Shiites suffer as shadow cast on cultural diversity

Indonesia's reputation for religious tolerance is feared to be under threat as violence grows between Sunnis and Shiites

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 1:49am


Condemned as heretics, a community of around 200 Shiite Muslims has for months lived as pariahs in a sports hall, driven from their Indonesian village after a deadly clash with Sunnis.

In August, a mob of hundreds armed with sickles and swords hacked a Shiite man to death and torched more than 30 houses, forcing villagers to seek refuge at the hall.

They have since slept on thin mattresses surrounded by flies, sharing few communal toilets and eating modest meals at the Sampang district indoor tennis courts in eastern Java.

Now their future appears bleaker than ever.

Last month, the government cut their free food and water supplies, citing lack of funds. Religious and village leaders demanded they convert to Sunni Islam or be expelled.

"We don't want to live like refugees. We want to return home as soon as possible, to the village where we were born. But it seems our fate is not for us to decide," said Suleha, 22, a housewife.

"Aren't we all Muslims? We believe in the same god, the same prophets, the same Koran. So why can't we get along and live together in peace?"

Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation of 240 million people, is hailed as a bastion of moderate Islam, but rights groups say religious intolerance is on the rise amid concerns too little is being done to address it.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has warned Indonesia risked losing its culture of diversity and tolerance "if firm action is not taken to address increasing levels of violence and hatred towards minorities and narrow and extremist interpretations of Islam".

According to a report by the Setara Institute of Peace, a local rights watchdog, 308 incidents in the first half of 2012 were recorded against religious minorities, including Christians, minority Muslim sect Ahmadis and more recently, Buddhists.

Incidents, including attacks and forced closure of places of worship, have risen steadily since 2009 from 491 cases to 543 in 2011, Setara said.

The August attack in Sampang was the worst-ever against minority Shiites in Indonesia, according to Setara.

Tohir, 50, saw his brother die and bears a long scar on his back and stomach where he was slashed with a sickle.

"They threw rocks and shouted 'Burn the Shiites' houses' and 'Kill the Shiites'. My brother tried to calm them, but they killed him. I rushed forward to save him and they attacked me as well."

A Sunni religious leader believed to have orchestrated the attack stood trial earlier this month, charged with assault and murder, which carries a jail term of up to 20 years. But such attacks in the past have been met with lenient sentences.

Sunnis and Shiites agree on the fundamentals of Islam. Sunnis believe that Prophet Mohammed's closest aides were the rightful leaders of Islam while Shiites consider the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his divinely-appointed successor.

The real number of Shiites in Indonesia is unknown as many feel forced to practise in secret.

"Their beliefs are heretical. They go to villages to proselytise their deviant ideologies and convert our fellow Sunnis to Shiites," district chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) Buchori Maksum said. "They are the real provocateurs."