Friday, November 2, 2007

The mind-boggling game of trying people for their beliefs

Muhammad Nafik and Pandaya, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The appalling scenes in the media the other day were depressingly familiar. An angry mob tore down the building where self-proclaimed prophet Ahmad Moshaddeq, leader of the al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah sect that purist Muslims regard as heretical, baptized his followers in Bogor, West Java.

Some of the people in the mob were wearing white haj caps, a form of attire associated with piety. It was a good thing that Moshaddeq was in police custody and thus safe from the marauding crowd, which wanted to punish him for allegedly blaspheming against Islam.

The subsequent drama in the life of the "prophet" claiming to have been assigned by God to perfect Prophet Muhammad's teaching is predictable. After being tried by the mob (and the press), he is likely to be taken to court and convicted of "dishonoring religion" based on bizarre legal reasoning.

Lia Aminuddin was sentenced to two years in prison last year for a similar "offense", spreading religious beliefs she claimed were revealed to her by God through the angel Gabriel. Like Moshaddeq, she was harassed by an unamused mob, arrested by police and taken to court. Still defiant, Lia was released from jail on Tuesday, the very day Moshaddeq turned himself in to the police.

Lia is only one of several people who have been convicted and put behind bars for their religious beliefs -- a worrying trend in Indonesia's legal development.

The accused are usually themselves the victims of illegal acts. Lia Aminuddin's home in Central Jakarta was invaded by a mob, who threatened to forcibly evict her unless the police did so for them. None of them were ever charged with trespassing.

The same tragedy also befell Ahmadiyah, another controversial Islamic sect, which the Indonesian Ulema Council has also declared deviant. Like al-Qiyadah, Ahmadiyah challenges the mainstream belief that Muhammad is God's last prophet.

A mob led by the radical Islam Defenders Front attacked Ahmadiyah's headquarters in Parung, Bogor, and expelled its followers in July 2005. On Lombok Island near Bali, evicted Ahmadiyah members live in misery in refugee camps.

Also in 2005, boxer-turned-Islamic-teacher Muhammad Yusman Roy was jailed for two years in Malang, East Java, for promoting prayers in the Indonesian language instead of Arabic.

It's an irony that such incidents have happened in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim democracy, where moderation is a tradition.

In Indonesia, religious conviction and performing religious duties are basic rights guaranteed by the 1945 Constitution. Islam also recognizes the freedom of religion. However, rising fundamentalism is obviously threatening it all.

Police and prosecutors will usually accuse the defendant of disturbing public order and disrespecting religion.

The sort of evidence collected from witnesses and the plaintiffs are inevitably more ideological than the materials used in a regular court of justice.

Instead of hearing from only the plaintiffs, the prosecutor should have summoned the angel Gabriel to testify in court. Only he could say if Lia Aminuddin was lying about the divine revelation she believes she must convey to the world.

In the case of Moshaddeq -- if he is eventually tried -- the court should summon God, whom he says named him the most perfect prophet during 40 days of asceticism on a quiet hill.

Lia's conviction and imprisonment have undoubtedly set a very bad precedent in the history of the Indonesian judiciary: A citizen brought to court simply because her faith is different from that of others.

By the same logic, how many Protestants in Indonesia should have to spend the rest of their lives in prison because they are "divided" into about 300 denominations? And which denomination(s) do law enforcers think have the right to dismiss others as "misguided"?

And eventually, if the huge variety of Buddhists do the same, Indonesian prisons will be crammed with the religious -- if angry mobs are given whatever they want and law enforcers use the Lia Aminuddin case as a yardstick.

Religious leaders should be reminded that it is God's -- not their -- prerogative to judge the rightness of man's service. Everyone's basic religious obligation is to practice what they believe is right.

If you think your brethren are lost, show them the way instead of sending them to jail.

The writers can be reached at and

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