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Indonesia’s Shiites are a minority among its Muslim population, which is predominantly of the Sunni denomination. This minority came into the spotlight after the December 2011 attack on the Shiite community in Sampang, Madura in East Java, followed by the latest assault on Aug. 26, which left two villagers dead. The Jakarta Post’s Amahl Azwar visited Shia followers in West Java, which hosts a number of Shiite communities.
Sorrow overshadowed the wrinkled face of Asum Sumpena, a 66-year-old Shiite who lives in Cirangkong hamlet in Garut, West Java, after he watched the news of the attacks on Shia followers in Sampang, East Java, last Sunday.
For Asum, a farmer in the Cibunar valley in Malangbong sub-district, the turmoil in Sampang revived memories of a rebellion led by SM Kartosuwiryo in West Java in the 1950s.
The charismatic cleric led an armed movement to set up the Indonesian Islamic Nation. Thousands were displaced and killed in the crackdown by the fledgling Indonesian military.
“When I was small, Kartosuwiryo’s grip on this place was dreadful; many people were killed. I am afraid that what happened in Sampang could trigger the same chaos in the future,” Asum, a father of four, told The Jakarta Post at his home last week.
Asum, who converted to Shia in 1985, has been living fairly peacefully in the valley with his family and some 250 fellow Shiites. In January this year, police said they had “safeguarded” 19 Shiites in Margaluyu village in Cikajang, Garut, after the latter claimed they had received threats from locals after a fallout during Friday prayers.
The 19 Shiites allegedly left a local mosque abruptly while a cleric was delivering his Friday sermon, triggering tensions between them and the other worshippers. They had said the cleric had insulted Shiites.
In May, clerics from various Islamic organizations in West Java affiliated with the Indonesian Ulema and Ummah Forum (FUUI) called on the public to be wary of Shia teachings.
West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan attended the event, but he did not comment on demands to ban Shia practice in the province.
The FUUI move paralleled demands from Sunni ulema in Madura and other areas in East Java.
In the Shiite-majority village of Cirangkong, Shiites and Sunnis appear to live side by side peacefully. One of Asum’s daughters has married a Sunni and resides in Garut with her family.
Meanwhile, Bahrun, 43, who sells cakue — fried cake — lives next to his brother, who is a Sunni.
“Alhamdulillah [thank God], we have lived in harmony these past few years. But, after I watched the TV news on how the crowd razed the houses of the [Shia followers], I must admit that it was very disturbing,” said Bahrun.
According to the West Java chapter of the Shia group Ahlul Bait Indonesia (ABI), Shia teachings were first introduced to Cirangkong back in the 1980s by the late Syarif Aunillah, whose name is memorialized at the local Shia mosque.
Rustandi, the mosque guardian, told the Post that the Shia mosque stewards had been trying to reach out to other locals by offering to hold a mass clean-up of the Sunni mosques in the region.
“This is one of our ways to make them understand that we mean no harm,” said Rustandi.
The Cibunar village head Basari Jaelani said one reason why there had not been any trouble between the Shiite community in Cirangkong and other hamlets under his supervision was because of the Shiites’ involvement in many social activities.
“They have been helping other communities. I have requested the Garut chapter of the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) to have the next monthly Koran-reading ceremony conducted at the [Shiites’] Syarif Aunillah mosque,” said Basari.
Meanwhile, in Bandung, a number of anti-Shiite movements have arisen in the past few months.
Apart from the FUUI call to ban Shia in May, which took place in the Al Fajar Mosque in Bandung, West Java, the youth wing of Persis Bandung, a conservative Islamic organization, has voiced similar
In March, a group discussion in the Istiqomah Mosque in Bandung also called for the banning of Shia practice, urging Muslims “to take a stand without waiting for the MUI to officially declare a ban against Shia teachings”.
“Although the people in West Java are quite peaceful and tolerant, who can guarantee that this situation will persist in the future?” said leading cleric Athian Ali, who leads the FUUI in Bandung, on Thursday.
“Everyone has a limit. Shia followers have been clearly insulting us with their deeds.”
The secretary of the West Java chapter of MUI Rafani Akhyar told the Post that even though personally he had some objections to Shia teachings, particularly the teachings under the Indonesian Ahlul Bait Association (Ijabi), led by scholar Jalaluddin Rahmat, he could not ban Shia.
“After all, the Shiites are still considered Muslims,” he said.
On Wednesday, Heryawan issued a statement guaranteeing the safety of all religious groups, including the Shiite community, in the West Java region following the Sampang tragedy.
“People in West Java have a very strong sense of solidarity as well as tolerance,” he said.
Yet according to the Setara Institute, an NGO focusing on human rights issues, West Java has topped the list of provinces with the most violations of freedom of religion in the past few years.
Demographically this might be understandable with some 97 percent of the population being Muslims, researchers say — made worse by the proliferation of conservative groups in the region.
In 2009, West Java recorded the highest, or 57, incidents of intolerance. It ranked highest again in 2010 with a total of 91 incidents out of 216 recorded violations, according to Setara. In 2011, out of 244 violations against freedom of religion, West Java once again had the most violations with 57 events.
In the January-June period this year, Setara recorded 129 violations against freedom of religion, with West Java ranking highest again with 36 incidents.
Separately, Bandung-based Padjadjaran University historian Nina Herlina Lubis said that what happened in Sampang could be repeated against Shia followers in West Java given “dramatic” social changes in Bandung.
“Take Ahmadiyah [an Islamic minority sect]. Even though Ahmadiyah followers have been living in West Java, particularly in Garut and Tasikmalaya since the 1930s, attacks on them have been increasing over the past few years,” she said.