Indonesia's persecuted

Retired US diplomat Robert Pringle explains why Ahmadiyya Muslims have been a target of sectarian vi

Roughly 85 per cent of Indonesia’s 240 million people profess Islam, making the country the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Indonesian Islam is diverse, with virtually every variation of the faith represented, from mystical Sufism to politically radical fundamentalism, though there are very few shias.

Except for an extremist fringe, most Indonesian Muslims are moderate, and they tolerate each other well. They generally agree, however, that the government-persecuted Ahmadiyya sect, which claims to be “Islam,” is unacceptably nothing of the kind.

The sect’s refusal to give ground on this point is has made it a soft target for fundamentalist mobs and put the government of President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono in a dilemma. If the president allows Ahmadiyya to exist in accordance with Indonesia’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, it will provoke more violence, and he may lose some much-needed Muslim political support in next year's election.

Ahmadiyya, founded in India in the late nineteenth century, was energetically seeking converts in Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies, as long ago as the 1920s. The problem was (and is) that its founder, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, claimed to be a new, post-Mohammed prophet, as well as the Promised Messiah and Mahdi. This runs flatly contrary to the fundamental Muslim belief that Mohammed was the seal of the prophets, final as well as perfect.

The Islam-Ahmaddiya contretemps has something in common with the historic tension in the USA between Christianity and Mormonism, which was also founded by a break-away prophet. Mormons were persecuted in the US, often violently, until the church modified its doctrine to accommodate the Christian majority, most notably by outlawing polygamy. But Ahmadiyya has refused to question its founder’s prophethood or to drop its claim to be just as Islamic as anyone else.

Indonesia has got past the widespread communlal violence and terrorism which followed the fall of Suharto, epitomized by the Bali bombing of 2002, but militant radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) are still eager to prove what vigilant Muslims they are, and Ahmadiyya, thanks to its obvious doctrinal deviation, makes a perfect target.

In 2005 the controversial, quasi-official Indonesian Council of Ulamas issued a non-binding fatwa (decree) reasserting that Ahmaddiyya is heretical, and this has been followed by sporadic mob violence against the sect’s followers and mosques ever since. The government has been unable to stop what is patently illegal violence. Recently the authorities offered Ahmadiyya a choice: it could stop claiming to be Muslim, in which case it would enjoy Indonesia’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, or it could close up shop.

Such a solution might have placated Muslim radicals, but Ahmadiyya, which has about 200,000 followers in the country, refused to renounce its Islamic identity or to go out of business. Instead it is appealing the government’s either-or decision. On 1 June, when supporters of religious rights, including prominent mainstream Muslim figures, staged a rally in Jakarta to support the sect, they too were attacked by a mob.

In some ways the Ahmadiyya case is a distraction from the more important competition between Islamic extremists and the moderate majority of Muslims, which the moderates seem to be gradually winning.

There has been no terrorist violence in Indonesia since 2005, and the country’s decentralized democracy is working well, with spirited elections at all levels frequently lost by incumbents. But Indonesians and foreigners alike are justifiably concerned about the continuing threat to pluralism and minority rights which the Ahmadiyya case demonstrates. Until the government is willing to uphold a basic freedom spelled out in its own constitution and crack down on mob violence, Indonesia will not get full moral credit for its undoubted democratic achievements.

Andrew Bell/Guardian (Jeremy Corbyn)
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Who’s who in Team Corbyn

Who are the key players in Jeremy Corbyn's team?

Kat Fletcher
Head of strategy and key aide

By coincidence, there are two unrelated Fletchers at the heart of the Corbyn operation (the other one is Simon: see below). Both come with experience of beating the Labour establishment – Kat was elected NUS president in 2004 against opposition from the more centrist Labour Students group. She has been close to Corbyn for close to a decade and was his agent in this year’s election. She is also a power player in Islington politics in her own right, rising to deputy mayor just two years after being elected as a councillor. Outside politics, she runs a small chain of gastropubs called Handmade Pubs.

Photo: Kat Fletcher

 

Seb Corbyn
Bag-carrier

No race for the Labour leadership would be complete without the presence of a Red Prince or two. The second of Corbyn’s three sons is a Cambridge graduate who has been pressed into service as a bag-carrier and all-purpose aide for this election. (His mother is Corbyn’s second wife, Claudia Bracchitta.) Seb, 25, was the author of a touching scene on the campaign trail when he patted his father’s hair down after both were caught in heavy winds in London. Beyond the campaign, he works for John McDonnell, another close ally of his father’s.

Photo: Carmel Nolan, Jeremy Corbyn and his son Seb

Carmel Nolan
Head of press

Corbyn’s press chief is a former radio journalist and veteran campaigner from Liverpool – and, like him, was a leading architect of the Stop the War coalition. She has described the Corbyn team as “a coalition of the willing and the available” and “like Stop the War with bells on”. Nolan, formerly known as Carmel Brown, is respected by Westminster hacks as a serious operator. In her spare time she researches the fates of Liverpool men who served in the Second World War.

Her daughter, Hope, is credited with coming up with the name for George Galloway’s anti-war party in 2004. Then aged just eight, she picked two names: one was the “Give All Your Sweeties to Hope Party”. The other was Respect.

 

Clive Lewis
MP who nominated Corbyn

Star of the distinctly left-wing clutch of 2015 Labour MPs, Lewis was one of Corbyn’s earliest and most vocal backers – Corbyn credited the new MP for Norwich South with getting his nomination “off the ground”.

Lewis, who worked for more than a decade as a journalist with the BBC, is tipped for a shadow cabinet position (Defence or Culture are rumoured briefs) if Corbyn wins the leadership. He called New Labour “dead and buried” in his victory speech in May 2015.

 

Simon Fletcher
Campaign chief

A veteran back-room operative, Fletcher spent eight years as Ken Livingstone’s chief of staff. In 2000, after Tony Blair ensured that Livingstone was not selected as Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, Fletcher took him to victory as an independent, masterminding a “Stand down, Frank” campaign against Frank Dobson.

Photo: Simon Fletcher

Fletcher originally met Livingstone through Socialist Action, the Trotskyist group, and the former mayor’s memoirs record his friend getting the highest First from City of London Poly in its history (he led a student occupation there) before working on Tony Benn’s archives. In 2009 Fletcher denounced Gordon Brown for “pandering to the BNP” over allocation of social housing. More recently, he was an aide to Ed Miliband, working as his trade union liaison officer from 2013 onwards. He is credited with renegotiating the unions’ relationship with Labour after that year’s Falkirk selection row.

 

John McDonnell
Campaign manager in the Parliamentary Labour Party

After two failed attempts at the Labour leadership (he was kept off the ballot both times), the Socialist Campaign Group chair chose not to stand again this year. Instead, having persuaded Corbyn to run, the Hayes and Harlington MP became his campaign manager. Since his election in 1997, McDonnell, 63, has been one of Corbyn’s greatest parliamentary allies – though some MPs see him as abrasive, unlike his endlessly courteous friend. It was recently reported that he has been promised the post of shadow chancellor, a claim Corbyn sources deny.

 

Jon Trickett
Ideas guru

The Yorkshireman is Jeremy Corbyn’s only supporter in the shadow cabinet. Having been a senior adviser to Ed Miliband, the 65-year-old Trickett was pressured by some to stand as the left’s candidate in the leadership contest but declined – leaving the field clear for Corbyn. Although some in Camp Corbyn regard him with suspicion because he served as a PPS to Gordon Brown, the Hemsworth MP and former Leeds City Council leader is in line for a big role in Corbyn’s front-bench team.

Photo: Jon Trickett

Richard Burgon
MP and supporter

Another high-profile left-winger in Labour’s 2015 intake, Burgon is of solid socialist stock: a trade union lawyer and nephew of the former Labour MP Colin Burgon, a long-term champion of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. A dedicated Corbynite, the Leeds East MP might shadow either the Justice Secretary or Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Like Corbyn, he is a republican; he swore an oath to the Queen on taking his seat but describes himself as “someone that believes that the head of state should be elected”.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism