Gafatar: Diversity, but Only Within Limits

One of Indonesia’s main foundation stones of nationhood is Unity in Diversity (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika). It’s a principle that is seen as essential in holding together a nation of more than 200 ethnic groups stretched across more than 13,000 islands.

But diversity is allowed only to a degree. When it comes to religion, there are strict limits to how diverse you are allowed to be. For the supporters of the Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar), the slogan doesn’t apply to them and the concern is that the limits of deviation are becoming increasingly narrow. At the same time, what in other societies would be referred to as hard-right groups are gaining the ascendancy and increasingly dictating the agenda on social issues, especially those related to religious belief and practice.

Extreme reaction
The evacuation of as many as 6,000 members of Gafatar from West Kalimantan earlier this year followed an explosion of violence on January 19 in which a mob burned down the houses of a Gafatar community in Mempawah regency. The community had been given a deadline of four days to leave the area by local authorities, but the mob took the law into its own hands only a day after the deadline was issued.

Members of the community were herded into a military base and are being progressively returned to Java, where they are being kept under close guard in government centers. Officials of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) are giving them instruction on the ‘correct’ path of Islam and re-converting them to the mainstream form of the religion.

Initially sparked by concern when a woman doctor and her child went missing from Yogyakarta, the reaction of the authorities to the revelation of the existence of the group has been extreme. Even before the violence at Mempawah, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo had ordered all regional leaders to seal the offices of the movement, which authorities had described as “radical and dangerous.”

Threat to the state
It is not clear in what way Gafatar members were dangerous. Allegations have been voiced that they wanted to establish a separate state and had planned to smuggle weapons from Malaysia to start an insurrection. The National Police chief, Gen. Badrodin Haiti, stated that “this is not simple but a serious threat. They have a governor, division heads, they want to build an independent state.”

Azyumardi Azra, a leading Muslim intellectual from State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta, is one who also subscribes to the belief that Gafatar is a threat to the state of Indonesia and its basis in the ideology of Pancasila. In an op-ed article in Kompas on February 2, he drew a direct link between the group and the Darul Islam rebellion and the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII) movement. He too argued that Gafatar aimed to establish a separate state which at some stages was referred to as the “Kingdom of God.”

There is however a major difference between Gafatar and the historical groups that fought for an Islamic republic. Gafatar does not see mainstream Islam as the basis for its proposed new state and indeed does not consider itself to be Islamic. Rather, it defines itself as an Abrahamic belief system, representing a merger of Judaic, Christian and Islamic beliefs.

Other sources also deny that the group had any intention to contest the supremacy of the law or the sovereignty of the Indonesian state. Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Gafatar’s members had voluntarily migrated to Kalimantan because land was cheap there, enabling them to pursue their vision of establishing agricultural communities.

Mostly well-educated people, they included former agricultural advisors with local governments, and had been successful in exporting ginger and turmeric to the European market, Harsono told Concord Strategic. They had established cooperatives in a number of areas of Kalimantan and had complied fully with all regional regulations. All members had identity cards, family cards and all the other rigmarole of bureaucratic Indonesia.

Kalimantan power dynamics
According to Harsono, the group had unintentionally landed themselves into a hornet’s nest of jealousy and competition for power. West Kalimantan’s population teeters uncomfortably on the knife-edge of ethnic division between the coastal Malays, the Dayak and ethnic Chinese.

The Dayak are best known for their slaughter of hundreds of Madurese migrants in the area beginning in 1999. “The roots of violence are still there, the hoodlums are still there, the Malays didn’t like Gafatar because of the alleged blasphemy of Islam,” said Harsono.

He accuses Governor Cornelis of using Gafatar as a means of winning support from the Malays. In the past Cornelis, a Dayak, has been accused of favoring other Dayaks in official appointments. According to Harsono, he made speeches attacking Gafatar. The Messianic community apparently became a useful tool to further his attempts to win favor with his Muslim Malay constituents.

No need for fuss
KH Yahya Cholil Stafuq, secretary general of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), told Concord Strategic that there should be no need to make a fuss about Gafatar. “Non-mainstream religious beliefs will always appear from time to time. I see them as a natural phenomenon. In general, religious practices are always connected with institutions and leaders: ulema, priests, even members of the government.

“Whatever the religion, it will never be possible for the institutions and leaders to effectively respond to the demands of all members of society without exception. There will always be those who are left outside and these people are the ones who will be attracted by ‘alternative religions’. So we are wasting our time if we make too much of a fuss about these non-mainstream groups.”

But the NU figure also adds that the handling of the Gafatar communities in West Kalimantan raises many questions. “I have received information from friends involved with this group that there were some mysterious factors related to their expulsion. In the middle of the night people dressed like military or police arrived and told them they had to leave their homes immediately because a mob was going to burn down their houses.

“But for seven months before this there had never been a problem. Relations with the local people were good and, indeed, when they were leaving the local people cried when they said goodbye. It appears there is some sort of scenario behind this.” Other sources say the mob that attacked the Gafatar communities was composed of people from outside the area of the attacks.

Harsono believes the ‘scenario’ goes back to the first days of the Indonesian republic. Groups that had lobbied for the inclusion of what’s known as the Jakarta Charter as a component of the Constitution have never given up their battle to acknowledge Indonesia as an Islamic state. The charter would have made Pancasila, the founding philosophy of the state, demand that belief in God should be accompanied by “the requirement for Muslims to follow Islamic law.”

A paper by noted historian of Indonesia M.C. Ricklefs on “Religious Leaders and the State” notes that former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono assented to a major role in determining policy on religion to the MUI in a speech in July, 2005. “We open our hearts and minds to receiving the thoughts, recommendations and fatwa (edicts) from the MUI and ulema at any time,” said Yudhoyono.

“We want to place MUI in a central role in matters regarding the Islamic faith, so that it becomes clear what the difference is between areas that are the preserve of the state and areas where the government or state should heed the fatwa from the MUI and ulema.”

That effectively handed control of religion and its impacts on public life to a basically conservative group that since then has demonstrated its dislike of many of the trappings of secular Indonesia. Fatwa are regularly issued on vital issues such as the observance of Valentine’s Day. On December 14 last year MUI called on business owners not to require Muslim workers to wear Christmas accessories. It also reissued a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding Muslims – including the president – from attending Christmas celebrations. MUI has also condemned as deviant the Milata Abraham community, another incarnation of Gafatar.

A host of sects
Gafatar is by no means the only strange creature circulating in Indonesia. One Jakarta resident complains bitterly about small groups wandering around the city and the rest of the country proselytizing at mosques, at the same time demanding to be fed and housed. “They do nothing useful and just make the place dirty,” he grumbles.

The West Java branch of the MUI says that some 144 different sects have emerged in that province alone since 2000. Cirebon, Bogor and Bandung have been fertile ground for such sects, according to MUI West Java general secretary Rafani Achyar, who was commenting to the media after he had formally ‘returned’ members of Gafatar to mainstream Islam in a ceremony on February 1.

The sects he cited included Life Behind Life, the Holy Koran, Eden Heaven, Milah Ibrahim, Panjalu Siliwangi, Lia Eden and Al-Qiyadah Al-Islamiyah. “One that attracted our attention in Bandung was a barber called Sayuti, who believed he was a prophet,” he said, adding that many of the sects appeared, then disappeared and re-appeared again.

If nothing else, the proliferation of Messianic sects and other alternatives to the mainstream demonstrate that Indonesians on the whole care deeply about religion, but not all of them are satisfied by what is handed to them by the established groups. This is very different to the West, where strange religions are tolerated but largely regarded as weird by the majority: Scientology, the Church of the Latter Day Saints are just two that have a strong footing in the United States, while Pentecostal Christian groups are making converts in many countries, including South Korea and Brazil, according to an Economist report earlier this year.

Such groups are not however considered to be a threat to the stability of society or to the state, as their kin are being touted in Indonesia. They usually attract official scrutiny only when their leaders are suspected of fraud or other crimes. Yet in Indonesia, thinking differently is in itself a crime.

Blasphemy Law
Al Makin, a lecturer in the sociology of religion at UIN Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta, notes in an article published by the University of Melbourne’s Indonesia at Melbourne website that the situation has become worse for alternative religious groups since the start of the reform movement.

“Many of the leaders of these new religious movements have been charged with blasphemy under Law No. 1 PNPS/1965 (the Blasphemy Law), which inserted an article on blasphemy into the Criminal Code. There has, in fact, been a significant increase in the use of the Blasphemy Law in the democratic era. While it was only used a handful of times in the New Order period, more than 120 people have been convicted for blasphemy since the fall of Suharto,” he wrote.

Andreas Harsono also says the Law on Blasphemy has proved to be a convenient tool for repression. He has noted that while there are only six ‘official’ religions in Indonesia – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – the Constitutional Court has also ruled that “Indonesia recognizes whatever religions its citizens believe in (but) it only protects six religions from blasphemy.”

The law has been used on many occasions to silence those who dare to be different, including one young man in West Sumatra who dared to declare himself an atheist on his Facebook account. Other victims have been the founders and leading figures in groups such as Gafatar.

State-sanctioned discrimination
Concord had this to say about Indonesia’s record on diversity: “State-sanctioned discrimination is on the rise, threatening to further tarnish Indonesia’s human rights record. In West Kalimantan, thousands of members of the Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar) have been forced to evacuate their homes after the central government declared the religious sect illegal.

“In Bangka Belitung, a local government has given a small Ahmadiyah community until February 5 to leave the region after residents and local officials rejected its presence. Meanwhile, a state minister said lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations should be banned from university campuses to maintain moral standards.”

In contrast to the view that sees diversity as a question of human rights and civil liberty, Azyumardi Azra and many other figures in society and government believe that it is essential to defend the basis of the modern Indonesian state. “The existence and emergence of groups that want to create a new state has created alarm and serious concern. For this reason, the attention and efforts of the government and the people of Indonesia are required before this defense of the state becomes ‘too little’ and ‘too late’,” wrote the UIN academic.

Yet while apparently harmless religious groups face the full wrath of the law, those that interpret religion as an excuse to impose strict moral behavior on society are tolerated. Makin notes that “the reform period has seen a rise in the number and influence of violent Islamist groups seeking to uphold orthodoxy and crack down on behavior that they consider immoral. They often justify their violent and intolerant actions by referring to MUI fatwa that brand these new religious movements as deviant or heretic.”

At no stage has there been any attempt by the authorities to question the legitimacy of such far-right groups or their right to impose their views on society. For instance, there is no blanket ban on the sale of beer, yet the government has caved into pressure from these groups and banned its sale at mini-marts. With the single exception of short jail sentences handed down to leaders of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) after an outrageous attack on a religious tolerance group at Jakarta’s National Monument in 2008, very little action has been taken against its excesses.

In Aceh last October, a group calling itself Youth Care for Islam (PPI) led attacks on churches in Aceh Singkil regency, which resulted in one death. No action was taken against that group, despite its overt use of violence. Many other such groups have committed excesses in various parts of the country without any response from the authorities.

It’s who you know
Leaked US diplomatic cables dating from 2006 alleged that the FPI received funding from the police and acts as the force’s “attack dog.” Senior officials at the Jakarta Police and the National Police have for years defended the FPI as a “partner” and attempted to downplay its litany of transgressions. Former National Police chief Timur Pradopo was a visible supporter of the group and at least some of the right-wing groups like FPI were started by the authorities themselves at the end of the Suharto era to counter student groups. At the regional level, right-wing groups presumably have similar connections to local power structures.

The difference between groups like Gafatar and those such as FPI then, may simply be that the religious sects don’t have any links to power. If Andreas Harsono is correct, figures such as West Kalimantan Governor Kornelis see Gafatar and other religious sects as useful tools to be victimized in order to establish their credentials with conservative Muslims.

Harsono wrote in a 2013 paper “In Religion’s Name” that the end of repression with the resignation of Suharto in 1998 ironically created a new environment in which far-right groups could operate. And, he added, “the government has not responded decisively when … intolerance is expressed through acts of harassment, intimidation, and violence, which often affect freedom of expression and association, creating a climate in which such attacks can be expected.”

Such attacks increased in frequency with the ascendancy to the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Attacks on Ahmadiyah, Shia and Christian and other religious minorities mushroomed. “The failure of the authorities at the local and national levels to take serious action against those responsible has created a climate in Indonesia in which members of minority religious communities have much to fear. For that, the government from the president on down remains responsible,” stated Harsono.

One-sided argument
The furor over Gafatar mirrors the complexity of modern Indonesian society. Yet it is hard to believe the claims that a group that numbers around 10,000 adherents can represent a threat to a state with a population of 250 million. It is not so difficult to believe that Gafatar and other groups like it present opportunity to reactionaries who seek to encase society in a straight-jacket in which any deviance from the conservative norm is suppressed in a manner that puts human rights firmly in the back seat.

Makin makes the same point: “Culture and traditions across this archipelagic nation are complex, plural and dynamic. As long as Indonesians remain a pious people oriented toward religion, new religious movements that seek to distinguish themselves from the mainstream will continue to emerge. It is a natural consequence of having such a diverse society. Both the government and Indonesian citizens need to accept this fact. The birth and expansion of new religious movements cannot be stopped with repression or marginalization, including by prosecution through the legal system. Suppressing one movement will only lead to others emerging to take its place.”

Kompas journalist M. Subhan put the emergence of groups such as Gafatar in a useful perspective in an article on January 28. He cited historian Sartono Kartodirjo as stating that non-conformist religious groups seek change because of “a critical situation filled with suffering, tyranny, pain, moral decadence and corruption. Suffering as a result of the economy, natural disasters or political situation, or because of technology that alienates humanity, can result in Messianic hopes,” he said, according to Subhan.

It may well be true that the MUI, the government and other leaders of the nation of Indonesia should reflect on the wellspring of the desire for Messianic salvation, rather than reacting to the emergence of such groups by destroying the symptoms alone.