Endless Sunni-Shia Sectarianism in Indonesia

The issue of religious (dis)harmony should give authorities a cause for concern as evinced lately in Yogyakarta, where banners propagating sectarianism have been unfurled in many parts of the city, which, in contrast to these banners, is known for its cultural diversity. Those banners contain hate speech like Syiah Bukan Islam (Shia is not Islam), Syiah Kafir (Shiites are infidels) and so forth. They seem to be part of a systematic campaign, as they are displayed in major streets across the city and some strategic places in the neighboring regency of Bantul.

This phenomenon contradicts the nature of Yogyakarta, as not only a home to education and culture, but also pluralism. In 2011, under the leadership of then mayor Herry Zudianto, elements of society and representatives of religious groups declared Yogyakarta “the city of tolerance”.

Several years after the declaration, however, there have been changes to religious tolerance in the city. Last year such sectarian banners were also present in some streets; some of the organizations sponsoring the campaign today and in the past are identical. Earlier this year the banners were even larger and used more vulgar words of hatred.

Yogyakarta has never experienced a Sunni-Shia conflict like, for example, Sampang in Madura. Those sectarian banners are unprecedented. They suddenly appeared even though few people in Yogyakarta really know what Shia is. 

Over the last two years there have been many seminars held in mosques (including in the mosque inside Gadjah Mada University) preaching that Shia was heretical. Some of those seminars were followed by free distribution of Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) booklets containing the same message.

Speculation has been rife that the spread of those banners could have a correlation with the country’s political disputes. Encouraging Sunni-Shia conflict could divert public attention from important issues in national politics such as the fight against corruption. 

Or perhaps those banners are a reaction, if not a retaliation, to the recent assault on the Assembly of Dhikr (Majelis Zikir) az-Zikra led by Ustad Arifin Ilham in Bogor, West Java. Several Muslim news portals framed the Bogor incident through a narrative of a Sunni-Shia clash (that Shiites, despite being a minority, now dare to attack Sunnis); a narrative intended to exacerbate sectarian sentiment, which is currently on the rise.

Whatever the motives behind the placement of the banners, it endangers religious harmony in Yogyakarta and elsewhere. Muslim leaders and the authorities should take actions to address it, or else Muslims will perceive the anti-Shia campaign as valid and allow hard line groups to fill public space. In fact, counter responses that say, for example, that Shia is a legitimate school of Islam like Sunni, have never been heard from moderate Islamic organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) or Muhammadiyah. It is even more ironic as strong voices have not heard from the hard-line groups in addressing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose Southeast Asian jihadists come mostly from Indonesia.

It is not difficult to answer whether or not Shia is a part of Islam. Like Sunnis, many Shiites repeat the creed (shahadah) testifying that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. Shiites also perform five prayers a day, albeit at slightly different times. Shiites also fast during Ramadhan and perform haj to Mecca. If Shiites are not Muslims, of course they will not been given access to Mecca.

Yes, there is a gap between Sunni and Shia, yet it is basically permeated from differences in interpreting the history of early Islam (especially on the issue of succession after the Prophet Muhammad passed away). Summarily, at the most fundamental principle of the Islamic creed, both Sunnis and Shiites are Muslims.

The Sunni-Shia divide has lasted for more than 13 centuries. It is more or less equivalent to the Catholic-Protestant partition in Christianity; each is a sect/denomination/school coming from a contestation of authenticity within the respective religion. If this sectarian sentiment is stirred back, and Muslims are favoring division instead of managing diversity to preserve unity, Indonesian religious life will suffer a setback for several centuries. In Indonesia, the number of Shiites is no more than 2 million out of about 225 million Muslims. How could those banners in Yogyakarta be spread so widely, as if showing a fear of threat from 1 percent of the population?

In this democratic country, where many political or religious groups compete with one another for popular support, it is NU and Muhammadiyah as representation of Indonesian “moderate” Islam, besides the Ministry of Religious Affairs, on which we can pin hopes.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, March 11, 2015

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