Analysis of Indonesia’s Ahmadiyah Case

Problems related to the Ahmadiyah community in Indonesia has recently taken center stage, with the violence toward the community in Cikeusik, Banten, on early February 2011. Responding to the issue, several governmental ministries (Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Supreme Court) held a series of discussions, end of March 2011, which was expected to help the government to make a new, “permanent decision” on Jemaah Ahmadiyah Indonesia. CRCS was invited to present considerations on the issue. Based on the ongoing research that has been presented in the previous /Annual Reports on Religious Life in Indonesia/, Zainal Abidin Bagir, representing CRCS, presented an analysis of the issue and suggested some recommendations. Although the government was expected to announce its decision early April, it has not done so until now. The following is a revision of a presentation prepared by the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Gadjah Mada University, for the “Discussion and Advisory” meeting regarding the Ahmadiyah issue held at the Ministry of Religion, Jakarta, on March 22, 2011.” 

The Ahmadiyah Case in 2011

Before the 2008 publication of the Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) produced by the Department of Religion, the Department of Internal Affairs and the Attorney General’s Office, an intensive dialogue was undertaken with members of Ahmadiyah, as well as religious organizations and religious leaders, from 2007 through 2008.  Why have we now returned again to the topic of Ahmadiyah.

Since the release of the Joint Ministerial Decree on Ahmadiyah, the case has developed as follows:

  1. A number of groups claim that the Joint Ministerial Decree has been violated by the Jemaat Ahmadiyah Indonesia (JAI).  However, according to our data, this claim is unsupported.  This accusation is often made casually or reflects different interpretations as to the meaning of the twelve points of agreement reached in January 2008, and the Joint Ministerial Decree released in June of 2008, as well as what is asserted by both.  The data available on this topic is drawn from the results of a field study by the Department of Religion conducted from January – March of 2008, which will be outlined below.
  2. There is a clear indication that changes have occurred at the level of regional government.  A number of provincial and district government apparatus have released decrees (SK) or instituted gubernatorial policies based on the Joint Ministerial Decree.  In some cases these regional applications overextend the application of the Joint Decree or serve to strengthen it, both in terms of legal status and content.  Since 2008, some regional policies have gone as far as to prohibit the existence of Ahmadiyah.
  3. The changes that have occurred at the national level can be linked to the Constitutional Court’s examination of the Law on the Prevention of Religious Defamation (Undang-Undang Pencegahan Penodaan Agama), which served as the foundational principle for the 2008 Joint Ministerial Decree on Ahmadiyah.  The Constitutional Court ruled to uphold the law while acknowledging it possessed some shortcomings – enough to recommend that a revision of the law should be undertaken (see the Report on Religious Life in Indonesia 2010, 52 – 58).
  4. There is no denying that violence in many forms has been perpetrated against members of Ahmadiyah over the course of the last three years (see Appendix Two, sections from the Report on Religious Life in Indonesia 2008, 2009 and 2010).  The fate of Ahmadiyah followers has indeed been unfortunate, given that repeated incidents of violence and the violent evictions they have experienced have been badly handled.  In some cases, Ahmadiyah followers have seemingly lost their status as citizens.  In February of 2011, several followers even lost their lives.  It is the fact of these incidents of violence that makes re-opening the dialogue about Ahmadiyah of urgent concern. 

The conspicuous nature of the violence against Ahmadiyah followers clearly indicates that the failure of law enforcement constitutes the most immediate problem.  In reality, little significant progress has been made regarding the legal status of members of Jemaat Ahmadiyah Indonesia (outside of a few policies produced by regional governments).  For this reason, we will begin our analysis below from the events in 2008 when JAI received a new legal status with the publication of the Joint Ministerial Decree. We will attempt to understand why, three years later, we are again discussing the same issue.  We’ll begin our explanation by briefly outlining a number of premises related to the “Ahmadiyah problem”, and then provide concise recommendations for action at various levels.  A more detailed explanation of the points covered can be found in Appendix One and Two. 

Perceptions regarding the state’s responsibility towards the Ahmadiyah community

In the analysis below I am only referring to the sources that we have agreed upon, which are:

  1. The Sosialisasi manual regarding SKB Ahmadiyah (2008)
  2. The Observation Report on the Implementation of the Twelve Points of Elaboration on Jemaat Ahmadiyah in Indonesia (Laporan Pemantauan Pelaksanaan 12 Butir Penjelesan PB Jemaat Ahmadiyah Indonesia) published by Departamen Agama Badan Litbang dan Diklat Puslitbang Kehidupan Keagamaan Departmen Agama (2008) and
  3. The Decision of the Constitutional Court regarding UU No. 1/PNPS/1965 (Putusan Nomor 140/PUU-VII/2009) (April 2010)

The Principle of non-intervention in the religious beliefs of citizens

The first principle emphatically agreed upon is that the government cannot intervene in the religious convictions of national citizens.  This is explicitly noted in the Sosialisasi manual regarding Ahmadiyah (Balitbang Diklat Depag, Agustus 2008) where it is stated that with the Joint Ministerial Decree, “the government is not intervening in the beliefs of the people”.  The government’s perceived role is to “ensure the safety and orderliness of society when problems stem from conflict resulting from the dissemination of deviant religious comprehension”.  The position of Ahmadiyah followers within this framework is 1) that they are the cause of the aforementioned conflict; and 2) that they are the victims of violence perpetrated by some sectors of the public. 

Why are the Ahmadiyah followers considered to be the source of conflict?  There are many claims made about those who follow Ahmadiyah, yet data collected during a two-month field observation conducted by the research team from the Department of Religion’s Committee for Research and Development (Balitbang DepAg) demonstrates that members of JAI are not socially exclusive, and do not regard non-Ahmadi Muslims as infidels.  Members of JAI also do not usually utilize violence, but instead are often the victims of violent attacks. According to this data, judgments passed against Ahmadiyah congregations are not based on their social behavior, but in regards to differences in their religious beliefs (such as alternative conceptions of the same syahadat or variation in Qu’ranic interpretation) (see Appendix 1).  So the question remains: if the problem with Ahmadiyah congregations is perceived in terms of their religious beliefs, and that is considered to be the source of the conflict surrounding them, then has the principle of “non-intervention” been upheld?  Although it is not the government that identifies Ahmadiyah followers as having “deviant” beliefs, in the end followers are penalized because their religious interpretations are considered to be deviant. 

            The legal link between the principle that the state should not interfere with  religious teachings, and attitudes about the appropriateness of specific religious interpretations can be found in the Law on the Prevention of Religious Defamation (UU PPA).  Judgments as to the suitability of religious teachings are undertaken as part of the government’s perceived responsibility to protect religion.  This law was examined by the Constitutional Court in 2010, and therefore it is appropriate to return to the results of their examination.

The state’s responsibility to protect religion and the Law on Prevention of Religious Defamation

The idea that the “state protects religion” often forms the basis of the government’s argument for limiting Ahmadiyah congregations, and is used by many religious groups to demand assertive action be taken against Ahmadiyah followers.  In the Constitutional Court’s decision regarding the UU PPA, the government’s authority to preserve religious freedom and also to protect religion was made clear.  What needs further clarification is the concept of “protection”.  There is also the issue of representation:  who or which group is protected when the state moves to protect “Islam”, “Christianity”, “Hinduism” and the like?  (See Appendix Two:  Yearly Report 2010 on the Constitutional Court’s decision).  More specifically, what must religion be protected from?  The answer is clear: what must be protected is the purity of religion so that it is not tainted or defamed.  Yet how is it determined that Ahmadiyah engages in religious defamation?

            In reality, the section of the UU PPA on which the Joint Ministerial Decree was based in 2008 has already been identified as imperfect and in need of revision.  The Constitutional Court considered expert testimony about the need for revision of the law, although revision does not fall under the Court’s jurisdiction (Putusan MK Tentang UU PPA, hlm. 304).  The main criticism of the law is that it fails to distinguish between defamation (penodaan) and differing interpretations (penafsiran yang berbeda) or even “deviance from the norm”.  Defamation, an action taken to deliberately injure or humiliate, is a crime – there is no doubt about that.  As far as one of the experts asked to testify before the Constitutional Court, Jaluddin Rahkmat, is concerned, ‘defamation’ does not refer to differing interpretations, but is a deliberate and injurious act (220).  This opinion is clearly in line with the Constitutional Court’s interpretation (305).  If the Constitutional Court provides an official interpretation or suggested revision, it should be in order that  “religious freedom is not restricted, pluralism is respected, and the rights of disadvantaged groups are protected” (219; 263 – 264).  Once again, it is important to note that the Constitutional Court agrees with this suggestion (305).

In other words, we can make an extreme analogy – although perhaps one that is not entirely apropos. We can say that the UU PPA is is blind to the differences between someone like the Danish cartoonist or Geert Wilders and, for instance, a Muslim engaged in religious reformation – both can be classified as ‘deviating’ from the mainstream of Muslim thought.  Although extreme, this analogy contains an element of truth, because in reality, especially in the discourse of the media, the term ‘defamation’ (penodaan) is already used to describe certain Muslim groups who are considered to hold controversial views.  Our concerns are pertinent, because the boundary between acceptable differences and unacceptable differences (which are then classified as ‘defamation’) is unclear. 

Where can we locate Ahmadiyah in the spectrum between ‘defamation’ (penodaan) and ‘difference’ (perbedaan)?  Or more concretely:  do Ahmadiyah followers in Indonesia clearly display a hostile attitude towards other Muslim groups?  Can they be characterized as wanting to injure and humiliate Muslims?  Returning to the observation report from the Department of Religion’s research team in 2008 (Appendix One), followers of Ahmadiyah have clearly not engaged in anything injurious or intended to humiliate other groups. 

Once again, we don’t just want to make claims without a solid foundation of evidence.  If we use the data that we have – data that is certainly incomplete and imperfect, but it is all that is available at present – it is difficult not to characterize the public perception of Ahmadiyah as erroneous.  A limited number of negative experiences related to Ahmadiyah followers occurring in a few locales should not form the basis of national public policy.  The public’s distorted perception of Ahmadiyah can be traced to how they are covered in the national media, from inaccurate representations promoted by religious leaders, and even triggered by erroneous statements made by government officials.  It should be clarified here that this is not a statement in defense of Ahmadiyah beliefs or social practices, but an attempt to discuss this issue using the available data, even if it is incomplete. 

A further consequence of the Constitutional Court’s estimation that the section of the UU PPA used as the basis for the Joint Ministerial Decree is problematic is the implication that the Joint Ministerial Decree itself must suffer from the same weaknesses as the law on which it is based.  It needs to be recognized that notwithstanding the controversy which has emerged since 2008, the legal status of the Joint Ministerial Decree remains the same.  What must be emphasized here is that the weaknesses found in sections of the UU PPA are reflected in the Joint Ministerial Decree, therefore efforts to strengthen the Joint Ministerial Decree itself are based on a weak legal platform. 

Perceptions of Ahmadiyah  as the source of conflict

Efforts to settle the problems associated with Ahmadiyah congregations in Indonesia, which culminated with the creation of the Joint Ministerial Decree in June of 2008, began in 2007 with a series of government-initiated dialogues.  This resulted in twelve ‘points of agreement’ with JAI created over the course of the year-long series of discussions which were completed in January of 2008.  These were followed up by a three-month field observation project that formed the basis of the Joint Ministerial Decree released in June of 2008.  The results of the field observation period were not black and white. 

For instance, the results presented in the Observation Report on the Implementation of the Twelve Points of Elaboration on Jemaat Ahmadiyah in Indonesia (Laporan Pemantauan Pelaksanaan 12 Butir Penjelasan PB Jemaat Ahmadiyah Indonesia) don’t clearly demonstrate that JAI has acted in violation of the agreement.  Instead, the report states that the majority of the points are reflected by the reality on the ground, and that there is little evidence that can be used to irrefutably support the claim that JAI has violated the terms of the Joint Ministerial Decree.  However, there are a number of responses recorded in the field related to theological issues that are difficult to analyze in the framework of what does, or does not, constitute a violation.  In the end, no matter how the results of the field observation report are read, interpretations are made in a gray area complicated by semantic differences and theological influences. This is demonstrated in the statement credited to Bakor Pakem (April 2008) that after being given three months to apply the principles of the agreement, JAI “did not execute the twelve points either consistently or responsibly.” Given the data provided by the field observation report, his recommendation is both extreme and unfounded. 

Attempting to initiate dialogue was the best strategy that the government could employ, which resulted in the innovation of the twelve points of agreement, as well as the concomitant three-month period of observation.  These efforts can be characterized as the government’s attempt to intercede in theological debates without entering into the realm of theology.  There are, however, a number of problems with this approach.  The first is where to locate the twelve points of agreement.  Some characterize these points as the expression of JAI’s commitment to transform their behavior within the course of the three-month observation period.  This perception has been expressed by a number of government officials, as well as implied in the excerpt from Bakor Pakem’s letter that that was quoted above.  Is it true that there was an inherent expectation that a religious organization would completely alter their theological orientation in the course of three months? 

The twelve points of agreement are better understood as JAI’s method of acknowledging a true representation of their religious beliefs and the current state of their social existence.  The purpose of the observation period was to determine if JAI’s admission was congruent with what was happening on the ground with Ahmadiyah communities.  The government played the role of facilitating the agreement and monitoring the realities in the field – without entering into the realm of theological debate.  The issue here is centered on the agreement itself, not on particular Ahmadiyah beliefs and teachings, or those of other Muslim groups.  This was undoubtedly the best way for the government to proceed. 

Beyond the congruence of the contents of the agreement and realities in the field, there is another more fundamental problem, related to the quality of the process of the dialogue used to reach the twelve points of agreement.  A number of JAI groups maintain to this day that the twelve points were forced upon them.  We should remember that the situation at the beginning of 2008 was increasingly tense.  As the twelve points were being forged, Muslim groups outside the building continued to persecute JAI members, with some protestors publicly threatening to kill all followers of Ahmadiyah, wherever they could be found.  These kinds of threats, which can certainly be classified as criminal action, were never addressed legally. 

While encouraging dialogue is best method which can be employed in this kind of situation, the dialogue will only be effective if all of the parties feel that they are equal partners in the process.  During a period when public confidence was shaken by the government’s lack of response to incidents of violence, it’s difficult to imagine that a truly open discussion could be achieved.

From the government’s perspective, however, there were also complaints from those involved that it was difficult to engage in dialogue with JAI, because their internal decision-making process requires them to consult with Ahmadiyah organizations located outside of Indonesia.   

We can conclude that although dialogue represents the best alternative, that does not imply that it is the easiest route for mitigating conflict, and it requires a significant investment of time, energy and sincerity from the parties involved.  Since we are again engaged in dialogue, it’s important that we learn from our previous experiences.

The perception of Ahmadiyah groups as victims 

There is little to be said about the second issue covered in the Sosialisasi manual for the Joint Ministerial Decree, regarding the perception of Ahmadiyah congregations as victims, other than to note the failure of the state in fulfilling its duty towards Ahmadiyah followers both before and after the decree was issued. Appendix Two presents a preponderance of data that supports this claim.  Two recent and significant examples are as follows:

  • Incident in Manis Lor Village, July 2010. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the Coordinator for the Ministries of Politics, Law and Safety, Djoko Suyanto, threatened to prosecute anyone who participates in anarchistic mob attacks.  However, up until the close of 2010 we have yet to find any evidence of parties responsible for this kind of violence being prosecuted in a court of law.
  • Most conspicuous is the case of Ahmadiyah refugees in Mataram, although their plight is rarely covered in the mass media.  The citizenship status of these refugees has been virtually erased, due to the loss of important social, political and economic rights tied to difficulties in renewing or obtaining a valid National Identification Card (KTP) (Appendix Two, CRCS Yearly Report 2010, 44 – 46). 


Since February 2010, there have been many recommendations made about how to resolve this problem.  Options have been presented by the Minister of Religion, and suggestions made by other government officials, as well as public observers.  What we would like to present here is a number of propositions that demonstrate the constraints on formulating a solution. 

Part of the problem we face is a legal issue, both in terms of the creation of new policy and the application of those policies.  However, law cannot cover all realms of human life, and not all problems can be overcome by legal means.  We must consider the influence of the public ethos, and the realm of education.  Political attitudes must also be heeded, as they are often more determinate than law, whether for better or for worse.  A “permanent and comprehensive solution” is necessarily one that considers all of these realms.

“A permanent and comprehensive solution” is one that not only applies not only to JAI, but to other groups as well, from any religious background. The question is, what should be done when one group within a given religious tradition finds the actions of another group within the same community objectionable – in other words, when the group in question engages in practices or holds beliefs that differ from the mainstream. 

This case is not significant because it is focused on JAI, but in that it forces the examination of larger and more complicated issues.  Differences from the norm will continue to emerge.  The question is, how do we apprehend these differences?  Do we criminalize them, or is there another way in which they may be perceived?  If government institutions continue their weak approach to this issue, it can be predicted that other cases will soon emerge that will further problematize the government’s role.  As far as cases involving Muslims, examples from Pakistan and Malaysia are instructive.  After Ahmadiyah, we might see the emergence of more groups that are considered ‘deviant’ like LDII, Syi’ah or tasawuf and tarekat organizations.  Certainly all these groups engage in practices outside of the mainstream, but it’s important to remember that the “mainstream” is in itself a dynamic concept that can change from case to case. 

We can anticipate the mode of response to these groups, based on what has occurred in the JAI case:  a group will be accused of as being ‘deviant’ or ‘aberrant’ (sesat)  and later assaulted under the pretense that they have perpetrated religious defamation.  This creates a situation of social unrest in which the group that has been victimized sees their status as “different” (berbeda), “wayward” (keliru) or “deviant” (sesat) transformed into a position as “the source of social conflict” in need of discipline.  Is there any guarantee that the groups mentioned above can be spared from the same fate?

The following are recommendations for several sectors:

1.  Legal

The legal realm represents the most challenging area.  As was stated above, although there has been no change to Ahmadiyah’s legal status over the last three years, it has been admitted that the section of the UU PPA on which the Joint Ministerial Decree was based contains some inherent weaknesses.  This remains problematic if the legal power of the Joint Ministerial Decree is increased.  From a legal perspective, the ideal solution is to revoke the Joint Ministerial Decree.  If the Joint Decree cannot be revoked due to political or other concerns, it is clear that actions taken to strengthen the decree must be avoided, such as transforming the limits placed on Ahmadiyah into prohibitions, or commuting the Joint Ministerial Decree into a Presidential Decree or a law (as has been demanded by a section of the public).  This applies to the central government as well as regional governments. If the Joint Ministerial Decree is considered to be ineffective, in reality the failure is due to the public’s tendency to ignore the section of the twelve points that forbids citizens from taking the law into their own hands.

As we outlined at the beginning of this paper. the main principle we are referring to is that the government should not intervene in the religious beliefs of the public.  Given that basic premise, it is clear that prohibiting Ahmadiyah followers’ beliefs is not a valid option.  An alternative option would be to disband religious groups that are found to be objectionable.  However, we do not in any way recommend that is the step that should be taken, either in the case of JAI, other groups listed here, or religious organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Muhammadiyah, NU and the like. Although achieved through legal means, the process of disbanding these groups would have to based in law that was written during the authoritarian pre-Reformasi era.  Furthermore, once one group is legally disbanded, a flood of demands for the dispersion of other groups will follow, in essence returning us to the state we were in before Reformasi.  Disbanding groups is not recommended because it only serves to divert attention from the underlying issue:  incidents of violence which are not properly handled.

2.  Political

In addition, efforts to strengthen the Joint Decree or increase the number of prohibitions applied to Ahmadiyah signals that the government legitimizes and condones increasingly harsh treatment of Ahmadiyah followers.  Even though the government clearly does not permit anarchism, these kinds of political signals might open the door to anarchic actions. 

Statements made by government officials who have been elected to represent all people of Indonesia, not just particular groups of citizens, also bear scrutinizing.  For instance, we printed a number of statements made by the Minster of Religion about Ahmadiyah in our 2010 yearly report (Appendix Two) which were casually made and muddied the issue at hand, even going as far as to blame the victims.  One statement made recently by the Minister of Law and Human Rights demonstrated a failure to differentiate theological dimensions internal to Muslim groups from issues of citizens’ rights in relation to the Ahmadiyah case.  As was noted previously, the President strongly criticized the anarchical actions exhibited in Manis Lor in July of 2010, but there was never any further attempt to prosecute those involved.  In our observations, these kinds of problems continue to persist. 

If the President’s vow to enforce the law remains unfulfilled, it is a sign that all of these efforts will not culminate in a permanent solution, and in actuality are counter-productive.  Positive political signals should begin with a serious commitment to law enforcement, one supported by the police and managed through an appropriate legal process.  The government also must communicate that whatever kinds conflicts emerge in relation to this issue, violence perpetrated against citizens by other citizens will not be tolerated.

3.  Law Enforcement

As we have demonstrated in several examples above, and as can be seen in Appendix Two, Ahmadiyah followers’ status as victims has yet to be adequately addressed.  In reality, dealing with the violence surrounding this issue is the simplest problem to address, as there is no gray area here – violence has to be prosecuted as a criminal act. Any steps the government takes to deal with the Ahmadiyah issue – whether through dialogue or by legal means – will prove to be ineffective if previous and emerging cases involving violence are not appropriately dealt with.  This is another essential part of the political will which must be demonstrated by the government.  The police must be empowered to handle these incidents and not be influenced by doubts about becoming involved in a sensitive issue. 

4.  Public Education

It should be recognized that sooner or later more cases of deviation or difference from the mainstream will emerge, especially now that there is more public space for open and transparent communication.  While every religious community possesses the right (or from an internal perspective, the obligation) to correct wayward or unacceptable religious interpretations, educational efforts about how to approach difference must continue to be developed.  Even if the beliefs of Ahmadiyah followers are deviate from the mainstream, are those differences a crime that must be punished?  Deciding the answer to this question is the main task of the government and public organizations.  Educational efforts should be persuasive, but not applied by force – either openly or symbolically. 

5.  Dialogue and protection of the public space

If it’s possible for us to imagine a situation where a “deviant group” can exist without being threatened by violence, perhaps this problem is not as complicated as it seems.  In a situation where the government guarantees that the public space remain open and safe – and works to maintain it as a place where all sorts of differences and diversities commingle – then differences will emerge, including those deviances which some will consider to be in need of correction.  This includes the right of those Muslim groups such as MUI, NU, and Muhammadiyah to convey their disapproval of JAI, to release fatwas related to their assumed deviance, and to indict members of JAI according to religious law.  It also includes the rights of those who advocate for JAI. 

In a safe public space, civil dialogue can occur.  It is the government’s responsibility to protect this space.  The public has the responsibility to populate this space in a useful and civil and manner. 

Engaging in dialogue remains the best alternative for dealing with these kinds of complex issues, especially where there is disagreement about foundational principles – the government’s intervention in religious affairs; what kinds of limits on freedom are acceptable; and the peoples’ understanding of the term defamation (penodaan) which is not clearly formulated in each case.  Yet engaging in dialogue can also be a difficult path for resolving problems, and requires a more serious effort from all of the parties involved.  The dialogue about Ahmadiyah is still ongoing, but it’s still necessary to learn from the previous attempts at dialogue in 2007 – 2008, as was discussed above.   It is not too much to say that in order to be effective, the framework in which the dialogue takes place should have already become part of the dialogue itself. 

Since there is already evidence of situations where difference exists without violence, then we are not just discussing aspirations.  In principle, there is no reason to say that our nation is now more democratic or that citizens have more freedom, because those ideals aren’t achieved without violence.  We should also observe that the rejection of Ahmadiyah, and violence against Ahmadiyah followers, doesn’t occur everywhere or in all cases.  In our opinion the concentration of incidents of violence in particular areas needs more investigation, since in other places Ahmadiyah followers live peacefully side by side with other Muslims, despite perceptions of their difference or ‘incorrect’ interpretations.**  Furthermore, why has it been over the last few years in particular that the number of violent incidents have increased? More informed knowledge surrounding these issues will help us to understand the factors that in the future can help to cultivate peace in other areas. 

In closing, maybe it is not necessary to again stress the importance of protecting us from violence in our daily lives.  Our concern is that the rising level of violence that has been witnessed lately will also increase the public’s tolerance of it, creating a situation where the utilization of violence in public becomes more acceptable.  In other words, we could become desensitized to violence.  If this begins to occur little by little, we shouldn’t be surprised if we suddenly find ourselves in the same situation now experienced by other nations, where large-scale violence has already become a part of daily life. 

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