'We have never had serious problems due to our beliefs'

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) has declared Ahmadiyah to be haram (forbidden). Several Muslim groups have also demanded Ahmadiyah to close down its activities. Ahmadiyah chairman Abdul Basyith talked with The Jakarta Post's Tiarma Siboro and Hera Diani about the issue. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.

Question: There are growing demands for the banning of Ahmadiyah. What will you do to survive?

Answer: I regret the radicalism showed by certain groups against us, and also the awkward stance of the government in dealing with the violence we are facing now as I believe that the violence will affect all sectors here, especially politics and security. Just see what happened in Pakistan or Afghanistan, where small groups of hardliners can force their will on others and claim their actions to be in the name of the whole country.

We see how these groups have waved religious issues as their banners. A similar situation is also currently happening in Indonesia. I don't see that Ahmadiyah is the end of their (the hardliners) goals. We are just like a stepping stone for their next goals: political destabilization. And the government must be aware of this and deal with the issue.

MUI condemned Ahmadiyah for not spreading Islamic tenets because the group does not recognize Muhammad as the last prophet. What do you say to this?

We have been living in Indonesia for almost 80 years and we have never found serious problems due to our beliefs. We recognize the Prophet Muhammad, who spread Islamic sharia around the world. What makes us different is that we believe that the Messiah -- of whom Rasullulah had promised to be delivered for all of us -- has come, while other Muslims are still waiting for the Messiah.

And we acknowledge the Messiah as the one who later on spread our beliefs. Just like Christians who also acknowledge Isa Almasih (Jesus Christ) as their Messiah.

But still, we have the right to call ourselves as Muslims. We are devoted to the five pillars of Islam and also the pillars of faith. No one can claim that we are non-Muslims, neither the MUI nor the United Nations.

No one can ban others from professing certain beliefs. No one can ban others from not professing certain beliefs. No one can even ban evil from tempting humans. It is the basic right of all mankind. Does the MUI have the right to judge us for not professing to be Muslims? How can they take over the rights of Allah?

Can you name other pre-dominantly Muslim countries that have put pressure on Ahmadiyah followers?

In Pakistan, in Bangladesh, we are facing pressures, and we believe the policies have been motivated by political interests. Just like the late Pakistani prime minister Ali Bhutto who once refused to recognize Ahmadiyah followers as Muslims only after he faced pressures from his political opponents. Learning from the situation, I can say that religious matters have never been the main issues surrounding Ahmadiyah. It is merely political matters, the state's matters.

If the government fails to curb this violence and continue to allow certain groups to take the law into their own hands, we will only witness more violence. My concern now is why has the MUI issued a fatwa that grants legitimacy to certain groups to commit violence towards others? Such radicalism only exists in countries with poor law enforcement.

In countries with good law enforcement, such as Malaysia or Singapore, we find no harm against Ahmadiyah followers. We are confused with the state interfering in matters of belief. Instead of interfering in our beliefs, why doesn't the state focus on combating crime or declaring war on drugs or providing low-cost education?

Has Ahmadiyah temporarily frozen its activities following the rising violence against the group?

We continue our activities. We still hold prayers even though local administrations at several places, such as in Kuningan, West Java, have locked up our mosques for what they call security reasons ... It's ridiculous.

We have been here since the 1920s and have no record of security violations. We promote peace. We are against violence. Why we are banned from holding Friday prayers in the mosques that we built with money out of our own pockets? Some of the mosques have even been vandalized by the groups who claim themselves to be representatives of Muslim people. Some of our followers have also been intimidated.

What do you expect from the government to do?

I want the government to provide freedom for all of its citizens to profess their beliefs. Freedom of expression. Freedom of unity. These are basic human rights.

In the worse scenario, what if the government upholds MUI's fatwa?

If the government bans us from living here, then where should we go? We (will have to) ask the government to provide a place for us. If the government can't leave us in peace here in Indonesia, then we want to seek protection abroad. But it must be understood that the country must grant freedoms to profess certain beliefs or even to be an atheist.

Published by The Jakarta Post on August 9, 2005