End persecution of ‘deviants’, the root of terrorism

We have recently been exposed to three diverse issues, all following a familiar line — the tyranny of the majority. The latest is the threat to expel the Ahmadiyah community in Bangka; second, the expulsion of members of the Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar) by people in Mempawah, West Kalimantan, and the burning of their property; third, the rise of negative prejudice against and verbal online persecution of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

There might be a political, non-religious factor underneath the surface of the respective cases. The discrimination against Ahmadiyah is not new, and to some degree such treatment of minority faiths has been politically instrumentalized by local governments, like that against the Shiites of Sampang, East Java. The minorities are branded “deviant” or non-Muslim, or committers of a grave sin in the case of the LGBT.

Such reactions are typical of conservative Islam, which dismisses human rights considerations and empathy toward those of other faiths. 

Ahmadiyah is considered heretical because it is against the Islamic “orthodoxy” on the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood (which is not entirely true because Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s prophethood is not on an equal status with Muhammad’s). Its heresy is doubled as Ahmadis claim to be Muslims. Gafatar is said to be deviant because it is regarded as a syncretic cult, combining elements of the three Abrahamic faiths. As for homosexuality, it is still hard, at least until now, to say whether it is allowed under sharia as interpreted by the majority of today’s Muslims.

Yet in the history of the world’s major religions, each religion was considered deviant by the religious tradition of the community where the religion was born.

Muhammad’s claim of prophethood was regarded as blasphemous by Meccan pagans. From the perspective of Medinan Jews, Muhammad was appropriating the prophetic stories belonging to the Jewish tradition. Christians, claiming the messianic ministry of Jesus, let alone his divine status, were deviant in the eyes of the Jews. Add to this, Buddhism to Hinduism; Sikhism to Hinduism and Islam; and, more importantly, Nusantara’s local religions (aliran kepercayaan) to Indonesia’s officially sanctioned religions.

The history of aliran kepercayaan shows several elements picked from the major religions, combined or added to the previous beliefs and practices, and then appropriated—Gafatar is no exception. All these are something common to the history of almost all religions.

Further, all faiths become religions where the political context recognizes them as such. The fact that each religion becomes a distinct separate religion from its “ancestor” is a matter of political recognition. If aliran kepercayaan in Indonesia were officially recognized as religions, they would become religions. 

In other words, there is no objective natural standard of deviant beliefs as well as “orthodoxy”. As such, considering Gafatar to be deviant based on Islamic orthodoxy is problematic. Besides, the deviant standard is politically constructed depending on who is in power—likewise the “normality” of heterosexuality and the “abnormality” of homosexuality.

If belief/practice X is considered deviant by religion Y because it picks an element from religion Y or interprets it differently from the mainstream, and as such X is worth eradicating, you can imagine how many aliran kepercayaan — as well as those embracing interpretations of Islam regarded as offensive to those who claim to be “pure” and orthodox Islam — would be considered blasphemous, treated like Gafatar, and maybe jailed for violating the country’s 1965 Blasphemy Law.

Therefore those Muslims shouting for the expulsion of people of other faiths merely because of their “deviant” beliefs have the same way of thinking and attitude as the Meccan pagans persecuting and expelling the early Muslims. Ironically those Muslims who were angry because of the expulsion of Rohingya people from Myanmar are now supporting what the Bangka government threatens to do to the Ahmadis.

As the government is set on fighting terrorism, it must first tackle the roots of terrorism — including the persecution of people based on belief. Law enforcement must guarantee freedom of belief as well as upholding clear authority and responsibility. Quite often, local governments and police exceed their authority and act according to the will of hardline groups and ignore their responsibility to protect persecuted citizens. In other words, the state must uproot or “deradicalize” itself from groups touting the persecution of others because of their different beliefs. 

To end tyranny by the majority, the state must be neutral toward all beliefs, as mandated by its Constitution — certainly not by referring to edicts of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in the treatment of minority faiths. MUI edicts have too often provided justification for discrimination against religious minorities. Worse, the state often uses the edicts of the MUI, a non-state body, to determine what counts as blasphemous or defaming belief, which actually has an obscure definition in the Blasphemy Law.

If the state really wants to end this tyranny by the majority, it should detach itself from the MUI, and treat the MUI like any other non-government Muslim organization such as the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. In its place the state should weigh more the considerations of scientists rather than clerics in dealing with the issue of sexual orientation and impartially address disputes among religious groups, calls to violence and other threats to our security. 

So far, there is no clear evidence that Gafatar, Ahmadiyah, or the LGBT community are inciting terrorism, spreading hate speech, or striving to change the state ideology Pancasila. Ironically, they are treated discriminatively while several Islamic movements that have a clear subversive agenda, seeking to replace the Republic of Indonesia with an Islamic state, can hold large gatherings and/or freely preach in mosques.

More ironic is that those expelling people and burning precious property are free; the police could not even stop them; while the expelled have been treated like criminals merely because of “deviant” beliefs or “abnormal” sexual orientation. Such stigma, justified by fatwa, has become a license to expel or kill fellow citizens.

— this article was originally published in the Jakarta Post, 12/02/2016

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