Looking at Indonesia solely through its constitution, you cannot help but to think that it is a modern state whose facade is not so different from the United States or Western European countries. All basic requirements you need to create democracy are meticulously met by Indonesia, ranging from free and fair election, protection of basic civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of association, to a robust civil society–every thing, you name it. Indonesian press is now entitled a relatively full freedom to publish whatever it thinks fit to put on its page, including, of course, criticizing the way government officers conduct public affairs–something that is hardly to happen in the previous regime.

Indonesian constitution lends also a full protection of religious freedom. Theoretically speaking, people are free to exercise their freedom to embrace any religion, faith, mazhab, and denomination of their choice. You are free to be Muslim, Christian, Hindus, Budhist, Confucian, and so forth. As a Muslim, you are also free to be Sunni or Shi’i, as well as free to affiliate with any Islamic organization you think fit to express your way of being Muslim.

But constitution is not the best lens to have a glimpse into the nature of any state and society, since it is only what Indonesia’s adage says “hitam di atas putih”, a mere ink on a paper. What is more important is to look at how that ink materializes into reality, and to what extent state policies live up to the lofty ideals espoused in the constitution. If this is the stick by which you judge Indonesia, I am afraid that it fails, particularly with respect to religious freedom.

The recent phenomenon is the whole furor over what is considered as a “deviant sect” in Islam called Ahmadiyah. The problem of Ahmadiyah has been around since early on even before Indonesian independence. This sect that was groomed in Pakistan came to Indonesia in 1925, and it spurred a controversy right away as it did anywhere it spread. This sect made a claim that raised the eyebrow of Muslim, namely that its founder is a new “prophet” that came after the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims who adhere to mainline Islam believe in the finality of prophecy in Islam. Ahmadiya’s doctrine on prophecy runs at odd with this doctrine. To say that new prophet possibly emerges is as odd to Muslim ear as to say that Jesus is not resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion to Christians.

From its early stage of its introduction to Indonesia, many Muslim scholars objected to the doctrine of Ahmadiyah, although Ahmadiyah should be credited with its good work to introduce Islam to the rank of Muslim intelligentsia in 30s in a way that resonates with Modern mind-set. Bung Karno, the first Indonesian president, befriended many intellectuals and activists who are either member or sympathetic to Ahamdiyah’s version of Islam. The first “official” translation of the Quran into Indonesian language conducted under the auspice of Ministry of Religious Affairs in 60s was pretty much influenced by Ahmadiyah’s writers. In nutshell, Ahmadiyah has successfully made an inroad into the Indonesian Islamic discourse through its committed missionaries and propagandists.

Throughout President Suharto’s rule (1968-1998), Ahmadiyah still enjoyed a full freedom to conduct its proselytizing activities which seems to be robust and aggressive as it is the case anywhere. In early 80s, the first “fatwa” or religious edict was being issued by the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) in which this sect was for the first time officially deemed “deviant”. However, the edict didn’t go far as to demand the government to intervene to dissolve the movement.

The crucial shift occurred after reformasi (political reform) that followed the downfall of Suharto and his regime in May 1998. A series of attacks on Ahmadiyah’s mosques and its member escalated right after the issuance of a second fatwa by MUI on July 29th, 2005 in which Ahmadiyah is again labeled as deviant sect. However, the fatwa took different course this time. It was followed by a massive campaign conducted by radical and fundamentalist Islamic groups to press for the dissolution of Ahmadiyah as an organization and movement. There are certain groups that are worthy to be singled out as “engineers” of this campaign, namely Hizbut Tahrir, FUI (The Forum of Islamic Umma or Community) and and FPI (Front of Islam’s Defender).

The campaign succeeded to achieve its goal, marked by the issuance of the Joint Ministerial Decree (Surat Keputusan Bersama, known as SKB) in June 9th, 2008. The decree falls short of fulfilling the demand of radical Islamists to dissolve forever the Ahmadiyah movement. It mandates instead to freeze the proselytizing activities of Ahmadiyah, particularly its doctrine of prophecy. As noted by many observers, the decree is quite ambiguous. The question that is left un-addressed is whether the Ahmadi people are still free to conduct their religious activities in their mosques and madrasahs.

No matter how you interpret the decree, the fact remains the same: the government seems to fall into the trap set up by the Islamist groups that seem to be exerting its role recently in the Indonesian political landscape. By all means, the decree is evidently at odd with the constitution that insures the freedom of religion and faith.

How do we interpret this recent development as it unfolds in the case of Ahmadiyah?

Ahmadiyah is not a major and mind-boggling issue for Muslim rank-and-file. Of course, Muslim believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. However, many of them won’t roll in anger if somebody in the corner of Islamic world show up and claim to be a new prophet. They will certainly object to that claim, but will never ever run into an amok simply because of that minor issue. If the course of event proceeds in the opposite direction, something must have gone wrong in one way or another!

The whole furor and controversy over Ahmadiyah sect is just a parcel of a larger dynamic in the Indonesian politics. Over the last ten years after the unleashing of democratic movement in Indonesia, one development stands out to be worthy of our analysis, namely the radicalizing trend among Muslim society. This trends manifested in various form, including the vigorous campaign launched by Islamists to adopt and implement sharia or Islamic law. The entire campaign to dissolve Ahmadiyah, to me, cannot be analyzed separately from this larger trend.

The main actors in this campaign are obviously Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir, FUI and FPI. Hizbut Tahrir is worth mentioning here. I venture to claim that Hizbut Tahrir is the only group that has the highest stake in this campaign for a simple reason, namely to gain a credibility and credential in the eye of Indonesian Muslim who are mainly Sunni as an “Islamic voice”. Hizbut Tahrir has been confronted with resistance and political repression throughout Muslim countries, particularly in the authoritarian monarchies in Middle East. Indonesia is the only country where it finds a fertile soil to thrive. The first international conference of caliphate (Islamic global state) was conducted in Jakarta on August 2006. After its kicking out from UK on the allegation of its involvement in London bombing in 2007, Hizbut Tahrir sought an alternative base to launch its global movement to establish the Islamic caliphate. Where else does it fit better than Indonesia?

Ahmadiyah issue is also being politically exploited by other Islamist groups to earn reputation as an “authority” that deserves the respect of Muslim society. There are two major Islamic organizations that represent Islamic moderation in Indonesia, i.e. Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. However, the image of “moderation” is looked upon with deep suspicion by other Islamic groups, especially the Islamist and radical ones. Moderation, in their eye, amounts to being playing into the game of Washington. It is incumbent upon these groups to wrestle the authority to speak about Islam from these two moderate organizations.

In other words, the entire debate on deviant sect in Islam is not something that has a merit on its own, but rather a proxy for differing Islamic groups which vie for an authoritative position as the sole “voice” of Islam. What is regrettable is that Indonesian government slipped or deliberately let itself trapped in this dangerous game. As stated in the constitution, the Indonesian government is tasked with only one thing, i.e. to respect and guarantee the right of all its citizens to exercise their freedom to embrace any religion and faith of their choice. The state has no stake whatsoever in delineating what is “straight” and what is “crooked” with respect to religious doctrinal debate within any community![]