The attack on the Shia community in Karanggayam village in Sampang, on the East Java island of Madura, is evidence that the local leadership has failed and violated the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and protection for minorities. Regional leaders placed themselves and the interests of the majority ahead of their duty to lead all citizens.
Madura in its history has seen political violence and the usual crime-related conflicts, but had never before seen violence based on religious differences. Now this split between Sunnis and Shiites has emerged and Indonesia has become a focus of world attention as a hotbed of religious intolerance. The average person in East Java doesn’t know anything about Sunnis or Shiites. He only knows that the Madurese are predominantly Muslim. But now the national media is highlighting the Sampang incident as a clash between Sunnis and Shiites, and bashing the national leadership for its inability to protect minorities.
Most people, including lawmakers and pundits, thought the divisiveness of SARA, the Indonesian acronym for race, religion and ethnicity, was behind us as people embraced the idea of unity in diversity. So why is the issue of SARA appearing again? The main culprit is once again most likely politics.
Achsanul Qosasi, a lawmaker of Madurese origin, said people should not be provoked or used by what he describes as “outside elements” using religious differences and other issues to divide the nation. Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsudin and Umar Shihab of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) have said that Sunnis and Shiites are both recognized in Islam.
In its history, Sampang has been a political stronghold of the quasi-Muslim United Development Party (PPP). It has also been frequently hurt by outside meddling. It saw political conflicts in 1992 and 1997, the only time the PPP lost elections in the district. In those two instances, the Golkar Party was accused of manipulating votes to win in the district. Residents insisted on a new ballot following the 1997 election.
Led by one of the top Muslim scholars in Madura, the green turbaned Alawy Muhammad, Madurese hit the streets in 1997 shouting “P Kabi.” Kabi means all in Madurese, and all Madurese voted for the PPP. Since then Golkar has never won an election in Sampang. Even Gus Dur’s Nahdlatul Ulama and his National Awakening Party (PKB) could not tame Alawy Muhamad, the undisputed leader of the Madurese at the time.
Alawy Muhammad has been witnesses to Sampang’s history. Its people are seafarers who have brought back many cultural influences from the outside. So it is only natural that there are Madurese Shiites. There are also Ahmadis in Sampang. In 1993, Sampang saw the Nipah Dam shooting, where police and soldiers opened fire on resident protesting construction of the dam, killing at least four. Alawy Muhammad led a fact-finding team that concluded the dispute was the result of collusion between the district head and outside interests. Those involved in the shooting were brought to trial and the district head was replaced.
The people of Sampang, like most Indonesians, believe that security and order must be maintained. Outsiders are generally viewed as the most dangerous element when it comes to causing social upheaval and conflict. But the central government has blamed poor intelligence for the recent violence. Intelligence analyst Susaningtyas Kertopati said it was time for Indonesia to evaluate its intelligence capabilities. But she said blame for the violence in Sampang could go beyond intelligence failures. “Perhaps intelligence already provided accurate security assessments but they were shelved by the police,” she said.
Law enforcement must bring the perpetrators to justice. At the same time, Indonesian values, national resilience and the spirit of unity in diversity must be preserved. There should be no discrimination between the military forces and the police. Spiritual leaders must stop provoking their followers. Beware, evil forces are lurking in other regions as well.
Yanto Soegiarto is the managing editor of Globe Asia, a sister publication of the Jakarta Globe.