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As darkness hastily falls on the heart of Madura Island, uniquely shaped traditional wooden houses and hamlets begin to throw long shadows in an eastward direction. Traffic, which during the day is extremely light by Indonesian standards, is now ceasing entirely. Just a few noisy scooters remain on the road, avoiding the poor peasants slowly dragging their tired feet home from the fields.
Almost no one here speaks Bahasa Indonesia– the official language that was supposed to unite this sprawling archipelago, during and after the declaration of independence from the ruthless Dutch colonial rulers. The local languages and dialects are unfortunately unintelligible to all three of us – occupants of the car. Even our driver, a native from Surabaya, the second largest Indonesian city which is spreading its suburbs on the opposite shore right across the narrow strait, and only a few minutes ferry ride from Madura, understands close to nothing when the natives speak.
We ask for directions, we receive unintelligible answers; we don’t know whether we are on the right track.
But then the powerful lights penetrate the dusk, and we see dozens of police trucks, like ghosts, appearing from nowhere, at the side of the road.
“Where are you going?”
There is no point in pretending. We are going to…, we are searching for the Shi’a village, a hamlet, called Nangkernang that was recently attacked, and savagely destroyed by local Sunni religious bigots.
“It is not safe and you can’t go there”, explains an officer who appears to be in charge. “And it is far…” He waves his hand; he waves ahead, somewhere towards the great distance.
We talk, we argue, but security forces are giving us clear orders: We can drive straight on, but without leaving the main road.
At the next village, we ask and miraculously we are understood. We are told that the path to the destroyed village begins right where the police vans are parked. “They lied to you. Just leave the car here, rent two motorbikes and one local guide and go back”.
We do exactly that. We hire two shaky scooters, one driven by a kid who could not be older than fourteen, and the other one, by an old man. Our lights are turned off and we manage to pass unnoticed near the police post. Then we turn into a tight path between two rice fields. There is a narrow, wooden, half destroyed bridge and a creek below: all of that could be sensed in almost absolute darkness, but hardly seen. From here we have to abandon our stinky two-wheelers and walk.
The village is called Nangkernang, Karang Gayam, and the nearest city is Sampang, a one hour drive away, and on the coast. To our surprise, the village has at least some weak and unsteady supply of electricity.
We are expected here. Reluctantly we all introduce ourselves.
Then we are shown the devastation: dozens of houses totally ruined, burned down. And these were not just some small houses, but entire hamlets. The nearest house is right in front of a small wooden platform where we sit and talk, and it used to belong to a Shi’a imam.
Pak (Mr) Sinal, is a man of about 50 years old, who speaks to us, hesitantly:
“I myself am a Shi’a, but now I keep it hushed. There are approximately 50 houses belonging to Shi’a people that were burned and destroyed on 26 August 2012. One person died after being attacked with a machete. From what I know, one family, that of Ustadz Tajul, was driving in a minivan to Sampang jail. On the way, they were harassed by a group of Sunnis. The family decided to return, but the gang followed them all the way to the village. One of the perpetrators called for reinforcements and soon more than one thousand people gathered, and eventually attacked the Shi’a community. They burned and destroyed houses here, they killed and injured people.”
Just as the children and adults were beginning to relax, a man walked briskly up towards the platform. Everyone fell silent. The village is mixed: Sunni and Shia, living side by side. In August, it was the locals, not just those coming from outside, that attacked their neighbors.
On the way back to Surabaya, the driver begins telling a long and complicated tale about two brothers, two imams – one Shia and one Sunni. The Sunni imam apparently fell in love with a girl from a local boarding Shia school. His brother interfered and married the girl off to a boy of her own age.
“The Sunni imam was so angry, that he began agitating the crowd against his own brother, and the violence erupted.”
I have covered enough conflicts all over Indonesia, to know their simple and true causes – racism, intolerance and bigotry – are never accepted here. There is always some ‘unpaid bus fare’, just as in Ambon, or an obscure love story, or at least a bunch of ‘provocateurs’ triggering violence.
The reality is simple and terrible: since the 1960s, Indonesia has lived through at least 3 genocides: that of 1965/66, in which between 2 and 3 million people died as a result of the Western-backed military coup against President Sukarno and the moderate and constitutional PKI (the Communist Party of Indonesia, which was widely expected to win the elections), the genocide in East Timor, in which approximately 30% of the local people lost their lives, and the ongoing genocide in West Papua.
The religion of the majority played a decisive role in all these ‘events’. In 1965, as was confirmed by our friend, the former progressive President of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid (‘Gus Dur’), the religious cadres joined the military in an indiscriminate slaughter of ‘atheists’; killing members of the PKI, intellectuals and members of the Chinese minority. East Timor and Papua, two Christian and animist nations had been put through forced Islamization and unimaginable discrimination and horrors. Papua is suffering; literally bleeding into extinction, until this very day.
But the West insists that Indonesia is a ‘tolerant’ nation, and even an example that should be followed by the leaders of the Arab Spring.
Who can ever forget the memorable phrase that Hilary Clinton dropped, while visiting Indonesia, in the same period when the secularists were being assaulted and beaten by the Islamic Defender’s Front, in front of the idle police standing by, as sharia law was unconstitutionally imposed on several pockets of West Java and elsewhere, as the members of Ahmadiyah sect were being murdered, churches burnt, and non-Muslims brutally attacked, harassed and punished for their beliefs, all over the archipelago: “If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”
Why would she utter such unfounded chimeras?
The answer is obvious: because the West in general and the US in particular, are infinitely grateful to this fourth most populous country on earth; grateful for murdering the Communists and members of Chinese minority, for murdering intellectuals, artists, and teachers.
Grateful to the Indonesian religious cadres that went to fight the Soviet Union and its client secular government in Afghanistan (who in the West would even imagine tolerating women in Kabul being educated and empowered under Russian rule?), joining the Mujahedin, Pakistani jihadis and intelligence forces, as well as foreign legionnaires paid for by the West (including those embryonic cells of the future Al Qaida); all united and most of them stoned, putting an end to the only relatively hopeful period of modern Afghan history, while helping to bleed the USSR to extinction, militarily and financially!
And let us not forget how grateful the West is to the Indonesian people for allowing their natural resources to be plundered by multi-national companies, and by their own corrupt elites!
What would the West do without obedient countries like Indonesia: how could it maintain its ridiculously high level of consumption and its standard of living? And isn’t obedience a basis of any religious and feudal society?
In Indonesia there is a clear paradox: most of the people think that the country is tolerant and moderate; they are quoting Western politicians and Western mass media. In the meantime the number of deaths caused by intolerance and bigotry is mounting.
“The problem with the majority of Indonesian Muslims is that they don’t have their own opinion. They follow what their leaders say, or follow what the Qur’an says, or what the hadiths say. They don’t exercise critical thinking at all. Therefore, when their leaders say; we are moderate and tolerant followers of Islam, most of the believers will say yes and think that is the case”, explained Noor Huda Ismail, Muslim thinker, analyst and an author of the book “My Friend a Terrorist”.
The covered tennis court in the city of Sampang, is where the refugees from the area that we earlier visited, had been given temporary shelter. There are armored vehicles parked at the gate and security personnel, that don’t allow anyone to enter.
We ‘gate crash’; park the car and I dash in, with a total disregard for the shouts and attempts to stop me – hardened by my work in the refugee camps of DR Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Turkey.
Here, refugees talk. They are outraged, and hurt. It feels like they have nothing to lose:
“We feel damaged, angry and disappointed, and we hold the government responsible”, explains a young man– Nur Kholis. “Our rights were stolen from us. We did nothing wrong to those who killed and destroyed us.”
“We are now waiting for justice. As the Shia minority, we are discriminated against.
We only have a few differences with Sunnis, and there is no reason for conflict. We always have to remember that we have more similarities than differences. But Shi’a people are now called kafirs; we are labeled as najis. They say that, Shi’a people change wives like animals. All these are lies, but people here believe it.”
And then he, in his own words, comes to the same conclusion as Nur Huda Ismail:
“Madurese believe what their big Imams say. There is no questioning them, even if they are wrong and obviously totally corrupt! Do you know that MUI Sampang (The Council of Ulemas in Sampang) issued a fatwa (Islamic edict), that Shia teaching is squarely misguided and heretic? The government did nothing! And now they want us to leave, instead of returning home; they are trying to relocate us to another island – far away Sulawesi!”
Hanny, a sister of two Imams who were in a dispute over the fate of the girl from boarding school, is even more explicit:
“I think that the majority of the people of Madura know very little about the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. But their Imams told them that the teaching of Shia is heretic, un-Islamic and that the Sunni teachings are the only correct ones. Sunni Imams want us to disappear from Madura Island; we are becoming political refugees. For them, the violence directed at us is justifiable; it is halal because they think we are like dirt, like shit, haram, najis. I saw one of the attackers, Seniwan, at the police station when he was detained. Later I was told that he was seen at the market! Maybe he has a double…” she adds sarcastically.
During the interviews with the victims, I film and photograph the refugees. An old couple catches my eye. A woman and a man radiate terrible grief. I don’t know what it is that I feel, but it is almost as if my hand, holding the camera, keeps turning the lens towards them. I follow my instinct and begin photographing, discreetly, somehow embarrassed. A woman moves. She utters a heart-wrenching sound. I suddenly have goose bumps on my back.
“Who are they?” I ask Hanny. “Who is she?”
“She is the mother of a man who was killed… they are his parents”, she replies.
As always, in such situations, a short stab of hopelessness is soon replaced with a desire to inform, and to change things.
I bow to an old woman and go back to work.
Two young women, two Shi’a teachers, are literally holed in their girl’s boarding school. They are so cute, defenseless and kind-hearted, that I instantly feel these could be two women I would like to have as my sisters.
But they are tough. They know that they are besieged, in danger, and exposed, but they do not abandon their posts.
Across the road is a small Sunni mosque, a mussola, full of heavy guns pointing at the Shi’a boarding school. ‘Guns’ consist of powerful loudspeakers, and of being part of the overwhelming Sunni majority, that is showered with money from the Gulf.
Naila Zakiyah, is a lecturer at the Shi’a school for girls: Al Mahadul Islami:
“In a light of recent events, we are naturally worried about the safety of our students. We are supposed to educate girls here, but there is a group of people that is trying to undermine our efforts… Yes, we feel discriminated against… Before this year’s Ramadhan, the mussola Al Anwar from across the street broadcasted their sermon twice a week. They had their loudspeakers directed towards our school. They were shouting that Shi’a teaching is misguided, and that our blood is haram. It is said that those who are attacking us, are being funded by money from Saudi Arabia. I don’t have any proof but that is what people say. In 2007, there were 500 people demonstrating in front of our boarding school; that time the funds came from KSA. Each person was given US$2. These were uneducated people; I doubt they knew what they were being used for.”
The teachers and us exchanged mobile numbers, and then we simply crossed the road, and went directly to their torturers; to men known for shooting hate-coated verbal missiles towards those nice Shi’a teachers and their students. We marched to the Mushala Al Anwar, and fetched Mr. Atoilah.
While somehow embarrassed whilst visiting the Shi’a boarding school, I suddenly felt extremely halal here, with my US passport sticking out from my pocket. I was aware that I was entering a territory that was so kindly embraced and caressed by Wahhabi wisdom and by its guardian, the KSA – one of the closest allies of our dear and gentle, starred and striped Empire.
Mr. Atoilah was at first surprised by our interest, then he played shy, but by the end he regained his natural militant and boorish self, and as expected, went ballistic:
“The teaching of Shi’a deviates from Islamic teaching; therefore we have so many essential differences. The Shi’a minority once promised that they will convert to Sunni, but they lied to us… And so it seemed that we couldn’t talk to them in a subtle way, anymore. If they don’t want to convert, then we have to use violence. In our opinion, they are kafir. We will not be at peace with them until we die, even if our lives are at stake. They have already insulted Islam! If the police do not take action against the Shi’a, we will resort to violence.”
He produces an amateur brochure, a photocopy of a pamphlet proclaiming, “The Truth About Shi’a” on its cover.
“Here, read this”, he hands us a copy. Sponsored by LPPI (Institute for Islamic Research and Study) based in Jakarta, it reads. Then he adds: “We are part of NU, you know.”
NU is one of the biggest, if not the biggest independent Muslim organization in the world, with an estimated membership base of 30 million people.
“Astaga”, we think; which could be loosely translated as ‘Oh damn it!’
Mr. Atoilah is smiling, victoriously.
People from the Shiite minority are petrified. Many are now practicing their faith in secret; most of them keep it to themselves. Even in the big cities, it is now difficult to make people go on record and identify themselves as Shi’a.
It is said that there are approximately 1 million Shi’a Muslims in Indonesia, an official number, quoted by the Indonesian press. But at all the religious Shi’a schools that we visited, teachers laugh at those numbers. They say that there are several millions of their brothers and sisters all over the archipelago, although nobody bothers to keep a count. And despite the persecution, their numbers are growing.
Naturally those millions cannot count on the protection of the State, and, the same can be said about the other religious and ethnic minorities. In Indonesia the majority rules, and it rules ruthlessly.
Here, the assassins go free and the victims end up in prisons.
According to the Jakarta Globe, it was actually two people, not one, killed on August 2012. As was reported one day later:
Around 30 Shi’ites, most of them children, were traveling from Nangkernang village… they were stopped by around 500 men from the mainstream Muslim groups…”, said Umi Kutsum, who was at the scene… “Two people died,” she said. “Five were wounded as they were trying to protect the women and children. I was petrified… The mob had swords and machetes…” Among the group, were Umi’s children, who were taken away from her. The mob then torched four homes belonging to the Shi’ite community, including one belonging to Umi and her husband, the Shia cleric Tajul Muluk…”
The August attack was the second one in this area. On December 29, 2011, hard-line Muslim groups burned down hundreds of homes in and around Nangkernang, displacing around 500 people. The Shia Islamic School was destroyed, as well.
In a move that illustrates the ‘impartiality’ of the Indonesian justice system, instead of pursuing the mob leaders (everybody in the area knows who they are), the police instead charged a Shia cleric with blasphemy. And, as was even reported by the Jakarta Globe, the Ministry of Religious Affairs office in Sampang, said it would ‘supervise’ hundreds of Shia to learn Sunni Islam.
That proved too much for some.
On 13 July 2012 Amnesty International released its report Indonesia: Shi’a leader imprisoned for blasphemy must be released:
The Indonesian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Tajul Muluk, a Shi’a Muslim religious leader from East Java, who was today sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for blasphemy by the Sampang District Court. Amnesty International considers Tajul Muluk to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Tajul Muluk was displaced with over 300 other Shi’a villagers on 29 December 2011, when an anti-Shi’a mob of some 500 people attacked and burned houses, a boarding school and a Shi’a place of worship in Nangkrenang village, Sampang, Madura island. Only one person was charged and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for the attacks.
Afterwards most of the Shi’a displaced by the attack returned to Nangkrenang village. But Tajul Muluk and about 20 other villagers, including his family, were prevented from returning to the village by the attackers, who reportedly threatened to kill them if they returned, and by the police.
On 1 January 2012 a religious decree (fatwa) was issued by the Sampang branch of the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) about what they described as Tajul Muluk’s “deviant teachings”, and two days later a police report was filed against him. On 16 March, the East Java regional police charged Tajul Muluk with blasphemy under Article 156(a) of the Indonesian Criminal Code, and with “offensive actions” under Article 335 of the Code.
New York-based Human Rights Watch joined those who called on the government to drop all the charges against Tajul Muluk.
The Indonesian government, stubbornly and defiantly, did absolutely nothing.
As it has been doing for years, it silently sided with the religious bigots.
A leading Indonesian fiction writer and journalist, Linda Christanty, is one of the few who is willing to speak about the conflict:
“The Wahabbis from Saudi Arabia are very much against the Shi’a… One of the reasons is because they revere the Prophet Muhammad. For Wahabbis, it is forbidden to venerate any human being, including Muhammad. KSA actually even wanted to destroy Muhammad’s grave. None of the Arab countries dared to oppose the plan. Turkey was the only country that interfered, and threatened Saudi Arabia with total destruction should they dare to destroy Muhammad’s grave. That’s why we can still see Muhammad’s grave, thanks to Turkey.”
But this is not just about religious differences. It is increasingly clear, that proud and independent-minded Shi’a are opposing Western imperialism in the Middle East, in the Gulf and elsewhere. Predominantly Shi’a Iran is now the arch-enemy of the West, and the ally of progressive Latin America. Saudi and Qatari cadres, and their clients are targeting Shi’a in KSA, Bahrain, and also in Turkey, and it seems now, in Indonesia as well.
In a short interview, Prof. Azyumardi Azra, a director of the Graduate School of State Islamic University in Jakarta, explained:
“Since the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia with their Wahabbism, using some Indonesian alumni from Saudi Arabia, has tried to destroy Shi’a teaching, but they haven’t been successful. And not all of these alumni are against Shia. Many of them belong to moderate streams of Muslim scholars here, such as the previous Minister of Religious Affairs, Said Agil Husin Al Munawar.”
It is true about the previous Minister, but what he did not say, is that the present Minister of Religious Affairs, Suryadharma Ali throws pearls that could hardly be matched by his counterparts in other countries: “Converting Shiite Muslims to the Sunni Islam followed by most Indonesians would be the best way to prevent violent outbreaks…”
More brutal is the rule of the majority in Indonesia; more difficult it is to find people willing and ready to speak up about injustice. Mr. Sangaji from Jakarta is one of the few Shiites willing to go on record:
“There were many attacks on the Shi’a community, in the last few years here in Indonesia. It is so unfortunate that our Sunni brothers and sisters have little knowledge about Shi’a. But whenever we open the door for dialogue, they shut it in our face and refuse to come in. Our Shi’a intellectuals are always ready for a peaceful dialogue… Of course I feel discriminated against… “
“Is there any influence from abroad? It is not really allowed to discuss this issue openly, but one should always be on alert, as there is always such a possibility. Our country is in a deep crisis, economically and politically; reforms have failed. Indonesians are now so easily influenced.”
Before leaving Madura, driving towards the new bridge, we see the same scenes as in most of the poor parts of the country. Destitution and misery next to tremendous new mosques, some still under the construction, made of marble and granite. Who pays for them? Who needs all that marble when the children run barefoot?
At Surabaya airport we spotted two jumbo-jets; two Boeing 747-400 belonging to Saudi Airlines – one arriving and one leaving – taking pilgrims to Haj. What else comes and what else leaves with these airplanes? For years, almost everything in Indonesia is for sale. Since 1965, the lives of victims ceased to matter; the lives of the weak and of the minorities became worthless.
Last year I visited the enormous Syekh Muhammad Kholil Mosque, in the city of Bangkalan, on Madura Island – built like some lavish palace in the Gulf. I found the caretaker – Mohammad Hasan – and asked him what he thought about then recent events in West and Central Java, where members of the Ahmadiyah sect were lynched to death, and churches burned. Without hesitation, he replied, straight to my face:
“Ahmadiyah members should be killed. It is about faith. In Indonesia, we don’t want Ahmadiyah because it deviates from the teaching of the sharia. They deserved to be killed because they are destroying the true faith of the people. When it comes to burning churches, I am against it. We are a peaceful religion.”
I felt like bowing in front of such humanism, ‘tolerance’ and ‘moderation’.
And I felt like sending a letter to the State Department saying: “Congratulations! You did to Indonesia what you could have never done to Vietnam, you and your bearded clients in the Gulf. It is not just that the country is being plundered, miserable and corrupt, and its environment ruined. But you have also destroyed their entire civilization, and now the people of this once great Asian culture – once really tolerant and deep – are listening to your pop, stuffing themselves on your fast food, driving your cars, and murder each other over religion and ethnicity. Congratulations, really! Another nation down the drain! And who is next?”
*Photos by Andre Vltchek
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu . His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.
Rossie Indira is an independent writer, architect and consultant. Her latest book ‘Surat Dari Bude Ocie’ is about her travel to Latin American countries. With Andre Vltchek, she co-written ‘Exile’, a book of conversation with Pramoedya Ananta Toer. She was production manager and translator of 89-minute documentary film ‘Terlena – Breaking of a Nation’. Rossie lives in Indonesia.