Power and sectarian politics again

The circular letter issued by Bogor Mayor Bima Arya banning Ashura Day commemorations in the West Java city last week presents several ironies. Bima, who earned his PhD in political science from Australia and taught at Paramadina University, was once seen as a promising young leader committed to pluralism. In a 2014 January interview with The Jakarta Post he said, “There can be no doubt about my commitment to pluralism.” This educational and teaching background should mean that Bima must understand that forbidding the Shiites of Bogor from commemorating Ashura Day is against the principle of democracy and pluralism. 

The ban followed a recommendation from the Bogor chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), even though the Constitution gives no legal power to the MUI. In short, Bima failed to fulfill this nation’s constitutional mandate protecting religious freedom. Even more ironic is that the circular was issued when the prolonged dispute over the right of the Yasmin congregation of the Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) to worship remained unresolved in the city despite the fact that the Supreme Court restored the church’s building permit. Like his predecessor Diani Budiarto, Bima fuels legal uncertainty.

If there is an understandable reason behind the banning, it is likely that Bima fears pressure from Muslim groups that despise Shia Islam and regard it deviant. It is likely that the circular has something to do with securing political support from the majority. The impulses of majoritarianism, it seems, supersede the Constitution and the rights of Indonesian citizens.

This phenomenon is among the main viruses infecting contemporary Indonesian democracy. In the case of Sampang in Madura, the supposed deviance of Shia is being exploited by certain groups to gain political support for the upcoming local elections there. In other regions, local leaders have passed sharia-based bylaws to woo popular support.

As for Ashura Day, what is wrong with the commemoration? In other areas, such as Semarang, Makassar and Bandung (where the National Anti-Shia Alliance was declared last year), the celebrations went on peacefully despite protests from several Muslim groups, thanks to regional leaders who protected and treated all citizens equally.

In Indonesia, commemorations of Ashura have long been rooted in local cultures. For example, there are the long prevailing traditions of Tabot in Bengkulu and Tabuik in Pariaman, West Sumatra, observed in commemoration of the Karbala tragedy. Some early ulema of Nusantara wrote special treatises narrating the story of Husayn so that future generations would not forget the tragic story. In Java, the first month of Javanese calendar is not called Muharram, but Suro; and in the month of Suro, it is considered taboo for Javanese people to conduct marriage or engage in fun activities out of respect for what happened on the Ashura Day.

Are these traditions to be banned too? Moreover, commemorations of respectable dead clerics, like the traditions conducted annually by many people belonging to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), are common in many Muslim-majority rural areas across Indonesia. Prohibiting them would reduce the richness of Indonesian Islam’s religious expression. Needless to say, the policy of Bogor Mayor Bima Arya is unconstitutional and ignores the very history of both Islam and Nusantara. 

His case can be seen as a confirmation of the saying “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Maybe, those who are anti-Shia, or regard Shiites as deviant, should try to put themselves in others people’s shoes. What would happen if they were in the minority and their religious practices were considered deviant by the majority? This basic lack of empathy coupled with a lack of understanding of the “golden rule” that says we should treat others as we would like to be treated, is propelling sectarianism in today’s Indonesian Islam.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 01/11/2015

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