By Ahmad Suaedy
JAKARTA: In Yogyakarta, the cultural center of the island of Java in Indonesia, the governor, Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, has set an interesting precedent by refusing to ban the Ahmadiyah religious group. The group was founded by a 19th century Indian religious leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed he was the promised Messiah foretold by the Prophet Muhammad. Though Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim, mainstream Muslims disagree with the belief that the Messiah has returned and therefore consider their teachings blasphemy.
The right to freedom of expression and organization in Indonesia, granted in 1998, has provided fuel for the emergence of a wide variety of civil society groups. Unfortunately, not all of these groups reflect the positive aspirations of the Indonesian people and a small but significant number of these groups have chosen violence as a way of making their demands heard.
The Ahmadi community has sadly borne the brunt of this violence in recent months, often at the hands of minority extremist religious groups who believe the Ahmadiyah faith is heretical.
In an attempt to avoid confrontation and violence in their regions by appeasing militant groups, governors in Banten and East and West Java, as well as some local regents and mayors, have issued decrees that ban the practice of the Ahmadiyah faith to “prevent further violence”. This means rather than protecting the Ahmadis, the government places the blame for violence and disorder on the victims of the violence.
Yogyakarta is a province that has inherited an effective traditional government. In addition to serving as Governor, the Sultan – as he is also known – is a traditional ruler who, although not elected, has a very close relationship with his people. The Sultan’s predecessor held an important role in the founding of the Republic of Indonesia and as a result this position is still respected by the central government and his actions often have national importance, as well as setting examples informally for other government officials and regional leaders.
The Sultan persistently maintains the local tradition of tolerance towards emerging cultures by providing opportunities for newly formed groups to develop, regardless of their ideology, provided they do not attack and endanger other groups. He sets an example for his constituents, demonstrating that they must look past differences, religious or otherwise, and co-exist peacefully.
Because the Sultan shows respect for his people and their differences, the majority of the people have respect for him in return. Such a unique relationship has empowered the Sultan to stand speak out in objection to the ban on practicing the Ahmadiyah faith despite opposition from, or the need to pander to, minority groups that support the ban, even those who sometimes resort to violence.
His example stands to show how politics that are divisive and potentially violent are unsustainable. While intolerant policies might be popular among the vocal minority, it will only diminish the popularity of rulers among the majority of their constituents and in fact goes against the bond of traditional leadership — to treat all groups equally — that is still respected by the majority of Indonesians.
Indonesia’s formal political establishment should consider the example of the Sultan of Yogyakarta as an opportunity to reconnect culturally with citizens by reaffirming its commitment to protect citizens from the threat of violence without discrimination, and to uphold the rights of all citizens to organize and practice their beliefs. Above all, they must lead the people through example, rather than pursuing short-term political goals.
Informal leaders, especially religious leaders, can also play a role as moral authorities who can encourage unity over division and act as voices of reason. They can educate their communities in the messages of tolerance and peaceful co-existence, and provide guidance and the necessary moral courage for the government to do their job.
While voices supporting violence and negative conflict avoidance techniques, such as banning groups that are sometimes the target of violence, are often given the loudest megaphones through which to speak, it is important to highlight the silent strength of those who choose instead the quieter and often more difficult path of tolerance and peace.
Ahmad Suaedy is Executive Director of the Wahid Institute and a member of the Policy Board of the Fahmina Institute. This article is part of a series on religious leaders speaking out, written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).