Religious movements formed around charismatic personalities are common enough in Indonesia.
Lia Aminuddin, under whose leadership the congregation known as the ‘Eden community’ has formed, is such a figure. In December 2005 Lia was detained and charged under Indonesia’s criminal code with denigrating religion (penodaan agama). Her story involves important questions concerning the rule of law in Indonesia, and state regulation of private religious activity.
Lia and her mission
Born in Ujungpandang in 1947, and of a Muslim background, Lia claims that during her youth she experienced contact with non-corporeal beings. In the nineties, she began to publicly state that the angel Gabriel had communicated with her, and she developed a small following.
Her followers appear to have been to some degree attracted by her mission to erase the boundaries between contemporary religions, returning to a ‘perennial’ spiritual reality. Nevertheless this congregation, which attended sessions led by Lia in her home in Central Jakarta, was not large, consisting of approximately 100 people, mostly from educated and affluent backgrounds.
She explained her mission in her 1997 book, Perkenankan Aku Menjelaskan Sebuah Takdir (Permit Me to Describe a Destiny). In it she claimed to have received teachings from Gabriel, who then ordered her to disseminate the teachings. These claims offer serious provocation to Muslims, as they replicate the process by which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through Gabriel.
Eventually, her mission brought a response from the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI). This gathering of religious scholars was formed in 1975 to provide advice to Indonesia’s Islamic community on matters of religion in daily life. Although it receives state funding, it has no legal powers under Indonesian law. MUI issued a fatwa (an opinion based on Islamic legal norms) in 1997 about Lia. MUI reasoned that Gabriel’s task was to convey revelation to prophets, and as Muhammad was the last prophet, it is impossible that the angel could appear to Lia. Accordingly, her claims were judged as false, and her teachings judged to be ‘deviant’ and ‘causing deviation’.
In late 2005, however, discontent with Lia took more unpleasant forms. In early December, Metro TV screened a sensational feature on the Eden community. Later that month some of Lia’s neighbours complained about disruptions caused by her congregation, even though they had tolerated it for many years. Mobs appeared in her street, demanding that local security officials put an end to the group’s practices. A ‘tabligh akbar’ (large preaching event) was planned by a neighbouring pesantren (religious school) to ‘correct’ Lia Aminuddin. It was to include speeches by ulama from the confrontationalist Defenders of Islam Front (FPI).
Fearing violence, security forces removed Lia and her congregation from her home on 29 December 2005. Only Lia was detained. She is still in prison, awaiting resolution of two charges; denigrating religion and incitement.
Constitution, law and Islam
The case has drawn comment on the law concerning denigration of religion. Some, such as Ulil Abshar-Abdalla and Professor Dawam Rahardjo, argue that Articles 28 and 29 of the Indonesian Constitution guarantee freedom of religion, and that Lia’s mission, despite its apparent inconsistency with Islamic doctrine, is therefore protected under Indonesian law. They envision a plural model for Indonesia’s Islamic society.
This vision is opposed by vocal groups such as MUI, who have released fatwa criticising the concepts of secularism, pluralism and liberalism. Lia’s case raises the question: should Indonesian law protect private religious practice, or regulate it?
In addition, it was easier for the security forces to arrest Lia and close down the activities of her congregation than to risk violent conflict with mobs whose members may belong to hardline Islamic organisations. Those who understand Indonesia’s Constitution as a framework providing protection to a plural and inclusive field of religious practice are being out-manoeuvred by a narrow, exclusionary understanding that is gaining ascendancy in large part through skillfully orchestrated threats of mob violence.
Julian Millie (Julian.Millie@adm.monash.edu.au) works at the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University. See also Bekti Dwi Indari’s article on Lia Aminuddin in Inside Indonesia No. 79, July–September 2004.