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«NATALIA LASKOWSKA Apostasy as a Tool to Suppress Dissent – Indonesian Perspective Abstract Accusation of apostasy in the Muslim majority countries ...»

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ROCZNIK O R I E N T A L I S T Y C Z N Y, T. LXV, Z. 2, 2012, (s. 74–84)


Apostasy as a Tool to Suppress Dissent – Indonesian Perspective


Accusation of apostasy in the Muslim majority countries has the potential of becoming

a dangerous tool against the dissenting voices. When it is used by those with religious

authority and appears in a form of a fatwā it is likely to be interpreted as a concession for persecution. In the legal processes following the incidents of religiously motivated violence it seems rare for the perpetrators to be punished. Instead the victims of religious violence are accused of inciting hatred. This article discusses two respective cases of apostasy fatāwā in Indonesia: the death fatwā on the leaders of the Liberal Islam Network, and a fatwā which rendered apostate the members of the Indonesian Aḥmadiyya religious movement.

Keywords: apostasy fatwā, Islam, Indonesia, Liberal Islam Network, Aḥmadiyya, heresy Accusation of apostasy can be used by anyone – religious leaders, preachers, politicians, or ordinary citizens to target their opponents. The accusation often comes in a form of a fatwā. Fatwā is a non-binding resolution, an opinion of a religious scholar or a group of scholars, ‘ulamā’, which does not progress into a law. Yet, not surprisingly, to the followers of some ‘ulamā’, the human-made state law does not count when confronted with the laws of God. This text is devoted to Indonesia and two examples of such apostasy fatāwā are discussed respectively: the death fatwā on the Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal) and a fatwā on Aḥmadiyya religious movement, both of which have directly inspired violence against the two groups mentioned.

The rise of the violent radical-conservative Islamic advocacy in Indonesia is a new phenomenon which emerged soon after the collapse of general Suharto regime in the late 1990s. Amidst the economic crisis and uncertain political conditions, the radical groups


took on a political momentum1. M. Syafi’e Anwar describes these groups as harbouring a strong disrespect for pluralism and considering this idea to be an offence against Islam as the only truth2. Different ideas or different interpretations are rendered “untruth” and are ascribed to “deviated people”, “infidels” or “apostates”. This is perhaps not striking as such mindset is present among members of all radical groups, regardless the religious ideology they subscribe to. What strikes however is that they do not take their notions from the vacuum but base them on the ideas which are aired by some of the otherwise respected Islamic scholars.

The ‘ulamā’ are trusted by the communities for their knowledge and interpretation of religion. But sometimes it happens that their knowledge is insufficient to fulfil the roles which society provides them with. This becomes particularly visible when some of them come up with bold statements on who ‘truly’ believes in God and whose beliefs deny or deviate from the ‘truth’. If such statements are given in a form of a fatwā, despite the lack of legal provisions to implement it, their influence is likely to trigger ordinary people “to take justice in their own hands”. When the ‘ulamā’ declare somebody apostate, heretic, deviationist, non-believer or blasphemer, emotions of the crowd are very high and can be easily manipulated. This often leads to intimidation, violence and even to destruction of life. Those who take part in mobs against persons condemned by the ‘ulamā’ justify their actions as following the fatwā. The ‘ulamā’ on the other hand claim no responsibility as the fatāwā they issue are legally non-binding.

Death fatwā and Liberal Islam Network

Death threats against intellectuals are not common in Indonesia, it was therefore shocking when in November 2002 one of the founders of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL, Jaringan Islam Liberal), Ulil Abshar Abdalla, was condemned to death by a group of conservative religious activists.

The incident was anticipated by a book of Hartono Ahmad Jaiz, Bahaya Islam Liberal (The Danger of Liberal Islam) which was published almost a year earlier. The book is somewhat chaotic and author’s message is not too clear, but it carries a huge amount of hatred against several Indonesian thinkers, Ulil Abshar Abdalla included. It may be assumed that Hartono was then not the only person whose negative attitude towards the Liberal Islam Network was growing exponentially. The motto3 of the book is a ḥadīth, 1 M. Syafi’e Anwar, Political Islam in Post-Soeharto Indonesia: The Contest Between «Radical-Conservative Islam» and «Progressive-Liberal Islam», in: Eric Tagliacozzo (ed.), Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement, and the Longue Durée, National University of Singapore Press. Singapore, 2009, p. 349.

2 Ibidem, p. 365.

3 “Pada akhir zaman akan muncul sekelompok orang yang berusia muda dan jelek budi pekertinya. Mereka berkata-kata dengan menggunakan firman Allah, padahal mereka telah keluar dari Islam seperti melesatnya anak panah dari busurnya. Iman mereka tidak melewati tenggorokannya. Di mana pun kalian menjumpai mereka, maka bunuhlah mereka. Karena sesungguhnya orang yang membunuh mereka akan mendapatkan pahala di Hari Kiamat.” (Ahmad


narrated by ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, from the compilation of Imām Al-Buẖārī (d. 870). The ḥadīth orders to kill a group of young people, who would come when the end of the world is close and who would already be unbelievers, but would be using the words of

the Qur’ān:

“In the last days of this world there will appear some young foolish people who will use (in their claim) the best speech of all people (the Qur’ān) and they will abandon Islam as an arrow going through the game. Their belief will not go beyond their throats (they will have practically no belief), so wherever you meet them, kill them, for he who kills them shall get a reward on the Day of Resurrection”4.

Although Hartono does not say it explicitly, the allusion to the members of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL, Jaringan Islam Liberal) is rather clear5. Most of them were young, learned, well-versed in the Qur’ān, and by those who disagreed with them often labelled as non-believers.

JIL is a loose organisation established by a group of Muslim intellectuals associated with the Paramadina Foundation, IAIN Jakarta (Institut Agama Islam Negeri, State Institute of Islamic Religion) and the Utan Kayu Community (Komunitas Utan Kayu or Teater Utan Kayu). Quoting one of its founders, Luthfi Assyaukanie, it was created “to accommodate liberal Islamic trends that have been flourishing in the country for the last two decades”6. The movement was inspired by the one generation older Indonesian thinkers such as Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, Harun Nasution, Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, Moeslim Abdurrahman and M. Dawam Rahardjo.

From the series of discussions, workshops, radio programmes and lectures facilitated by the Utan Kayu Community, books, magazine and newspaper publications which received wider media coverage thanks to the founder of Utan Kayu, Goenawan Mohamad, the movement expanded at home and abroad attracting intellectuals, journalists, researchers and activists from various universities, think-tanks and NGOs7.

The challenge from the radical and conservative Islamic groups started to reach JIL particularly in the end of 2002 after the publication of an article by Ulil Abshar Abdalla in the Kompas daily. The article was titled “Menyegarkan Kembali Pemikiran Islam” (‘Reviving the Muslim Thought’). To the significant appreciation of some, and to the rage of other, Ulil stated several matters quite daringly. One of them, which later caused a more violent reaction from the conservative groups, was his view that what exists is human

law, not God’s law. This ultimately meant that šarī‘a was a product of human history8:

Jaiz Hartono, Bahaya Islam Liberal: Sekular dan Menyemakan Islam dengan Agama Lain, Pustaka Al-Kautsar, Jakarta 2002, p. 7).

4 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: The Translation of the Meanings. Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Dar-us-Salam Publications. Riyad, 1997, vol. 4, p. 808.

5 Names mentioned in the book consist mostly of the JIL members or persons sympathising with them.

6 Luthfi Assyaukanie, Islam and the secular state in Indonesia, ISEAS Publications, Singapore 2009, p. 201.

7 More in Virginia Matheson Hooker, Amin Saikal (ed.), Islamic perspectives on the new millennium, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore 2004, pp. 231–252.

8 Luthfi Assyaukanie, Islam and the secular state…, p. 202.


“Religion is an advantage for the humankind. And since humankind is a continuously growing organism, both quantitatively and qualitatively, religion must grow up as well, accordingly with the needs of humans. What exists is the human law, not the law of God, for it is human that becomes the stakeholder of all deliberations concerning religion”9.

For some circles it was not acceptable... Yet it in the first place it was clearly misunderstood. An example of such misunderstanding is the book of Hartono Ahmad Jaiz. In fact, it was published in January 2002, almost a year before Ulil Abshar Abdalla’s article was printed. However, in 2001 JIL was already active, there is no doubt that Hartono, a former journalist, had access to the ideas of the JIL members, especially as they were freely distributed.

In the last paragraphs of his book, Hartono states that the liberal Islam offers views that are not in line with science, facts of life and history; that it does not use the arguments provided in the Qur’ān, sunna (the aḥādīth), and the consensus of religious scholars (iǧmā‘); and that it is “far from the truth”10. He farther creates a non-direct link bringing him back to the ḥadīth-motto of the book which might be read as an implicit encouragement for violence. According to Hartono the members of JIL reject šarī‘a, “the law of the Prophet”. In order to answer what should be done with such individuals, Hartono comes up with a “lesson” in which he reminds an incident with ‘Umar Ibn al-Waṭṭāb, the companion of the Prophet Muḥammad and later the second Muslim caliph. ‘Umar killed a man who came to him and requested his judgement, after the judgement given by Muḥammad did not satisfy him. A verse from the Qur’ān11 was provided in order to justify the killing. Hartono quoted it and came to the conclusion that people who do not want to be judged accordingly with the law of the Prophet are non-believers, and it would be lawful to kill them12.

Hartono’s interpretation of the Qur’ān and other sources is undoubtedly a dangerous overstatement. Yet even more dangerous were the reactions which burst immediately after Ulil’s article was published in “Kompas” on 18 November 2002. On 30 November 2002 a group of clerics affiliated with the Forum Ulama Umat Indonesia (FUUI, the Forum of Indonesian Religious Scholars) gathered at Al-Fajar mosque in Bandung, and issued a fatwā which contained a demand that the authorities dissolve JIL which “systematically and massively insults the God, the Prophet, the Muslim community and the ‘ulamā’”. The article written by Ulil was given as an example of blasphemy. The FUUI farther stated that “according to the Islamic law, persons who insult and falsify the truth of religion can be punished with death”. The chairman of FUUI, Athian Ali Muhammad, announced that 9 “Agama adalah suatu kebaikan buat umat manusia; dan karena manusia adalah organisme yang terus berkembang, baik secara kuantitatif dan kualitatif, maka agama juga harus bisa mengembangkan diri sesuai kebutuhan manusia itu sendiri. Yang ada adalah hukum manusia, bukan hukum Tuhan, karena manusialah stakeholder yang berkepentingan dalam semua perbincangan soal agama ini.” Ulil Abshar Abdalla, Menyegarkan Kembali Pemikiran Islam, “Kompas”, 18 Nov 2002.

10 Hartono Ahmad Jaiz, Bahaya Islam Liberal…, p. 86.

11 Qur’ān, 4:65.

12 Hartono Ahmad Jaiz, Bahaya Islam Liberal…, pp. 86–92.


the fatwā was not only for Ulil, but aimed to “dissolve the motive behind Liberal Islam Network which he leads”13. Almost immediately the FUUI received huge criticism for their fatwā – a very odd and disturbing act on the Indonesian intellectual scene which is otherwise open for discussion and free from threatening the lives of dissidents.

Asrori S. Karni, a senior journalist from the Gatra weekly, who wrote a critical and often quoted record of the matter, accounted that eventually the FUUI announced they did not issue a death fatwā, but only demanded a legal process. Indeed, the term fatwa mati (‘death fatwā’) was not mentioned, however Athian Ali Muhammad in his statement explained that FUUI attitude towards JIL was the same as towards pastor Suradi14. In February 2001 FUUI issued a fatwā against him which was explicitly a ‘death fatwā’15.

Nevertheless, in order to prove that the case was different, even though it was previously declared to be the same, Athian Ali Muhammad reported Ulil Abshar Abdalla to the police. Although the police did not follow with the case, the incident did not end there.

Until now death threats and various acts of violence are being committed against the leaders of JIL. In March 2011 a bomb hidden in a book titled They Must Be Killed Because of Their Sins Against Islam and Muslims16 was addressed to Ulil. The JIL staff being suspicious of the package have alarmed the police. The bomb explosion has left one policeman heavily wounded.


In the recent years the Indonesian branch of Aḥmadiyya, a Muslim minority group, has been a target of religion-based violence, which it is often justified by the assailants with reference to several decrees issued by the state institutions that administrate the religious affairs. The most influential among them is Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars) which openly declares Aḥmadiyya heretical and its followers to be apostates from Islam.

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