Separation of Mosque, State Wanes in Indonesia
Yusman Roy, a former boxer and a convert to Islam, is serving two years in prison because he believes that Muslims should pray in a language they can understand.
Roy, who led bilingual prayer sessions at his small East Java boarding school, is seen as a heretic by conservative Muslims here. They believe true prayer can be conducted only in Arabic.
Roy’s desire to pray in Indonesian has sparked such an outrage that he was convicted last year in criminal court of “spreading hatred.” Animosity toward Roy ran so high that police posted guards to keep an angry mob from torching his house and school.
Now, he is kept in a cell by himself at overcrowded Lowokwaru prison, and the warden has warned him not to preach to his fellow inmates in any language.
Roy is one of at least 10 Muslims incarcerated in recent months for what the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, the country’s most influential Muslim body in setting religious policy, has deemed deviant thinking.
“The government and the council have been working together to suppress my ideas,” Roy said during an interview in prison. “But this will not stop me from doing what I believe.”
Indonesia is a democratic, secular country, and there is no constitutional basis for using Islamic law in court in most regions. But insulting a religion is a crime, and a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by the Council of Ulemas can carry great weight as evidence of an alleged offense to Islam.
Indonesia, which has more than 190 million Muslims, the world’s largest Islamic population, has become increasingly conservative since the 1998 collapse of President Suharto’s military regime. In recent years, the government has grown more active in enforcing religious law.
In recent months, fatwas issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulemas and its regional councils denouncing clerics and cults as deviant have been followed by arrests, prosecution and sometimes mob violence against the accused.
Sumardi Tappaya, 60, a high school religious teacher on the island of Sulawesi, was locked up in January after a relative told police he had heard Sumardi whistling while he prayed. The whistling was declared deviant by the local ulemas, and Sumardi is now in jail awaiting trial on charges of religious blasphemy. He faces five years in prison.
Ardhi Husain, 50, who ran an Islamic center in East Java that treated drug addiction and cancer with traditional medicine and prayer, was sentenced in September to five years in prison for writing a book that the ulemas said contained 70 “errors,” such as claiming that Muhammad was not the last prophet and that non-Muslims could go to heaven. Five editors of the book also received five-year terms. An employee who sold a copy to a neighbor received three years.
After Husain’s arrest, a mob burned down his facility. No one has been arrested in the attack.
Lia Aminuddin, 58, who claims to be the Virgin Mary and leads the quasi-Islamic God’s Kingdom of Eden cult, was arrested in December on blasphemy charges after thousands of angry protesters surrounded her headquarters in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. The ulemas and demonstrators accused her of insulting Islam by claiming that she was married to the archangel Gabriel and that God spoke to her through him. (In Islam, Gabriel, or Jibril, is revered as the archangel who communicated God’s word to Muhammad.)
Prominent human rights lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution, whose Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation represents several of the accused, says the government is ignoring zealots who commit religious violence and instead prosecuting the targets of religious hatred.
“The intolerance is becoming worse,” Nasution said. “Why are the victims being punished?”
Fighting between Muslims and Christians has claimed thousands of lives in Indonesia in recent years, and Islamic suicide bombers have staged high-profile attacks in Bali and Jakarta that have killed hundreds. Less visible has been the effort by conservative Muslims to compel other members of their faith to hew to a more traditional line.
The Indonesian Council of Ulemas, which is made up of 43 Muslim scholars and leaders of major Islamic organizations, was formed in 1975 to guide Muslims on how to live in accordance with Islamic principles. Muslims make up more than 85% of the nation’s population.
The council has recently issued fatwas banning women from leading prayers if a man is present and prohibiting Muslims from praying alongside members of other religions. Provincial and local branches of the council also have issued numerous fatwas regulating Islamic practices.
Ma’ruf Amin, a vice chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas and the chairman of its fatwa committee, says the ulemas’ role is to define proper behavior for Muslims and to set boundaries that protect the purity of Islam.
He denies that the ulemas are promoting hatred, and says Muslims who engage in deviant practices are bringing violence upon themselves.
“These kinds of people are the ones who cause all the trouble, and the people wouldn’t bother to riot if there was no one who deviated,” Amin said. “These kinds of people should not exist.”
Some moderate Muslim leaders charge that the Council of Ulemas has been infiltrated by hard-line groups, particularly the Islamic Defenders Front.
Defenders Front Chairman Habib Rizieq, who declares himself a follower of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, says it is important to keep Muslims from being swayed by ideas deemed to be heretical, such as bilingual prayer. “All deviant teaching has to be banned,” he said.
It is clear that Roy, 51, is not a conventional Muslim.
An eagle carrying a red heart is tattooed on the back of his left hand. His Koran is in Indonesian as well as Arabic, and on nearly every page he has highlighted passages in yellow and marked them in pen. A flattened nose and a cauliflower ear testify to his days as a professional boxer. He says he once held the Indonesian lightweight record for the fastest knockout: 59 seconds.
Sitting cross-legged on a thin mat on the floor of the prison visiting room, the father of nine contends that he is a victim of religious persecution. He says he is being silenced for challenging the Islamic establishment, particularly the Council of Ulemas, with his effort to ensure that all Muslims understand the principles of their religion.
“My original thinking has made them jealous,” said Roy, wearing his prison denims and sporting a few short whiskers on his chin.
Born to a Dutch Catholic mother and an Indonesian Muslim father, Roy chose Catholicism as a teenager but converted to Islam when he was in his early 30s. He says Islam helped save him from a life of a crime and violence.
Even as he boxed professionally, he says, he hired himself out to businessmen and politicians to beat up rivals and critics, collect money from debtors and recruit thugs to carry out mayhem. He avoided prison by bribing police whenever he was arrested, he says.
Roy embraced Islam but, like most Indonesians, never learned Arabic well.
The disadvantage is greatest when it comes to salat, the prayers performed by the faithful five times a day while facing Mecca. Many scholars interpret Muhammad’s guidance to “pray like you see me praying” to mean that salat can be performed only in Arabic. But other scholars disagree, saying there is nothing sacred about Arabic itself.
In theory, Indonesian Muslims learn the meaning of their prayers in their own language as they memorize the Arabic words. But Roy estimates that at least 70% of Indonesia’s Muslims don’t know what their prayers mean. Most Indonesians defer to Arabic speakers in interpreting the Koran, he says, which can make them vulnerable to the teachings of militant Muslims.
“Because of their lack of understanding, they do not have high-quality prayers,” he says. “That is why there are people who are angry and commit violence. If they had high-quality prayers, they would not become terrorists.”
At his small boarding school and residence on the outskirts of Malang, Roy quietly began three years ago to lead salat in Indonesian for a few of his followers. His practice might have gone unnoticed, but in his zeal to spread his idea, he made a video of himself praying in Indonesian and Arabic and distributed copies at nearby mosques.
Word of Roy’s practices soon reached members of the Islamic Defenders Front, whose white-robed members confronted him during a debate at his school. The local and provincial ulema councils issued fatwas against him. Some in the community became outraged, and Roy was put on trial.
Prosecutor Ahmad Arifin, 39, who tried the case against Roy, presented nine witnesses, including three from the local and provincial ulema councils. The fatwas were entered as evidence that Islam rejects bilingual prayer and that Roy had insulted Islam.
“He distributed his video, and it spread hatred in the community,” Arifin said. “People hated Roy for spreading his ideas in a public way.”
In August, the judge acquitted Roy of the charge that his teachings deviated from Islam, but found him guilty of inciting hatred by challenging the views of local clerics.
Roy seems to accept his fate with equanimity. Serving two years in prison for his faith, he says, helps atone for his violent crimes that went unpunished. He says prison has only affirmed his belief in bilingual prayer, and he plans to continue pushing for its adoption once he is freed.
Roy’s sentence is only six months shorter than the term given radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the purported spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah. The Southeast Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda is believed to have killed at least 225 people in suicide bombings in Bali and Jakarta.
Yet some think two years behind bars may be too short for Roy.
“Whether it is enough depends on whether he realizes his error,” said Rizieq, the Islamic Defenders Front leader. “If he doesn’t, not even a life sentence is enough.”