however, has failed to prevent further violent attacks against Ahmadis, such as the incident in Cikeusik. In addition, the warning has provided justification for local government authorities intent on banning Ahmadiyah.

Banning Ahmadiyah

Provincial and district regulations that seek to ban Ahmadiyah are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia, with at least 40 district or provincial governments passing bans on the group’s activities since the 1970s. 

There has, however, been an increase in the number of district and provincial governments that have issued regulations to limit the activities of Ahmadiyah. On 28 February 2011, for example, the Governor of East Java issued a ban on Ahmadiyah in that province. It prohibited the spread of the teachings of Ahmadiyah in written, oral or electronic form. It also banned the use of the name ‘Jemaat Ahmadiyah Indonesia’, the largest Ahmadiyah organisation in Indonesia, on public sign boards, or on billboards marking mosques and educational institutions. 

At least 40 district or provincial governments have passed bans on Ahmadiyah or its activities since the 1970s

Just three days later, on 2 March, the Governor of West Java issued a regulation banning the activities of Ahmadiyah in the province. This regulation borrows some key provisions from the East Java regulation, and extends its scope by creating an investigative team with the specific task of monitoring the Ahmadiyah community in the province. The regulation also gives power to local authorities – including the police, local government, community leaders and the Indonesian Ulama Council – to inform and educate the community about this regulation.

In addition to provincial governments, a number of district governments have passed regulations banning Ahmadiyah. One of the most recent of these was issued in Depok, where 300 Ahmadis have been under investigation by the Department of Religion, the Indonesian Council of Ulamas and State Intelligence since November 2010. As a result of this investigation, on 9 March 2011 the mayor, Nurmahmudi Ismail, banned Ahmadiyah activity in the district. There are also plans for a special enforcement team to oversee and monitor the activities of Ahmadiyah in Depok. 

Human rights groups and Ahmadiyah have indicated that they may challenge these regulations. If a case for judicial review were taken to court, one of the main issues would be whether local governments have the power to make laws on matters of religion. Under Law No. 32/2004 on Regional Governance, the national government has the right to legislate on several key matters of national concern, including religion. To prove local governments are acting outside these powers, it would need to be shown that these regulations on Ahmadiyah attempt to address matters of religion. 

Radical Islamic groups attacked peaceful demonstrators at the National Monument on 1 June 2008
Salbiyah Mushanif

Local authorities claim a number of legal justifications for the laws. One of these is the argument that the regulations are not about religion, but about public order and social harmony. Law No. 32/2004 does grant provincial and local governments the power to make regulations in regard to these issues. Some governments claim that this gives them authority to issue regulations on Ahmadiyah. Human rights groups argue that if this is the case, governments should ban the radical Islamic groups who perpetrate violent attacks on Ahmadiyah rather than their victims.

Another possibility is based on the 2008 national Joint Decree on Ahmadiyah. Some provincial and local governments claim that the decree delegates powers on this issue to local authorities. A Joint Circular from the Ministry of Religion and the Ministry of Home Affairs, issued in August 2008, permitted local governments to take necessary steps to ensure compliance with this decree, such as monitoring the Ahmadiyah community to ensure they do not ‘deviate’ from the teachings of Islam. 

A final justification might come from Presidential Decree No. 1/1965, which is commonly referred to in Indonesia as the Blasphemy Law. Under this law, only the Minister of Religion, the Attorney General and the Minister of Home Affairs have the power to issue a warning to a religious group which, if not complied with, could lead to a ban by the President. The Blasphemy Law, however, does not grant provincial or local governments the right to warn or ban a group. 

These issues have yet to be brought before a court, but what is clear is that these recent provincial and district regulations reflect the increasingly conservative positions being expressed at ministerial level. In October 2010 – the same month that the national government announced that it was reviewing the 2008 decree – the Minister of Religion, Suryadharma Ali, publically declared that the best solution to the problem was to ban Ahmadiyah in Indonesia. In February 2011, the Department of Home Affairs was reported in the media as stating that local governments are allowed to pass regulations on Ahmadiyah as long as they do not conflict with the 2008 decree. This statement appeared to legitimise the actions of local governments that have passed such regulations, despite unresolved questions over whether they hold the legal power to do so.

Future challenges

In stark contrast to some other Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, where Ahmadiyah followers are constantly subject to violent attacks and charges of blaspheming Islam, Ahmadiyah has existed in relative peace in Indonesia for over 80 years. Ongoing pressure from radical Islamic groups and from leaders of some mainstream Islamic organisations now threaten its existence. 

The ongoing vigilante attacks against Ahmadis, combined with local regulations banning the activities of Ahmadiyah, should not be viewed as unrelated events. In fact, incidents such as the killing in Cikeusik appear to have inspired an increasing number of local governments to introduce bans. The unwillingness of law enforcement agencies to prevent attacks, combined with the inaction of the national government, contributes to the uncertain future of Ahmadiyah in Indonesia. That future requires the government and religious leaders to negotiate an outcome that is consistent with Indonesia’s rich history of pluralism and tolerance. 

Melissa Crouch ( is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne Law School, the University of Melbourne. She is a principal research assistant on Professor Tim Lindsey’s Federation Fellowship project, ‘Islam and Modernity’ in the same faculty.

Inside Indonesia 105: Jul-Sep 2011

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