Dr. Chiara Formichi – Shia-Sunni Relations in Indonesia

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Dr. Chiara Formichi, Associate Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) and Assistant Professor in History and Religions, City University of Hong Kong, in an interview with Mark Ulyseas on Shia-Sunni Relations in Indonesia

01. What is the ratio between Shia and Sunni in Indonesia?

The Indonesian census does not include denominational distinctions for Muslims, hence there are no official statistics and we can find much disagreement between government and ormas figures. Keeping in mind that Indonesia counts about 200 million Muslims, a year ago the government suggested a figure of 500.000 Shi’is, versus a much higher estimate suggesting 5 million. Neither of these two figures is realistic, and Jalaluddin Rakhmat (chairman of IJABI) has recently suggested that there should be about 2.5 million Shi’is in the archipelago (just over 1% of the total Muslim population).

02. Why does there exist a schism between these two groups in Indonesia?

The “schism” does not pertain to Indonesia alone of course. The origins of the split between Sunnis and Shi’is lay in 7th century politics, as the Muslim community debated over the issue of who should succeed to the Prophet Muhammad; what had first manifested itself as political factionalism, in the following centuries evolved into theological and juridical distinctions. That said, this is a “programmatic” (legalistic and systematic) understanding of the Sunni/Shi’i distinction, and one that leads to constructions of “sectarian” identities.

The Indonesian case, historically, is not a matter of exclusive affiliation to one group or the other; what we see as prevalent here is what Gus Dur and other Nahdlatul Ulama leaders have for decades called Syia kultural (and which Islamic Studies scholars define as Alid piety). This refers to a diffused devotion towards the prophet Muhammad, his daughter, Fatimah, her husband, Ali ibn Abu Thalib, and their sons, Hasan and Husayn. They are the primary line of descent from the prophet and thus hold a powerful aura for all Muslims, regardless of denominational affiliation; the wali songgo’s genealogies, for example, as well as many Sufi tariqat, often make references to Hasan and Husayn as chains of transmission of spiritual knowledge.

There are many traceable manifestations of devotion for the family of the prophet in the (not so distant) history of the Indo-Malay world, from manuscripts to residual rituals and do’a prayers. What we are witnessing today in terms of anti-Shi’a attitudes is the result of very recent developments that have more to do with politics and ahistorical analyses than theology or doctrine. That is why together with Michael Feener and other scholars we decided to publish a volume that investigates these dimensions of Islam in Southeast Asia, at the juncture between “Sunni” and “Shi’i” traditions.

03. How has Iran been directly involved in the formation of Shia communities in Indonesia? And does it fund this community and if so, why?

The Iranian revolution of 1979 was, undoubtedly, a milestone in the spread of Shi’i Islam beyond its historical centres in the greater Middle Eastern region. Although, as mentioned above, forms of Alid devotion had been present in Indonesia for centuries, something entirely new took hold, largely due to the shockwaves of the revolution: alongside an intellectually-driven interest in Shi’i philosophy and religious thought (interestingly spearheaded by Islamist circles in the 1980s), a juridically-informed (fiqhi) stream of Shi’i Islam started taking root throughout the 1980s-1990s, in spite of the openly anti-Shi’i approach of Suharto’s New Order regime. In the early 1980s the Indonesian government accused the Embassy of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran of “exporting the revolution” by distributing “revolutionary literature” for free; by 1984 the Majelis Ulama Indonesia had issued a first “recommendation” to Indonesia’s Muslims to be wary of Shi’i thought, as its spread would bring social disharmony.

Since the fall of the Suharto regime, Shi’i institutions (mostly pesantrens and yayasans) have mushroomed across the country, but it is important to acknowledge that this is mostly a domestic phenomenon, with hardly any foreign influence. Even though the Islamic Republic has been actively sponsoring Shi’i religious events in Indonesia during the past decade, and several Universities’ libraries feature an “Iran Corner” alongside the “Canada Corner” and the “America Corner” (all funded by their respective embassies), most religious schools and rural centres often complain that they lack the means to provide their constituencies with enough support, directly accusing the Iranian embassy of not supplying enough materials. An important – yet indirect – channel for the spreading of Shi’i Islam is to provide scholarship to Indonesian students to pursue further studies in Iran, and not just to attend religious schools in Qom, but more importantly to enrol in Political Sciences, Philosophy, Persian Studies, and even Medicine in Iran’s best universities.

The reason for Iran’s commitment to spreading Shi’i Islam is clear, as it is an Islamic state rooted in the Shi’i tradition, and this is part of its mission; as Saudi Arabia spreads a Wahhabi understanding of Islam, and the Catholic Church missionary efforts are coordinated by the Vatican.

04. What is the relationship between anti-Shia groups, Wahhabism, and Saudi Arabia? And are there any other anti-Shia groups in Indonesia which are as venomous? And do these groups have political affiliations?

Although this is a generalization, Wahhabi groups (in Indonesia as elsewhere) take an anti-Shi’a stand, declaring Shi’i Islam a “deviation” from “the straight path”. Yet, a group doesn’t need to be “Wahhabi” to be anti-Shi’i. The Wahhabi school (madhhab) is a sub-group of the Hanbali legal school – one of the four Sunni schools which include Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali – inspired by the teaching of  the eighteenth century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In the specific, their anti-Shi’a attitude is rooted in the conviction that all those who follow alternative interpretations of the scriptures are infidels (kuffar). This practice of takfeer becomes dangerous when doctrinal debates are taken further and combined with violent actions.

A second generalization, which holds true with its due exceptions, is that a large proportion of these Wahhabi groups receive support from Saudi Arabia – whether in the form of direct financial contributions or by sending teachers and books, or by offering scholarships. A trend that has been in place since the early 1980s during the New Order period, when most anti-Shi’a books and pamphlets, and the noisiest of yayasans had open links with Saudi Arabia.

As far as I understand it, anti-Shi’i propaganda and (threatened) attacks belong to the sphere of grassroots society. And in this matter Indonesia differs greatly from Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries, where political parties might instead endorse sectarianism. This however doesn’t mean that politicians – or government officials – refrain from expressing their opinions on such matters…

 05. In the attempt to solve the tensions in Sampang, there have been accusations of ‘forced conversions’ of Shias to Sunni Islam; is this true? And what has been the role of politicians in this process?

Forced conversion is a very important issue, especially since it has emerged in a post-conflict context, and it is more likely to stir more confrontation than to solve the problem. Let me explain. Throughout the 1980s-1990s, anti-Shi’i attitudes were limited to government and religious organizations’ statements, requesting for the Indonesian ummah to hold on to their Sunni traditions and “stay away” from Shi’i Islam; no physical confrontation ever took place. Even when the first attacks occurred in the early and mid-2000s, these were minor incidents which were dealt with locally and exploring the relevant social, economic, and political rationales, with no suggestion that tensions could be eased by Shi’is “reverting” to the Sunna.

But in the aftermath to the 2012-2013 Sampang incidents – in which a Shi’i religious school and several houses were burnt, causing over a hundred Shiites to flee from Madura to Java – high ranking government officials have openly suggested that Shi’a villagers would be safe to return to Sampang only after enlightenment and returning to the true teaching of Islam. Officials denied that they were hinting at “forced conversions”, but in substance that is exactly what the plan entailed. This is not just a major breach of international human rights, but it is also at odds with the Indonesian Constitution. 

06.  What does the constitution of Indonesia say about religious freedom? And how have Shias fared compared to other religious minorities in this regard?

The 1945 Constitution (and amendments) sanctions freedom of religion and belief and nowhere in the Indonesian legislation is Sunni Islam enshrined as the official religion or as the only form of Islam allowed. Yet, Muslim minorities often face far harsher discrimination than non-Muslims. It is worth exploring the legal framework: in the aftermath to the alleged communist coup of 1965, a Presidential decree established religious affiliation as a key component of Indonesian citizens’ identity, and listed five officially recognised religions (i.e. Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism), creating a form of “limited pluralism”, from which also atheism is excluded; at the same time, the government also established the crime of “blasphemy”, “desecration”, and “staining” of religion.

Although the political climate has since dramatically changed, these regulations are still in place (with the addition of Confucianism); what is important to highlight here, is that if in the realm of Christianity we see the separate mention of Catholicism and Protestantism, Islam appears as one single “denomination”.

In the absence of a state-endorsed “form” of Islam, in theory this framework should translate in wider tolerance of multiple interpretations of the scriptures – and this was indeed the case for many decades; but as in recent years (Sunni “orthodox”) Islam has been gaining much political currency, the accusation of “blasphemy” and “deviation” has been applied quite liberally to Muslim minorities, causing a narrowing of the space for alternative interpretations; however it is also important to acknowledge that this is not the doing of a single political party, or individual politicians. Many scholars and observers have pointed to the increased weight carried by MUI’s “advice” since 2005, and its role in shaping a well delimited form of “acceptable Muslim behaviour” moulded on a Sunni paradigm has become evident with the anti-Ahmadiyyah attacks first, and the anti-Shi’a violence now.

07. Is Indonesia the battle ground for Iran and Saudi Arabia – Shia vs. Sunni? And do Indonesian religious leaders from both sides exist who are not influenced by outside vested interests; who are working to bring about an understanding and mutual respect between the two groups of followers?

I am sure some perceive it as such; however, I think that overemphasising the geo-political connotations of religious affiliation can be misleading, and cause even more damage. The numbers of Shi’is in Indonesia have been rising since 1979, as the number of Wahhabis has too, but in both cases we are talking of a very small proportion of the Indonesian Muslim population. Even if a battle for conquering the hearts of the abangan Muslims, or “Nominal Muslims”, were underway in Indonesia, the impact would be minimal.

Across the country there is no shortage of religious leaders who are committed to deepening their constituencies’ religious understanding without getting involved with “sectarian” concerns and focussing instead on fostering a climate of inter-religious tolerance and mutual understanding. And the recent instances of violence should not obscure the fact that many religious leaders, public intellectuals, and teachers across the country work hard to maintain a peaceful climate and relations amongst religious groups.

Nonetheless, such occurrences of  violence that Indonesia is experiencing do deserve much attention from scholars, religious leaders, and government officials. The focus of such analysis ought to be two-fold: on the one hand there is the need to go beyond the appearances, and understand the underlying reasons for the tensions, which one might suggest usually point to socio-economic factors rather than religious doctrine (as the more recent scholarship on the communal violence in Poso indicates); on the other, there is also the necessity to guarantee the applicability of the Pancasila spirit to all Indonesian citizens, regardless of their religious orientation.

08. What is the role of the government in maintaining peace or discord between Shia and Sunni? Can and should the Indonesian government prevent outside influence (Iran/Saudi Arabia) being exerted on Shias and Sunnis?

It is the government’s – and its branches’ – ultimate responsibility to prevent violence and maintain peaceful relations between Sunnis and Shi’is, as between members of all other religious groups.

We tend to think of globalization as a recent phenomenon but in fact “outside influences” have been playing an important role in the politics of religion for centuries. The Dutch failed to limit outside influence at the turn of the 20th century, the New Order regime failed in the 1980s, and and there is very little scope for the government to try stop Iranian and Saudi influences now.  Plus, that wouldn’t solve the problem. It would be more important – and this is my personal opinion – for the political establishment to focus its energy on strengthening the country’s framework and practices of religious freedoms. This past November [2013], for example, the Sultan (and Governor) of Yogyakarta has intervened in the case of a “radical group” threatening to attack a local yayasan which since the 1990s has been teaching Shi’i thought; the Sultan invoked – and made sure the police enforced – the civil duty to respect others’ opinions and democratic principles in general.  And this is the role the government should undertake.

The question of how to pursue a pluralistic society is not a problem exclusive to Indonesia, and it does not have one single answer, but surely it does require government intervention, whether it is translated in a stronger curriculum for citizenship studies in primary and secondary schools, or implementing sanctions for government officials and politicians who publicly go against the “unity in diversity” Pancasila ideal, for example.

In the immediate present, however, the commitment to preventing more occurrences of “religious” violence should operate at two levels, in the field and in the courtroom. The way that the anti-Ahmadiyyah attacks have been handled by the police in the past few years, for example, should be more strongly condemned, as police officers should first and foremost protect the lives of endangered citizens; even if they believe those under attack to be “offenders” of some law (in this case the blasphemy law), their duty is to allow a fair trial, not street justice. The second issue is of course that a “fair” trial would require a legislation truly committed to religious freedom and pluralism; for this to be set in place, legislators would need to acknowledge the fact that as multiple interpretations of Christianity can peacefully coexist in Indonesia, so could multiple interpretations of Islam.

09. What is your overall assessment of the prevailing tensions between Shia and Sunni and will there ever be a common meeting ground/lasting peace between the two groups?

First of all I would like to re-iterate that although Sunni-Shi’a tensions exist, this is not the prevailing pattern of relations. That said, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that some groups are taking advantage of the government’s and political parties’ difficulties in condemning and repressing radicalism and thus advancing an “orthodoxizing” agenda that leaves little space for alternative interpretations of Islam.

As a historian, my analysis leads to encouraging a self-reflection on Indonesia’s own past. I am not suggesting that we should pretend nothing has changed, but it is important to remember that not too long ago – most notably until the 1960s, but also well into the 1980s – there was no sense of being “Sunni” or “Shi’a”; many Muslims across the archipelago would recognise Imam Husayn’s readiness to self-sacrifice as a role model, take the marriage of Fatimah and ‘Ali as an example of perfect Islamic union, or read the writings of Ali Shariati along side Sayyid Qutb without reflecting on their respective “sectarian” connotations. It is only since the 2000s that Indonesia has experienced a growing phenomenon of sectarian identities’ construction in which the blurred lines of Syiah kultural have been more clearly defined along Sunni-Shi’a standards.

A rediscovery of the gray zone – which is not exclusive to Indonesia, as it has been identified in Egypt, India and Pakistan’s Islamic cultural legacies as well – combined with a stronger legal protection of religious freedoms is possibly the most effective solution to a lasting peace. 


Chiara Formichi is Associate Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) and Assistant Professor in History and Religions, City University of Hong Kong. She received her PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), merging her expertise in Southeast Asian Studies with Arabic and Islamic Studies. Chiara has held fellowships in Indonesia (UIN Syarif Hidayatullah and UGM abanganYogyakarta), Singapore (Asia Research Institute), and the Netherlands (KITLV). Beginning July 2014, she will be Assistant Professor in Southeast Asian Humanities at the Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University.

Chiara’s research addresses different aspects of the history of Islam in Southeast Asia, with a strong interest in inter-Asian connections. Her publications include the monograph Islam and the making of the nation: Kartosuwiryo and political Islam in 20th century Indonesia (2012), and the edited volumes Religious Pluralism, State and Society in Asia (2013) and Shi’ism in Southeast Asia: ‘Alid Piety and Sectarian Constructions (2014). Journal articles on Indonesia Journal (Cornell), Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, and Die Welt des Islams, and book chapters printed by Oxford University Press and Columbia University Press, deal with the relationship between Islam and the state, and the impact of this relationship on Asia’s diverse societies.


One Reply to “Dr. Chiara Formichi – Shia-Sunni Relations in Indonesia”

  1. Pingback: Iran Nuclear Ambitions and the odd couple Saudi Arabia and Israel – markulyseas - My Telegraph

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