(New York) – Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should order local authorities to return hundreds of Shia villagers to their home village and to ensure their security. Yudhoyono should also publicly order local governments and security forces around the country to protect religious minorities threatened by militants, and enforce the order by dismissing officials who fail to carry it out.
In August 2012, more than 1,000 Sunni villagers attacked Nangkernang village in Sampang regency on Madura Island and burned down Shia houses, hacking one Shia resident to death, wounding another, and displacing more than 500. The mob told the Shia villagers that they could only return home if they first converted to Sunnism. The group was moved to Sampang stadium. On June 20, 2013, the leader of the Shia group was coerced by local officials and threats from a crowd of thousands of militant Sunnis into agreeing that the Shia should move to a town two hours away on the island of Java.
“Permitting local authorities to act as the de facto agents of religious extremists sends a dangerous and destabilizing message that majority communities can do whatever they want against religious minorities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “President Yudhoyono should be much bolder in protecting religious minorities, starting by setting a zero tolerance policy for sectarian violence and intimidation in Indonesia.”
On June 19, 2013, police and local government officials in Sampang regency on Madura Island summoned Iklil al Milal, the leader of the Nangkernang Shia community, to the Sampang police station. They ordered him to sign a prepared letter asking the government to “relocate” the Shia community from their temporary shelter in the Sampang indoor stadium. He refused to sign, and instead bargained with the authorities to give the villagers time to move from the stadium themselves while providing compensation for the loss of their houses, lands, and tobacco, as well as rice fields in their village.
At the time, the Indonesian Ulama Council and the Council of Ulama Brotherhood in Madura (Badan Silaturrahmi Ulama se-Madura) were preparing to hold an istighosah, or a mass prayer, at the Sampang square on June 20, to declare that Sampang should be purified from so-called “blasphemous Shias” and to demand that the government remove the Shia from the stadium. High ranking officials, including the national parliament speaker Marzuki Alie, Coordinating Minister on Politics and Security Djoko Suyanto, and Governor Soekarwo of East Java, where the village is located, had agreed to the relocation plan but also agreed to provide security for the displaced Shia in the stadium. Two police posts were set up in the stadium. Barbed wire was set up outside to deter attacks.
On June 20, 2013, more than 8,000 Sunni Muslims joined the mass prayer in the main square of Sampang. Ali Karrar, the head of a Salafist madrassa in Sampang, gave the opening speech, calling Shia blasphemers and demanding that the government remove them from Madura Island. After listening to seven other speakers, the crowd marched to the stadium. Ali Karrar and several other Sunni clerics entered the stadium, while about 700 police officers stood guard to keep out thousands of other protesters.
Local government officials then compelled Iklil al Milal, the Shia leader, to sign the document agreeing to the relocation. He signed, and the government ordered the Shia displaced villagers into awaiting buses and trucks. Iklil collapsed shortly thereafter and required hospitalization. The Shia villagers were driven to an apartment building that the East Java government had prepared in Sidoarjo, three hours away, on the island of Java.
Discrimination against the Shia is based in part on a decree issued in July 2012, by Governor Soekarwo, to impose penalties on anyone who “… propagates blasphemous teaching” as defined by the Indonesian Ulama Council. The Ulama Council in East Java had declared Shi’ism “blasphemous” in an edict issued in January 2012. The decree is based on the 1965 blasphemy law, which provides a five-year jail term for violating the act.
The East Java decree had previously been used against Tajul Muluk, a Shia community leader and the younger brother of Iklil al Milal. Tajul was convicted of blasphemy in July 2012, and sentenced to two years in prison, increased to four years after he appealed. He is currently in prison in Sampang. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, met Ummi Kultsum, Tajul’s wife, when visiting Jakarta in November 2012.
On February 14, 2012, the Sampang regent, Noer Tjahja, made a speech near Nangkernang village and said that there were “21 children still studying in that blasphemous madrassa,” referring to the Shia school. He added that were he not the regent, he would fight against the Shia himself.
“President Yudhyono and his government have tolerated sectarian violence for too long, with national authorities often blaming local authorities when the ultimate responsibility for tackling religious extremism lies in Jakarta,” Adams said. “It’s time for the national government to stop saying that they need to appease extremists to avoid violence, since this has only emboldened them. The government should revoke all discriminatory regulations and hold those who use violence and intimidation criminally accountable for their actions.”
Religious extremism has been on the rise in Indonesia since President Yudhoyono came to power in late 2004. The Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, reported a rise in violent attacks on religious minorities from 244 in 2011 to 264 in 2012.
In May 2013, President Yudhoyono received an award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith organization in New York, prompting protests from various human rights and religious groups in Indonesia. When receiving the award, Yudhoyono promised that his government “would not tolerate any act of senseless violence committed by any group in the name of the religion.”
“President Yudhoyono needs to follow through on his rhetoric and take actions that demonstrate he meant what he said in New York,” Adams said. “Inaction risks a legacy of religious discrimination, intimidation, and violence when he leaves office next year.”