Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali says converting Shiite Muslims to the Sunni Islam followed by most Indonesians would be the best way to prevent violent outbreaks between the sects in Sampang, East Java.
“The best solution for what has been going on in there is dialogue. Many things can happen after a dialogue. We had an experience where the Ahmadis [...] converted to mainstream Islam after dialogue,” the minister said on Wednesday on the sidelines of a meeting with lawmakers on House of Representatives’ Commission VIII overseeing religious affairs.
Suryadharma was referring to the local religious leader in Ciaruteun village in Bogor, West Java, who persuaded 15 members of the minority Muslim Ahmadiyah sect in March 2011 to convert to the form of Islam practiced by most Indonesian Muslims.
The minister said that in first stage of the conversion process, minority Shiites, their majority Sunni neighbors and other stakeholders in Sampang could meet for a dialogue.
He declined calls made by moderate Muslim groups to make a determination whether Shia is heretical, claiming it was outside his remit as minister.
“I’m in no position to make the decision. I can’t ask the MUI [Indonesian Ulema Council] of Sampang to retract their religious fatwa [edict] deeming Shia as heretical. As I have said earlier, dialogue will be the best way,” Suryadharma said.
Contacted separately, Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Nasaruddin Umar concurred with Suryadharma that the ministry was obliged to educate subscribers of faiths deemed deviant by “mainstream” religions to convert to the teachings of the six religions recognized by the governments.
“We never condemned Shiite Islam as heretical or prohibited it from being practiced here because Saudi Arabia, for example, has never banned its followers from going to that country for the haj pilgrimage,” Nasaruddin said.
“I think there are around 11 different types of Shia Islam, and not all of them are heretical. It is the strands that veer off from mainstream Islam that we have to deal with,” the deputy minister said, declining to elaborate if the Sampang Shiites were outside mainstream Islam.
Sunni Muslims attacked a Shiite community in Sampang on Aug. 26, forcing almost 300 people to seek refuge in the local forest before they were given refuge in a tennis stadium.
The violence followed an attack in December 2011, when a Shiite Muslim, Mochamad Kosim, 50, was hacked to death. Three other Shiites were injured and 37 families lost their homes in the attack.
Suryadharma dismissed speculation that the violence in Sampang resulted from a sibling rivalry between Shiite leader Tajul Muluk and his Sunni brother, Roisul Hukuma.
The minister said that the mother of the brothers, Umah, was severely injured in the attack and had asked that the government to relocate the Shiites to prevent more attacks.
“She told me that when I went to visit her a day after the attack. However, it is up to the community whether or not they want to leave the area. We will move them to somewhere safer if they make the decision. Nonetheless, they can stay in the neighborhood if they want to do so,” he said.
East Java Governor Soekarwo previously dismissed schemes to relocate Shiite residents, although little action has been taken by provincial officials to safeguard them.
Critics said that Soekarwo’s reluctance to take action to aid the Shiites was done to garner support from Sunni Muslims in the run up to the East Java gubernatorial election.
Suryadharma and Nasaruddin declined to comment on potential connections to gubernatorial politics.
Selected controversial remarks, 2012
• April 20, Presidential Palace
On the joint decree limiting Ahmadiyah
“There may have been something wrong in the region. We must promote discussion to settle these kinds of issues. But the Ahmadis must also obey the law.”
• March 28, House of Representatives
“There must be a set of universal criteria to define something as pornographic, one of which will be when someone wears a skirt above the knee.”
• Jan. 26, House of Representatives
On Shia Islam
“The Shiite branch is an aberration of the main Islamic principles.”
• Jan. 18
On the GKJ Yasmin standoff
“If a meeting on the issue is canceled, you cannot say that the government lacks good intention to resolve the issue.”