SAMPANG, Indonesia >> The problems began shortly after Tajul Muluk, a Shiite cleric, opened a boarding school in 2004. The school, in a predominantly Sunni Muslim part of East Java, raised local tensions, and in 2006 it was attacked by thousands of villagers, many of them wielding sickles. When a Sunni mob set fire to the school and several homes here last December, many Shiites saw it as just the latest episode in a simmering sectarian conflict — one they say has been ignored by the police and exploited by Islamists claiming to preserve the purity of the Muslim faith.
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 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, 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. Muluk plans to appeal. He denies the charges and says the verdict was politically engineered to appease local officials and religious leaders. Analysts say that 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.”
Only one person has been tried in connection with the arson attack on Muluk’s school and home. The district court in Sampang sentenced that person to three months in prison, a term that matched his detention period and led to his immediate release.
Days after the arson attack against Muluk and his followers, the local branch of the Indonesian Ulema Council, or MUI, an influential grouping of Muslim clerics, issued a fatwa, or decree, against 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.
Throughout his blasphemy trial, 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.”
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 Quran and changing fundamental aspects of worship — for instance, holding that prayer is only required three times daily, rather than five.
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. Others include Christians whose churches have been closed under pressure from Islamic hard-liners, and members of the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect many mainstream Muslims consider heretical for not believing that Muhammad was the last prophet. An assault against an Ahmadi community in western Java last year led to the fatal beatings of three adherents.
The Wahid Institute, a liberal Islamic research organization working with some national lawmakers to draft a law on the protection of religious minorities, reported a 16 percent rise in cases of religious intolerance between 2010 and 2011, including threats of violence, arson and discrimination on the basis of religion.
Rights advocates accuse the police of turning a blind eye to such actions and accuse the national government of yielding to Islamic hard-liners for political gain. They point to the 2008 presidential decree that prohibits “proselytizing” by the Ahmadiyah.
“The government tries to accommodate these groups, they try to buy their influence,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, based in Jakarta. Officials, however, deny that the 2008 decree or any of the recent anti-Shiite fatwas contravene the constitution, saying they are necessary to prevent social conflict. The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, although the government requires every citizen to declare an affiliation with one of the six official religions, including Islam.
“If individuals practice a different form of religion, which is against the principles of other religions, this creates disunity and animosity,” said Teuku Faizasyah, a special adviser to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Most agree Indonesia has greatly expanded freedom of speech and expression since the end of Suharto’s authoritarian rule in 1998. But the advent of democracy and the decentralization of power have also allowed a greater assertiveness by local religious leaders.
“The problem now is that the government isn’t serious about handling sectarian violence,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, which has been documenting the case in Sampang.
Harsono said punishments for those who abuse minority religious groups have been relatively mild, which “does not deter militants from recommitting violence.”
And despite comments about seeking to preserve social harmony, analysts say many senior officials, including Yudhoyono, are reluctant to crack down forcefully on rising intolerance for fear of appearing un-Islamic.
“This is very dangerous for Indonesia,” said Ahmad Suaedy, the executive director of the Wahid Institute. “The mission of the government is to protect the people, especially minorities. Five years ago this trend was only in the big cities, but it’s spreading very fast because the government has ignored this situation.”
One reason may be that the governing coalition includes several Islamist political parties. Analysts also cite a less centralized power structure under democracy, which has allowed local leaders to make decisions that contradict the central government. The country’s Muslim organizations are similarly divided, say religious scholars.
The national office of the MUI says it is still discussing whether to support fatwas against Shiites, while the Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the country’s largest Islamic organizations, whose stronghold is in East Java, says it does not want to get involved in local issues.
Until a few years ago, relations between the Sunnis and Shiites had been relatively calm in East Java. But, according to one of Muluk’s lawyers, Otman Ralibi Ali, Muluk threatened the power of several influential Sunni clerics who were running their own boarding schools. Some religious scholars also suggest that competition among the schools could be a factor driving the anti-Shiite movement.
Faizasyah, the presidential adviser, said the government was taking a “soft approach” to dealing with conflict by working with community leaders and urging them to do more to promote better relations between religious groups.
“The government can regulate, but in the end it’s the people who must embrace harmony among different faiths,” he said.