Sampang regent ‘sides’ with the ulema

Sampang Regent Noer Tjahja is upset. A protracted disagreement over faith has turned deadly in his little town of less than 1 million people in Madura.

And worst yet, according to him, since the news of the attack against followers of the imprisoned Shia cleric Tajul Muluk surfaced, no one had got it right.

Some 300 meters across the road from where hundreds of Shiites take shelter at an indoor tennis stadium, Noer was sitting on the side of an outdoor tennis court.

Taking a break from his Saturday morning tennis, he met with The Jakarta Post. His brows furrowed, his deep big voice echoed across the court while he lambasted the media, the Jakarta political elites and human rights organizations for their comments.

Two people died in the Aug. 26 attack against Shiites in Blu’uran and Karang Gayam villages by a Sunni mob of over 1,000 people. The mob razed 37 houses in Blu’uran and Karang Gayam villages, displacing around 270 Shiites.

Since the attack, many had put in their two cents. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono blamed lack of police intelligence, poor early detection, and a solidarity alliance in Sampang accused Madura clerics and the regent of being behind the anti-Shia movement in Sampang.

Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi and Constitutional Court judge Mafud MD have said that the government would protect the rights of the Shia minority, promising to rebuild the houses of victims and guarantee their safety.

But Noer, elected in 2007, said any information about the conflict and its solution in Sampang from anyone other than him was wrong. He said he would like to meet the President to give his opinions on the conflict.

“I’ll tell him the true chronology, ‘If [Yudhoyono] receives information other than from me. It’s wrong. It’s wrong even if it’s from your aides. Don’t listen to it’,” he said.

“In all actuality we don’t have a Shia problem. The problem is about a family feud and a defiant sect — blasphemy…” Noer added.

The regent was referring to a feud between Tajul and his brother Roisul Hukamah, a convert to Sunni from Shia whose report on Tajul over blasphemy had brought the latter to court.

The court sentenced Tajul to two years in prison. Rois, as he is popularly known, is currently the sole suspect in the Sunday attacks.

“This is like a minority group is forcing their will on the majority. You shouldn’t turn it the other way around. Those in Jakarta are twisted. I have 900,000 residents. Of course I will prefer the dominant position,” he said.

Last Thursday, Iklil, Tajul’s brother, who has been staying with the rest of the refugees at the tennis stadium, walked across the street to the regent’s office. He has been wearing the same outfit for days, a white T-shirt and blue jeans. His house was among those burned by the mob.

That day, legislators from the House of Representatives visited Sampang from Jakarta to learn about the conflict. The members of Commission III had lunch with the regent and his staff at his office. Sampang ulema from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and The Sampang chapter of the Indonesian Muslim Council (MUI) were also present.

Iklil said that he was asked to come there.

“I walked to the pendopo [the regent’s office] but they were already finished. So, I walked back here,” he said.

Noer visited the refugee camp once, a day after the attack. But, until Saturday, he has been tight lipped on Sampang’s administration’s plan for the victims.

Sampang MUI and NU leaders, Bukhori Maksum and Syafi’uddin Wahid, who hold a lot of clout in Sampang politics, have stated that Shiites will not be accepted on their land.

As of writing, the refugees are still sleeping on mattresses inside the stadium.

“We want to return to our lands,” Iklil said. Rumors about relocation plans have been flying around. Iklil flatly refuses to be sent away. “It’s our homeland and we’re also worried that if we become banished people from our own land, how can we be sure that we would not face the same problem elsewhere?” he said.

From jail, Tajul echoes his brother’s statement. He also said he refuses “relocation” plans because it would give a bad image of Sampang people.

In a Sidoarjo jail, Tajul wears the orange T-shirt of prisoners. He has been transferred to Sidoarjo after the Aug. 26 attack in Sampang. Tajul and his lawyers deem that it would be safer for Tajul to not be in Sampang.

Tajul’s view is that the Sampang administration want to kick his followers out of Sampang, just like they did to him. In 2011, the Sampang administration made him move to Malang to appease the ulema in Sampang.

Ever since Tajul returned from the Middle East in 1999, and started to become a local cleric, teaching his Shia beliefs to the community in his village, local clerics have persistently pressurized Tajul to return to Sunni teachings and stop his clerical activities. The cleric who first attempted to make Tajul “repent” in 2005 was Ali Kharrar, Tajul’s
grandfather’s brother in-law.

Noer Tjahja refuses to call Tajul Muluk followers Shiites. Shia, a denomination in Islam, believes the leadership of Islam was to remain with the prophet Muhammad’s bloodline. Despite the differences with the mainstream Sunni teachings, the national MUI has never released an edict that Shia is deviant.

The Sampang court found Tajul guilty of blasphemy on the basis that he stated that the current holy Koran was not authentic. Noer believes that the refugees are adhering to a deviant teaching based on that court’s decision.

Noer also says that he follows the Sampang MUI and NU who have released edicts that Tajul’s teachings were deviant.

Noer says that unless Tajul followers “repent” and the community accept them back, rebuilding homes in the area is not an option. “If the houses were rebuilt, it’s like sending people to hot embers,” he said. Due to strong rejection of the Shia minority from the community, if the latter refused to leave, “lives are at stake here”, he said.

Tajul’s lawyer Abdullah Djoepriyono said that faith was a personal issue that the government could not force on anyone.

But, Noer said that he did not care if he violated human rights, as long as he saved the majority in Sampang.

To illustrate the community’s hostility toward the Shia group, Noer said that when the body of Muhammad Khosim or Hamama, 50, the Shiite who died of machete wounds, was taken back to his village, his neighbors refused to let him be buried in the public cemetary.

“The community rejects not only Tajul but the whole group,” he said.

The Blu’uran and Karang Gayam villages where Tajul’s followers come from are small farming communities. In the dry season, such as now, the produce from the fields is tobacco leaves. These fields turn into rice fields during the rainy season.

After the attack, three companies of Brimob officers were deployed to the area. Next to tobacco fields and village houses, officers holding rifles stand guard.

At Blu’uran villagers are sitting inside a bamboo gazebo. A man and a woman stack tobacco leaves into a pile. Others watch television. Mela, 30, a young mother feeds her toddler instant noodles.

“Yes I know that there are Shia people there,” she says. “I don’t know them though,” she added. The burned house of the Shiite family was separated by one house from the gazebo. She said she did not know anything about the attack.

Young men in sarongs standing in front of village houses also say they did not hear anything on Sunday.

According to a Brimob officer from Surabaya, the people in Blu’uran were very private and kept their distance from outsiders. He said that he had asked for days about what happened there, but all he got was “I don’t know”.

A Madurese Brimob officer, Junaidi, told the Post that people in these villages lived together and knew each other. Both Shia and Sunni people worked together in the fields.

He said that people became suspicious of Tajul when they saw how from three to four people coming to Tajul’s small mosque on Friday prayers, his congregation grew until the mosque could not contain the followers. “They overflow outside the mosque,” he said.

But, not all people were disturbed by the increasing popularity of the Shia group. Muhyin, a 21-year-old Shiite, said that a Sunni family hid him when the burning was going on.

According to Tajul, politics is at play in the persecution of Shiites in Sampang. He said that the pressure and eventual attack against Shiite groups happened because Noer continued to follow the wishes of local ulema there.

Noer acknowledges that. Running for election in December to secure his current position, he said he will do whatever the ulema wants.

“The ulema owns Sampang, I am merely a worker for them,” he said, adding that he follows the local customary convention in Madura in which holds the ulema in higher respect than the government.

For Noer, whatever the ulema say in Madura, is his command.

Wahyoe Boediwhardana contributed to the reporting.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Sampang, East Java | National | Sun, September 09 2012

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