‘The Pain is Still Inside Me’: No End In Sight to the Plight of Indonesia’s Ahmadiyah
Sehabudin stands in his former home that was destroyed by an anti-Ahmadiyah mob. 
in limbo

‘The Pain is Still Inside Me’: No End In Sight to the Plight of Indonesia’s Ahmadiyah

Eleven years ago, an angry mob rampaged through an Ahmadiyah village in Lombok. Today, the displaced families are still waiting for help.
18 September 2017, 10:00am

Syahidin has been attacked for his faith so many times that he keeps a record in a tattered notebook that lists each instance of hate, each time an angry mob rampaged through his village, and each time he watched helpless as his home went up in flames.

Syahidin is a member of the Ahmadiyah Muslim faith, a sect of Islam that believes that Indian religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad—not Prophet Muhammad—was Islam's final prophet. This belief makes them one of the most-persecuted religious groups in Indonesia. Mainstream Sunni Muslims call Ahmadiyah "infidels" and "apostates," with some public officials going as far as saying Ahmadiyah Muslims should simply no longer exist. And others take their anti-Ahmadiyah sentiment even further.

In 2006, a mob of Sunni Muslim hardliners tore through Syahidin's small village on the Indonesian island of Lombok. Syahidin's home was looted, vandalized, and then set ablaze in a wave of violence that targeted as many as 30 Ahmadiyah households.

He offered to meet me at his old house in Ketapang, West Lombok, so he could explain what happened that day. We were standing in the now decimated village. It was a ghost town. The houses and the people had vanished but the rice paddies were still lush and green.

"This was our living room, this was our bedroom, this was the kitchen," said Syahidin, 46, as we walked through what remained of his family's home. The white cement walls were stained with dark scorch marks. Grass and small trees had grown through the rubble-strewn floor. The roof was all but gone. The home was supposed to be a second chance after Syahidin and his family were chased from their home on the other side of the island—in Pancor, East Lombok—only one year before. But trouble has a way of following Indonesia's Ahmadiyah community.

Syahidin and his family pose for a portrait in their old home. All photos by author

For the past 11 years Syahidin and his family—along with 120 other Ahmadiyah Muslims—have been living in a shelter for internally displaced peoples in Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tengarra and a short 20-minute drive from Ketapang. Wisma Transito Shelter is overcrowded and lacking the facilities needed for long-term inhabitation. Syahidin and his family share a single room that serves as their kitchen, bedroom, and living room. "I thought we were going to be here for one or two months," Syahidin told me. "I never thought we would still be here after eleven years."

The shelter was originally built to house transmigrants—poor workers from the overcrowded island of Java sent to other provinces as part of a government program—as they transitioned to normal life. It was never meant to house more than 100 people for years on end. The conditions are so poor that the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) released a report in 2013 criticizing the central government for their continued inaction on the Ahmadiyah issue.

"They are living together, separated only by cabinets and curtains," Imadud Rahmat, then the deputy chief of Komnas HAM, told local media shortly after the report's release. "This, of course, has given them no privacy and has caused discomfort."

The community has become emblematic of Indonesia's inability to protect its religious minorities from persecution. The central government recognizes six faiths under national law. There is no mention of a specific strain of Islam, but 99 percent of the country's Muslims are Sunni. That leaves the remaining one percent, mostly Shia and Ahmadiyah Muslims, prone to discrimination and violence.

The persecution of the Ahmadiyah peaked under the administration of former-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who's popularly referred to as SBY. Between 2004 and 2014, more than 30 Ahmadiyah mosques were forcibly shuttered by mobs of hardline Islamists, according to data compiled by Human Rights Watch. In 2007 there were only 15 reported "attacks" against Ahmadiyah Muslims. Only one year later the number of reported attacks had risen to 193. By 2011 the persecution had reached its peak when hardliners murdered three Ahmadiyah Muslims in a brutal instance of mob violence that was all recorded and posted to YouTube.

Direct, violent attacks against religious minorities have decreased since President Joko Widodo took office, but hate is still on the rise. The Jakarta-based think tank Setara Institute recorded 270 instances of religious intolerance in 2016, up from 236 in 2015. The state, including local governments and the police, were found to be complicit in more than half the incidents.

A local government in Kuningan, West Java, was caught in July demanding that Ahmadiyah Muslims renounce their faith to receive a government ID card. Last year a different local government told Ahmadiyah Muslims to convert to Sunni Islam or be kicked out of their village.

"Discriminatory regulations towards religious minorities are increasing which is why the situation is going to get worse," said Andreas Harsono, the lead Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

To date, 16 provincial governments have issued bans on the Ahmadiyah community. Ahmadiyah Muslims have been present in Indonesia since before the country gained independence. But the faith was declared deviant by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the nation's main Islamic clerical body, which issued a fatwa against the group in 2005.

A few years later, SBY's administration issued a decree banning Ahmadiyah Muslims from proselytizing their faith. Those found violating the decree are subject to up to five years of imprisonment.

Ahmadiyah Muslims pray in their over-crowded shelter in Mataram.

"The MUI has been spreading false information about the Ahmadiyah faith," Udin, the president of the Ahmadiyah Association in Mataram, told me. "For example, the MUI said that the Ahmadis' holy book is not the Holy Quran but the Tuskira, and that we don't go to Mecca for pilgrimage but to Pakistan. These are all lies."

But these kinds of rumors have a real impact on the lives of Ahmadiyah Muslims like Munawarah. The 53-year-old mother of seven had to send two of her children to live with their grandparents after their one-room space in the shelter became too cramped. Her two teenaged children constantly ask when they can finally move out. The question, which has no easy answer, pains Munawarah.

"I don't know how to explain to them why we are still here," she said. "If I had the money, I would move out tomorrow. Not a second passes by when I don't think about getting out of this place."

Munawarah was visiting relatives in Kalimantan in 2006 when her house was destroyed in the same mob attack that left Syahidin homeless. When she returned to Ketapang all that remained of her house was the walls and a few broken window frames.

It brought back painful memories from her childhood, she said, when she was discriminated against by the school principal for being an Ahmadiyah Muslim. She told me that her teacher would slap her for no reason other than her faith.

"The pain is still there inside me," Munawarah said.

Munawarah and her family sit in their small room in the Mataram shelter.

No one was ever held accountable for the violence that left the 100 or so families confined to the shelter homeless. The families told me that they received no money from the central government to compensate them for their loss. They have no idea when, or if, they can return home. Udin, the head of the local Ahmadiyah association, accused the central government of turning a blind eye to their suffering.

"We went to the governor, the mayor of Mataram as well as other authorities and told them we would like this case to be solved as soon as possible," Udin told me. "But they keep sending us back and forth saying it does not fall under their jurisdiction. As a consequence, these families have been forced to live in a refugee camp for over ten years."

Fauzan Khalid, West Lombok's district chief and the public official in charge of the entire region where Ketapang is found, denied the allegations in a phone call with VICE. Khalid told me that his administration had offered to resettle the community on a family-by-family basis, but they had refused the offer.

"Several offers were made in the past to the families including one to resettle them at different locations," Khalid said. "But they rejected the offers saying they didn't want to be separated."

The Ahmadiyah prefer to live among themselves and have always separated themselves from other Muslims, a trait, that Khalid believes, led to the violence in Ketapang.

"It's their exclusivity that's a problem," he said. "They had their own place of worship, their own village. They only became neighbors with their own kind. This is what bothered the other residents."

The Ahmadiyah I met told me that they always enjoyed a friendly relationship with their Sunni Muslim neighbors. That was, they did, until a local cleric named Muhammad Izzi whipped the crowd up into a frenzy during a sermon where he urged his followers to drive the "deviant" Ahmadiyah from their village.

The sermon continues to hold significant sway in the village today. I approached a group of men sitting idly at a gazebo about five minutes from the old Ahmadiyah community to ask them about the violence. But the men grew angry when I mentioned the incident and refused to speak with me.

I reached the village chief, a man named Murad Amin, on the phone. He promised additional violence if the Ahmadiyah Muslims tried to return to their homes.

"They're not allowed back here," Murad told me. "If they come back, we will attack again."

Murad told me that the Ahmadiyah were "infidels," who had no place in his village. "They are not Muslims," he said. "They should stop calling themselves that."

Sehabudin sit in his makeshift tent near his now-destroyed home.

I found an elderly Ahmadiyah man named Sehabudin working a small garden in his old neighborhood. He lives in a small makeshift tent whenever he can't make it back to the shelter before nightfall. Sehabudin told me that some of the Sunni Muslim villagers have come up to him and apologized for their actions, even inviting him to visit their homes. But the apologies have done little to change his situation.

I asked Sehabudin how he felt about his former neighbors, the men and women who destroyed his life more than a decade ago. Is he still angry? Sehabudin looked at me with tired eyes and broke into a sad smile. "There's no anger left," he said.