The good news came a few months ago when villagers in Sampang, Madura, who were caught in a deadly faith feud last year reconciled with their Shiite neighbors and invited them to return to their village.
On Sept. 12, dozens of villagers from Blu’uran and Karang Gayam, Sampang, signed a peace pact stating they were “ready to live side by side, respect and love each other as taught by our esteemed Prophet Muhammad”.
The peace pact flies against the claims of political elites who refuse to let the Shiites return to their land under the pretext that the local community will not accept them and that their return would create new violent conflicts. They were driven from their homes in Sampang after a Sunni mob attacked them and burned down their houses in August 2012. From the local regent to the religious affairs minister, all claim that unless the Shiites share the same beliefs as the rest of the community, deadly violence will occur.
Despite the peace pact, many remain wary. That the people of the villages are fed up with the animosity, want to end the conflict and want to live in peace is heartwarming, but is it enough to solve displacement and discrimination against the Shia community?
The answer is no. Even when people of Blu’uran and Karang Gayam, including those who participated in the attack, extended an unconditional invitation to the Shiites to return to their homes, the Religious Affairs Ministry continued to place prerequisites on the Shiites to be able to return home.
Recently, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who views the solution as conversion — though
his choice of wording is “enlightenment” — reportedly requested the Shiites to agree to stay in the haj dormitory for “reeducation” (pembinaan) before returning to their homes. Why the Shiites, who are only practicing their right to their beliefs, should be reeducated instead of those who set houses on fire, explains the nature of those flames.
There is something more to this Shia persecution than a group of villagers being intolerant toward their neighbors with different beliefs. The dubious reasoning of political elites to sacrifice victims of violence to prevent violence tells of something menacing within the system.
The portrayal of local animosity toward Shiites is merely an excuse for an abuse of power by certain political elites who are part of mainstream Sunni Islam to impose their beliefs.
Consider the events leading up to the attack on Aug. 26. Starting from 2004, religious cleric Ali Kharar started to give sermons with warnings against the “defiant” Shia teachings being spread by Tajul Muluk. Following Ali’s request, Sampang administrative leaders along with local clerics pressured Tajul to “repent” and embrace Sunni teachings.
In 2006, hundreds of people intimidated Tajul and his followers into returning to Sunni teachings. In 2011, the leaders ordered Tajul to move from Sampang to Malang.
After his house was attacked in 2011 by a mob, he was taken to court for blasphemy and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Even before the Aug. 26 attack against the Shiites, the local religious and political establishments in Sampang were systematically pressuring the Shiites to renounce their faith for Sunni teachings.
After the attack, which is plausibly the result of the demagoguery of hard-line clerics, the state ignored the Shiites’ wish to return home and instead has taken their land in exchange for allegiance to Sunni teachings. The only members of the Shiite community that have returned to their villages are those who have signed a pledge in front of the local authorities to condemn Tajul’s teachings and to return to “the true teaching of Islam”.
The peace pact between the Sunni representatives and Shiites should signal that the people can and are willing to live among neighbors with different beliefs. But in a regime that promotes bigotry, this gesture toward tolerance and peace could almost mean nothing.
A peace pact signed by the very people the political elites say are hostile toward the Shiites would not suffice to end the persecution, precisely because the state, with its deep entanglement with the Sunni religious establishment, is the intolerance force. And this condition extends to not only the persecution of Shiites, but also the Ahmadis, the Christians and non-believers.
There is a paradox of arrogance and insecurity in religious intolerance. Those who practice intolerance claim to hold the monopoly on truth and believe they have the authority to pass judgments on who are “defiant” or “misguided”. On the other hand, they feel threatened by these “lesser” beliefs so much so that they feel the need to silence, contain and even eliminate them.
The minister’s “enlightenment” project is an insult to the Shiites. It is disrespectful and is a violation of their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedoms clearly guaranteed by our Constitution. The idea that the Shiites (or followers of Tajul Muluk, the misguided, the deviants) need to be “reeducated” is uncomfortably and dangerously similar to justifications of many history’s violent conquests to “civilize” the savages.
The damage done by intolerant religious elements hijacking the state apparatus is clearly felt by those being persecuted. But it does not stop there. In every persecution of religious minorities in this
country, those actively impinging other’s rights to religious freedom are creating an arrogant and insecure image of Sunni Islam. Bullying people into submitting to “the true teaching of Islam” is not in line with the image of a peaceful and loving religion they champion.
Hopefully, the next time they open the Koran they will come across the verse that came when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were the ones being persecuted in Mecca: For you is your faith, and for me, my faith.
Prodita Sabarini, Cambridge | Opinion | Tue, November 19 2013
Published in The Jakarta Post