Not all mosques welcome in Indonesia, world’s most populous Muslim-majority country

By Daina Beth Solomon 

DEPOK, Indonesia —  A yellow placard hangs across the doorway of a mosque outside the capital of Jakarta with a warning: “This building is sealed.”  

Disobeying the government order, some 400 congregants enter through a side door at Al-Hidayah Mosque. The sign is a persistent reminder that their small sect of Islam, Ahmadiyya, is not welcome here.  

Across Indonesia over the past decade, officials have shut down the mosques of Ahmadis, whose beliefs differ from the majority of Muslims. 

Conservative Muslims who call Ahmadiyya “deviant” have pelted worshippers with stones. Other Ahmadis have been uprooted from their homes, pressured by neighbors to join mainstream Islam. Although new President Joko Widodo has promised reform, Ahmadis fear that the trend of persecution will continue — fuel for the erratic fire of Indonesia’s political system. 

“It’s happening since I was a child, before I realized that this is discrimination, before I realized that this is a crime,” said Ahmadi activist Firdaus Mubarik, standing before the sealed door. “I will not leave Ahmadiyya just because people hate me.”

Islam is the dominant faith in Indonesia, a country with what is officially a secular government. Even so, the nation does not embrace all forms of Islam. Shia rank as second class in the majority Sunni nation. Ahmadis comprise an even smaller segment, making them especially vulnerable to persecution.

Their greatest sin, traditionalists say, is denying that Muhammad, who gave birth to Islam in the sixth century, is the final prophet. Instead, they look to 19th century Indian scholar Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as another messenger of God.

Incidents of persecution against Ahmadiyya have been stacking up since Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator for three decades, stepped down in 1998. As the country swung toward democracy, the military let up on its civil society crackdown. Hardliners emerged from the shadows and began to exert political influence.

Ten years later, the government issued a decree prohibiting public Ahmadiyya activity — especially missionary work. Offenders risk imprisonment of up to five years.

Since 2008, more than 60 mosques have been vandalized and 45 were forced to close, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. An Ahmadiyya leader was jailed for two years after declaring plans to re-open his mosque. 

At times, violence has erupted: Three Ahmadis in Banten were killed by a mob in 2011, having been hit with stones, sticks and machetes. And more than 100 Ahmadis live in a refugee camp, displaced from their Lombok village that anti-Ahmadi attacks wrecked in 2007. Officials rarely intervene.

“They hope that if they can close the mosque, they can convert the Ahmadiyya Muslim back to [mainstream] Islam,” said Firdaus Mubarik.

Scholars estimate that roughly 400,000 Ahmadis live in Indonesia — the world’s fourth most populous country at 250 million people.

The movement formed in colonial India in the late 1800s, when a reformer named Ahmad began calling himself the messiah. As his followers immigrated to Indonesia in the mid-1920s, they distributed Ahmadiyya literature and attracted converts.

Ahmadis have also found homes in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, the United Kingdom and the US, with varying levels of acceptance among Muslim neighbors. In Pakistan, the constitution calls the group a “non-Muslim minority,” and Ahmadis have often come under attack. 

The Indonesian government considers all Muslims to be members of one of its six recognized religions — monotheistic faiths that include Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. 

The country’s constitutional model of multi-faith diversity is called Pancasila, which has helped give Indonesia its reputation as a pluralistic democracy, especially when compared with Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. 

But putting Pancasila into practice can be fraught with conflicting political and religious interests, said Tina Mufford of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Even being an officially recognized religion doesn’t completely protect you,” she said.

Police sealed the Al-Hidayah Mosque of Depok in 2011, a decade after it first opened its doors. For the next three years, mosque leaders struggled for permission to reopen — but police came to reinforce the seal more than five times, said mosque president Yendra Budiana. Going to the courts didn’t work, he said, so they tried the “personal approach.” After speaking with several local officials, the mosque quietly defied the government’s order of closure and reopened at the beginning of 2015. 

“We know there are a few communities that promote and practice intolerance,” said Yendra Budiana, seated for an interview at the mosque alongside five other Ahmadiyya leaders. For now, he said, “we don’t have problem.”

The mosque complex holds a one-room prayer hall, with marbled green tiles coating the exterior. There is also a pair of narrow, two-story buildings with conference rooms, activity spaces and residences. A blue banner hangs over the courtyard proclaiming the Ahmadiyya doctrine: “Love for all hatred for none.”

That idea has not always been reciprocated. And in some ways, it’s the democratic process that’s to blame, said Zainal Abigin Bagir, a religious studies scholar at Gadjah Mada University. 

As power is increasingly distributed away from Jakarta and to the province and city levels, local politicians are using minority groups like Ahmadiyya as scapegoats to drum up support.

“Now they have to fight to get votes,” said Bagir, adding that officials often follow the majority opinion, not daring to risk unpopular stances. “Pressure from certain Muslim groups can be very significant.” 

Some of these Muslim groups, such as the Islamic Defenders Front, fiercely promote conservative religious beliefs, said Bonar Tigor Naispospos of Setara Institute, a religious rights watchdog group.

“They are trying to show the public that…they are the ones that struggle for ‘real’ Islam,” he said. One way to capture support is by attacking Ahmadiyya, the “heretical” Islam.

Groups that do not necessarily oppose Ahmadiyya have found it hard to come to the rescue. They, too, must preserve the image of “real Islam,” said Naispospos.

While Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiya, oppose violence against Ahmadiyya, neither has officially offered protection.

“They worry that the public is questioning their integrity to Islam,” said Naispospos, seated in his office on a narrow residential street on the outskirts of Jakarta. The central government, meanwhile, is too weak to intervene. Its main objective is to keep political stability, which often translates to placating majority groups, he said.

For this reason Yendra Budiana, the Ahmadiyya mosque’s leader, said he doesn’t expect the central government to come to his aid in Depok.

“In Indonesia, if you’re talking about religion, you’re talking about politics and power,” he said. That power is in the hands of the regional officials. “In Depok, every Election Day…we prepare, ” he said.  

In the fall of 2014, President Widodo took office vowing to improve religious tolerance. Widodo is widely considered an improvement over his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who once said, “We must all take strict measures against deviant beliefs,”according to a report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide

The government issued an anti-Ahmadiyya decree under his watch in 2008. With approval from the minister of religious affairs, the minister of home affairs and the attorney general, the decree bans Ahmadis from proselytizing. In the decree’s words, according to Human Rights Watch, Ahmadis must “stop spreading interpretations and activities which deviate from the principal teachings of Islam.” 

One of these core beliefs is that Muhammad was a messenger of God — and his teachings as written in the Quran are final. For those who spread teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, punishment can be as harsh as five years’ imprisonment. 

When the decree was issued, Indonesian officials said it would prevent violence against Ahmadiyya. But Ahmadis have encountered the opposite. According to Setara Institute, three attacks occurred in 2006. In 2010, the number jumped to 50. The following year, the amount doubled, reaching 118.

Meanwhile, the national decree prompted local officials to create their own regulations.  On islands across Indonesia, decrees seek to erase the Ahmadi public presence in signs, electronic materials, printed publications and oral statements. 

When Widodo took office in October, he named Lukman Hakim Saifuddin to the Religious Affairs Ministry to pave the way for improved rights. Lukman has since discussed writing a bill that would protect Indonesia’s religious minorities from harassment in this archipelagic country of 17,000 islands. For the Ahmadiyya, it could possibly dismantle the 2008 decree. 

“We need to respect each other,” Lukman said in a recent interview at the ministry, adding that government should strive to “maintain the religious harmony.” He revealed few other details, and the actual text of the bill has not been completed. Some believe the “harmony” that Lukman wishes to foster is a euphemism for protecting only majority sects of Islam.

“When you do not follow mainstream interpretation, you do not become ‘harmony,’” said Riska Argadianti Rachmah, an Ahmadi program officer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute. “It depends on what they think is religious harmony.”

Indonesians are skeptical that such a bill could even pass. They say that it would be harshly criticized by Muslim groups concerned about appearing anti-Islamic or too liberal.

“I don’t think Mr. Lukman, even the Jokowi administration, will take that brave stand,” said Naispospos. “Not too optimistic.” 

In Depok, the Ahmadis predict police may shut down their mosque once more, come next Election Day. They say they will keep resisting.

“This is automatically the consequence of belief,” said the mosque leader Yendra Budiana. “So we stay here every time. No matter government support or not, because we leave it to God.”