Demonised and displaced: Ahmadiyah Muslims

A ‘deviant’ Islamic sect find themselves trapped in transition

Philip Jacobson
June 8, 2012
Demonised and displaced: Ahmadiyah Muslims
Photo: Philip Jacobson Desperate times: Basir Azis

Volcanic forces underlie the islands of Indonesia. In the country’s western-and-southern island chain – a broad shield stretching from the Malay Peninsula to the waters north of Australia, this is especially true.

Mountains are worshipped as gods, and rightly so, for they have produced largest eruptions in recorded history, products of the pressures and conditions of the Earth whose crashes and collisions have shaped this archipelago.

These forces are not only topographic. On the island of Lombok, just east of packed Java and touristy Bali, one community of Ahmadiyah Muslims knows this all too well.

In 2006, its members were forced from their rural homes by hundreds of frenzied villagers. The mob roiled forth like magma upon the Ahmadis’ houses, tearing down what they could before setting the rest ablaze.

The Ahmadis, sobbing and terrified, fled across administrative lines into Mataram, the provincial capital. Police officers escorted them to a Transito shelter, built as temporary housing for Indonesian transmigrants awaiting state-sponsored relocation.

Six years later, they are still there. They cannot move out. It is not for lack of trying; the Ahmadis have gone to local officials repeatedly, asking that someone settle their situation. But Mataram officials refuse to let them register as citizens in the district, saying they are awaiting a decision from West Lombok district, where the Ahmadis came from.

Meanwhile in West Lombok, they say it is Mataram that must deal with them.

Relocation plans have been bandied around for years, written up from time to time in the local media. So have plans to compensate the Ahmadis for their destroyed homes. But nothing has been done.

“All talk, no action,” says Basir Azis, the group’s leader. He wears a black suit coat over a white football jersey and speaks Indonesian as he leans against a pillar by a prayer room.

Four structures and a concrete yard make up the Transito complex, located behind a wall just off a quaint two-lane street lined with trees and homes. More than 150 people live here.

In the front, boys kick a football around. A few women in headscarves stand about, some holding babies. An old shirtless man stacks a pile of scrap wood.

Inside it is dark. The only light is what seeps through the small grates that line the upper perimeters of two walls. Only curtains demarcate the different families’ spaces.

Basir pulls one of them back to reveal an old couple. Ancient looking, nearly motionless, they sit side by side on the ground. They seem frozen in the warm, dark air, like two statues. The space is full of broken electronics. The man is an electrician, Basir says. He is more than 100 years old.

The woman, clasping her knees, lets out a small cough. She is blind, Basir says.

It looks almost like a shrine, the way the light coming in above them mixes with the dark and casts their faces in shadow. But it is more like a prison.

A history of persecution

Ahmadiyah is Islam’s pariah sect. The reasons are doctrinal and political. Their founder, a man called Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a 19th century religious figure who lived in British India and claimed to be the second coming of Christ. He said he was the promised Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam.

Most Muslims disagreed. To them Muhammad was the final prophet, and the Mahdi hadn’t come around yet.

Mirza also preached a peaceful Islam, and he argued against jihad as military endeavour. At the time a strong anti-British movement was developing in India, and Mirza was one of the only Muslim leaders not to support the call for jihad against the British. For this, others branded him a heretic. They prepared fatwas against him and accused him of undermining their cause and even of working for the British.

The conception of Ahmadiyah as a subversive movement against Islam has persevered. A unanimous declaration issued by the Muslim World League in 1974 at a Saudi Arabia conference said that Ahmadiyah was “originally fostered by British imperialism”, has been “loyal to imperialism and Zionism” and that “under the guise of Islam… [it] contrives and plans to damage its very foundations”.

Today there are millions of Ahmadis, perhaps tens of millions. In Pakistan, where four million of them live, the law prevents them from identifying as Muslim. There is a history of persecution against them there, and in Bangladesh and India. The worst act against the Ahmadis to date took place in Lahore, Pakistan, in May 2010. Armed men entered two Ahmadi mosques and opened fire, with three blowing themselves up. Ninety-five people died and more than a hundred were injured.

Indonesia is by far the largest Muslim-majority country with 248 million people, 213 million of whom are Muslim, but persecution of Ahmadis is a relatively recent phenomenon. It only really started after military dictator Suharto’s ouster in 1998, after decades of his rule. In the absence of his iron grip, extremist groups came out of the woodwork.

In 2008 the Indonesian government, under pressure from Islamic conservatives, declared Ahmadiyah as ‘deviant from Islam’ and banned its members from proselytising. There were incidents against them of note in 2008 and 2010, usually involving large mobs attacking Ahmadiyah mosques and homes.

On February 6, 2011, in a village not far from Jakarta, three Ahmadis were killed during a mob attack. Footage of the incident went viral on YouTube and was broadcast by international media. It depicted a crowd of 1,500 people, many holding sticks, rocks and machetes, hooting and hollering while a few of their number beat the life out of three naked bodies, with the police looking on.

Sanctioned squalor

Just outside Mataram in West Lombok’s Gegerung village, a dirt road cuts through a lush green landscape. There are cultivated rice paddies and a backdrop of mountains. It is a classic scene of Southeast Asian beauty.

Perpendicular to the road is a line of stone ruins. This is where the Ahmadis used to live. A pair of Indonesian journalists pulls up on motorcycles. They are Abdul Latif Apriaman and Fitri Pikong, a husband and wife, who were there when the Ahmadis were driven out.

The villagers, whipped up by the cleric of the local mosque, had announced their intentions a few days before the attack. Police and reporters were ready at the Ahmadiyah houses, but the 100 or so officers, Latif said, could not stop the more than 500 villagers who showed up wielding sticks, machetes and fire.

The Ahmadis ran from their homes with everything they could carry, Fitri said. She remembered the tears streaming down their faces, especially those of the women.

Several times some Ahmadis have tried to return to Gegerung and resume farming. But officials force them to leave, or else villagers threaten them with more violence.

Despite their predicament, the Ahmadis are remarkably upbeat. They love football, and talk about their favourite teams and players. When posing for pictures they flash thumbs ups and peace signs.

Still, Basir says, they ache to leave the Transito. Most frustrating, he says, is that they cannot register as citizens in Mataram, which means they cannot collect government benefits, legally send their children to school, or take part in anything that involves processing official paperwork.

Making ends meet is difficult, Basir says. They subsist off money from odd jobs. The Transito is falling apart, especially the leaking roofs. Besides that, there is no electricity or running water.

“We were forced to live here,” Basir says. “It is a sad life. Our greatest hope is to live a normal life, a decent life, like other people.”

So it goes. The Ahmadis live in government-sanctioned squalor, and no one seems to care.

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