By A. Lin Neumann
31 August, 2012
All of us from time to time stare into the abyss and wonder why we were born only to eventually die. As far as we know, humans are the only animals born with the knowledge of our own impending demise and so religion — almost any religion — was created to offer some comfort as we struggle with this. It is a comfort to many people and is perhaps a fundamental way to keep our species from succumbing to despair.
Which is why religious tolerance makes so much sense. There is no way that the conflicting claims made by various religions can be settled to anyone’s logical satisfaction. Do Muslims go to heaven, while Christians do not? Does God separate Buddhists, Hindus and Jews on the basis of what they believe, and leave some to carry on into eternity while others perish? Who knows? And yet history is littered with the bodies of victims brought to their premature deaths by mobs convinced that some version of religious reality is worth killing for.
In the modern world, of course, we like to believe that we have moved past senseless slaughter in the name of an invisible God — or worse yet, in the name of human interpretations of what an invisible God has instructed us to believe.
But as we saw this past week, the spectre of holy bloodletting is not far from the surface in Indonesia. The attack by a machete-swinging mob of Sunnis on a group of Shiites in Madura, many of them children, left two men dead on Sunday. Eight people were arrested, seven have been released.
The alleged ringleader, a local Nadhlatul Ulama leader named Roisul Hukama, is still in custody. The whole thing may be a family dispute, since Roisul’s brother is the leader of the local Shiite community in Sampang district, where the killing took place. The brother, Tajul Muluk, who runs a boarding school that is in conflict with Roisul’s own school, was sentenced to prison last month for blasphemy after his brother swore out a police complaint.
Looking at the family tensions, Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi called the mob action “purely a criminal case.”
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said it was a failure of intelligence that could have been prevented if police had been paying closer attention.
The minister and the president are right in some ways. The police dropped the ball and whoever led the mob in the attack committed a criminal act. But it was done in the name of religion. As far as we know, no one marched through the streets of Sampang chanting slogans on behalf of Roisul’s family, instead they were raised to a level of bloodlust with talk that somehow Shiites, who number several million in Indonesia and are the second largest denomination in Islam, are heretics.
Fortunately, NU chairman Aqil Siradj distanced his group from the violence, saying “Shia is not a deviant sect, it is only different from us” and that whatever conflicts exist between Sunni and Shia are a matter of interpretation.
But numerous criminal acts are still committed in Indonesia in the name of religion and no doubt a great many of them are motivated by power struggles, politics, land disputes and rivalries. Sadly, crowds can be whipped into a frenzy with virtual impunity because religion is invoked, and most politicians are afraid to courageously speak out for fear of appearing to be “anti Islam.”
So Sampang fits a sad and escalating pattern. Ahmadis are killed and persecuted for their version of Islam.
Numerous Christian churches in Jakarta and elsewhere are prevented from building houses of worship and are attacked for trying to hold services. An atheist is jailed for his beliefs in Padang.
Regardless of what you fervently believe, no one knows what lies on the other side of that veil when you leave this world. That fact alone should motivate our leaders — in whatever country — to speak out on behalf of tolerance and compassion when dealing with the disparate beliefs of society.
A. Lin Neumann is the host of “Insight Indonesia” talk show on BeritaSatu TV and founding editor of the Jakarta Globe.