- Violence, Sectarianism, and the Politics of Religion: Articulations of Anti-Shi‘a Discourses in Indonesia
This article explains the recent violence directed at Shi‘a Muslims in Indonesia by situating the cause of and increase in such attacks in the wider contexts of international politics, changing national political dynamics, legal provisions regulating religious minorities, and the local environment. Instead of focusing on the micro-dynamics of the attacks, this article looks at the trajectory of the violence and joins national politics and local dynamics with legal opinions in both the civil and religious realms. With the rise of Islamic orthodoxy in the Indonesian public sphere during the 2000s, Shi‘a Muslims—as well as the Ahmadis—became for many the representatives of the threat to social order. The cases that support this suggested explanation for the violence are numerous, but in this essay one detailed case of marginalization and violence is given, that of the Shi‘a community in Nangkernang, a village on the southern coast of Madura island, in the province of East Java.
Beginning in April 2000, Indonesian Shi‘a communities have been the target of violent attacks, with an escalating increase in reported incidents since 2006. Houses and schools have been burnt down, individuals have had stones thrown at them, and praying sessions have been forcefully disbanded. Across the Muslim world this is hardly news, as sectarian strife has plagued the Middle East and South Asia for decades, if not longer. In Indonesia, however, these attacks are, indeed, a new phenomenon, and one that I am reticent to label as strictly “sectarian” in its origin.1
In an attempt to explain why Indonesia has recently experienced a violent turn in approaches to Shi‘a Muslims, I situate the surfacing and increase in these attacks in the wider contexts of international politics, changing national political dynamics, legal provisions regulating religious minorities, and the local environment in which the attacks have occurred. Instead of focusing on the micro-dynamics of the attacks, this article concerns itself with the trajectory of the violent turn, bringing national politics [End Page 1] and local dynamics into conversation with legal opinions in both the civil and religious realms. The cases that support this suggested explanation are numerous, but I have elected to present only one detailed case of marginalization and violence, that of the Shi‘a community in Nangkernang, a village on the southern coast of Madura island, in the province of East Java.
The decision to pursue a combined analysis focusing on defining moments of transition, and combining local and international perspectives, differentiating between triggers and channels of mobilization in the escalation process, follows Gerry van Klinken’s multi-layered study of the violence that swept across Poso and Maluku in 1999–2001. Also, as this article identifies as a turning point the transition period from Suharto’s authoritarian New Order (1965–98) to the “democratic” reform era, which spanned 1997–2000, this analysis is heavily influenced by the works of John Sidel and James Siegel. Whereas Sidel’s study of religious violence in Java points to the “tensions and anxieties” caused by the recurrent power shifts between secular and religious forces at the national and provincial levels, Siegel’s research on the anti-witchcraft campaigns isolates the crisis of identity induced by the collapse of an all-encompassing regime, offering an analysis of the perpetrators.2
In this article, the responsibility for shaping the confrontational discourse and violent engagement with the Shi‘as is ultimately pinned on the government, through changing contexts and political dynamics. It was the regime that in the 1980s fostered fears of repercussions from the Iranian revolution, thus creating a climate favorable to the condemnation of (alleged) Shi‘as; it was government agencies’ representatives who in the 1990s joined, thus indirectly legitimizing, “religious” seminars aimed at discrediting Shi‘a Islam; and it has been the government in the twenty-first century thus far that has assumed the role of “servant of religious authorities” and encouraged hardline groups concerned with religious deviation to follow their own path to justice.3 To balance this state-oriented analysis, which tends to push individual actors, not least the...