A breakaway Islamic sect’s struggle to survive has become a major test of tolerance for Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Conservative, hardline Muslims are confronting moderates over the existence of Ahmadiyya, a 100-year-old minority sect that does not accept Mohammad as the last prophet of Islam.
The Ahmadis, who have worshipped in their own mosques and communities here since 1924, believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is the messiah and last true prophet of Islam. The claim has energized and enraged Indonesia’s disparate Muslim hardliners, who in recent years have united in a campaign to ban Ahmadiyya, labeling its followers "heretics" and "deviants".
Indonesia’s mild-mannered and religiously moderate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his government are caught in the middle. In a campaign season, where conservative religious groups have electoral clout, his administration has so far managed to please neither side.
And, of course, the implications of the success of this campaign aren’t lost on anyone there:
Rights groups, on the other hand, claim that Yudhoyono’s government is pandering to militants and failing to uphold Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance. "You ban Ahmadiyya, then you ban the Shi’ites, Christians and Buddhists," Indonesia’s former president Abdurrahman Wahid recently told Reuters. Wahid, also a former chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim mass organization, the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama, said hardline groups did not represent most Indonesians and that the government should not cave to radical hardliners…Islamist mobs have in recent years shut down over 90 Christian churches and prayer groups in West Java alone. To Christian and other religious minorities, Yudhoyono’s June 9 decree is a disturbing sign that the government is willing to prioritize hard-line Islamist demands over its constitutional commitment to protect religious freedoms.