Sampang revisited – where’s compassion?

Nearly seven  months ago, I went to Sampang, a small town in Madura Island off the northeastern tip of Java. Around 200 Shiites were taking refuge in a indoor tennis court. Their houses razed to the ground by an angry Sunni mob. I went there and talked to the people: the stories can be read here, here and here.

I’ve worked on different stories since and however disheartening what happened in Sampang, it slowly slipped my mind. Until a few days ago, I thought of them, and wondered about how they were doing. When I was there, the Sampang regent was adamant that he would not let them return to their houses, even though they were forcibly displaced by religious vigilantes. Has he changed his mind?

Apparently not. Andy Irfan, from East Java Commision of Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) said they were still in the same tennis indoor court.

Worse still as their fate is in limbo, the court ruled the only person the police arrested over the attack as not guilty. No one from the thousand of people who burned down people’s houses is held accountable.

Madura is famous for the many Islamic boarding schools in the island. They call it the land of ulemas. But, why is there no compassion and justice in that island?

*Human Rights Watch released last month a report on religious intolerance and violence. See HRW’s report here and the government’s response here.

In the land of ulema, the price of breaking with the past

The attacks and killings in Blu’uran and Karang Gayam villages did not only send tremors through Sampang, but have shaken Jakarta’s elites. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono held an impromptu meeting with aides and sent his top officials to Sampang. Jakarta blames poor intelligence for not detecting the seeds of conflict sooner.

In his office in Sampang, Rudy Setiadhi, the official in charge of local political security, showed rows of photographs, including those of meetings with the ulema in Madura, officials in Sampang and the cleric Tajul Muluk.

Rudy said Jakarta was mistaken. “I’ve been involved in mediation here since 2006,” he said. “This is proof that the Sampang government has tried its best to resolve the conflict.”

Rudy said that Tajul had offended the Madura ulema by bringing Shia teachings to Sampang. “Tajul is quite an arrogant person. He thinks that kampong clerics are nothing compared to him.”

Around March this year, Tajul’s brother and arch-enemy Roisul Hukamah, a convert to the Sunni denomination, distributed a recording of Tajul speaking to a follower on the phone to clerics in Madura.

In the transcript, shown to The Jakarta Post, Tajul blasts the Sampang regent for sucking up to the ulema for political gain.

He also said that in Sampang, uneducated clerics could become head of Islamic organizations. “Isn’t that showing disrespect to the ulema here?” Rudy asked.

Culture is important in Madura.There is a hierarchy of respect on the island. Both Rudy and Sampang regent Noer Tjahja say they adhere to this cultural convention: Buppa’ Babbu’ Guru Rato.

Buppa Babbu refers to parents, Guru to clerics and Rato to the government. Hence, the words of clerics hold higher value than those of the government.

A local cleric from Pamekasan says the informal education system of Islamic boarding schools is entrenched in Madura culture. Parents who can’t afford to send their children to public schools send them to Islamic boarding schools instead.

Alumni of Islamic boarding schools can be ulema in their villages, so each village has at least one ulema. Alumni continue their relationship with their teachers, their gurus, and make yearly visits to present donations to their them.

In 2004, Ali Kharrar, a revered local cleric, requested the help of the government to deal with the spread of Shia teachings by Tajul. The Sampang government, Rudy said, were more than happy to facilitate.

Tajul and Iklik meanwhile decried Kharrar’s sermonized warning about Shia as the beginning of their persecution.

Ulema rejection of Tajul was not merely a question of faith. Rudy said that Tajul disrupted the social order in Sampang with his ways.

Indeed, Tajul refused to accept envelopes filled with money from villagers. This was a break from the local customs, where people would give money to ulema for their preaching. A big name cleric can get a fee of Rp 2.5 million (US$262), while less prominent ulema can expect Rp 50,000 (US$5.24) to
Rp 100,000. Ulema also receive money from attendance at functions when villagers shake hands with them.

Tajul also said he stopped individual celebrations of the Prophet’s birth (Maulid), only holding a celebration at his home. In Madura, each house has a small prayer house, families hold feasts and invite a cleric to come and give a sermon.

“I changed the practice because I saw people there are under the poverty line … I gave them a solution so the cost of Maulid celebrations would not go through the roof.” Yet, this particular change reduces the popularity and, crucially, the income of local ulema.

***

A young cleric, Ahmad Muzakir quickly kisses the hand of Kyai Kharrar in front of his Islamic boarding house Daarut Tauhid in Proppo, Pamekasan, a neighboring town to Sampang. Wearing a white turban, Kharrar nods his head.

Kharrar wears his beard in a neat trim. A busy cleric, he excused himself to meet his wife in the female boarding house of his school. “Please excuse me, I will sin if I do not visit my wife. I have been out all day,” he said.

Kharrar had been out giving two sermons during the day and immediately led a sermon for his male students.

Kharrar is the brother-in-law of Tajul and Rois’ grandfather, Ahmad. Ahmad’s son, Makmun became a Shiite after reading books and bulletins about Shia after the Iranian revolution.

Ahmad cursed his son for converting to Shia to the day Makmun died, Kharrar said. Makmun, who was quite respected locally, did not teach Shia to other villagers. However, he sent his two teenage sons Tajul and Rois to YAPI.

“Kak [elder brother] Ahmad was against that and took them out from YAPI and sent the two to my boarding school,” Kharrar said.

“He [Tajul] bickered every day with the other santri because his thinking was already different”, Kharrar said. Tajul and Rois stayed at Daarut Tauhid for a mere three months and returned to YAPI.

Rudy said that in 1993, Tajul left for Saudi Arabia as a migrant worker. Kharrar however said that Tajul went to Iran and lied about Saudi Arabia. According to Kharrar, after his return to Sampang, Tajul started to teach Shiite beliefs to people in the village.

In 2005, Kharrar set up a meeting to convert Tajul back into Sunni teachings. He invited Sampang officials, police and clerics from the Sampang chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and ulema from five cities in Madura.

“I told him, ‘Child, I am here not to debate but to ask you to return to the road our ancestors took.’”

Kharrar’s proselytizing toward Tajul and his warnings toward other ulema about Shia continued.

In 2006, Tajul finally relented and signed a statement saying that he was returning to Sunni teachings.

“But he is always wishy-washy. In a meeting with us, he would comply, but once he is back, he would return to his ways,” Kharrar said.

In 2006, hundreds of people intimidated Tajul and his followers into returning to Sunni teachings.

Till 2009, Rois was with Tajul as a Shiite, until Rois’ desire for a young woman, called Halimah, was disrupted by Tajul.

Halimah, 19 has a long oval face and big eyes. Her house was one of those burnt on the Aug. 26 attack. At the refugee camp, she said that Rois confessed his love to her when she was 15. “But I did not want to
marry him.”

According to Tajul, Kulsum and Rudy, Rois has a womanizing streak. Marrying women just to divorce them in a couple of months.

One day, a close follower of Tajul, Dul Azid, came to Tajul to intercede for him and ask Halimah’s parents for her hand in marriage.

Tajul then proposed to Halimah for Dul Azid and the parents accepted. Rois became enraged, Halimah said. He summoned her parents and Dul Azid’s parents to meet him. Tajul told them not to come lest Rois would judge them and hit them.

Rois was furious with Tajul. “If that is the case, it is as if you have taken my wife. From now on, I will use my bajing power against you,” Tajul recounted what Rois said. Bajing power in Madurese means every dirty way there is, Tajul said. When Rois defected to the other side, pressure against Tajul increased and in 2011, the Sampang government asked him to relocate to Malang for a year until the situation cooled off.

Tajul accepted Rp 50 million from the government for relocation costs. But he continued to visit Sampang, Rudy said. And it infuriated the people there.

Despite mediation through the National Commission of Human Rights in October 2011, a month later, a Sunni mob attacked Tajul’s family, burning down three houses.

Rois then reported Tajul to the police for blasphemy. The Sampang chapters of the largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, and Sampang’s chapter of MUI also released edicts that Tajul’s teachings were deviant. In July, Tajul was sentenced to two years in prison.

From prison, Tajul has said that he would like to return to Sampang after his release.

But Sampang regent Noer Tjahja, who will be running for reelection next year, ruled this out. “I am on the side of the ulema, that is clear. They are the ones who own Sampang. I don’t mind violating human rights, as long as I save the majority of my people”.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post | Reportage | Tue, September 04 2012

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