Cikeusik to Sampang: The threat of conflict
The late Abdurrahman Wahid once stated that, “Nahdlatul Ulama [NU] is like Shiite minus Imamah; similarly Shiite is NU plus Imamah.”
There have been too many similarities between the two, as the position and role of kyai is somehow similar with the position and the role of the imam in the Shiite tradition. The main contrast between them is that in NU, the concept is visible in the form of accepted culture, while in Shia, it takes the form of theology. Perhaps this is the substance of his statement.
The tragedy of Sampang is once again a strong slap to our religious harmony and it is very unfortunate that our security apparatus was not able to prevent this atrocity before it occurred.
The attack on the Shiite Islamic boarding school should have been prevented if the police, as well as local government, had a greater concern about this important issue.
Article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that freedom of religion is a fundamental right, which should be protected by the state. The entire state machinery, therefore, should assume the responsibility and awareness to foresee any possible threats which could lead to violations of this right.
The attack on the boarding school in Sampang reminds us of the tragedy that occurred in Cikeusik, Banten, last year, which left three people dead and their place of worship burned. Just like the tragedy in Cikeusik, the police in Sampang seemed ill-prepared for the raid, even though they were called few hours beforehand.
Also, in a similar way, the local police stated that they were prevented access to the site by angry masses positioned a few hundred yards from the school compound.
It is totally unreasonable for the police apparatus to have so casually given over their position of strength to the angry masses, which they were supposed to expel.
The position of this minority sect is much more marginalized due to the release of a fatwa (edict) by the Ulema Council of Sampang (MUI Sampang), which states that the Shiite tradition has gone astray and is a misguided sect; despite the fact that the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) never released such a fatwa against Shia.
Indeed, they recognized that Sunni as well as Shiite were two great sects in Islam, as recognized by the Islamic Conference in Mecca in 2009. This decision shows that the fatwa issued by the MUI Sampang poses a great threat.
Previously, several attacks on Shiite Muslims occurred in East Java, in Bondowoso, Pasuruan, Malang and Bangil; these should have made it imperative upon the local government to prevent this particular conflict from escalating and to seek any possible solution to prevent further possible attacks.
Meanwhile, the ongoing Sunni-Shiite dialogue among academics, as well as elites, has helped to minimize misunderstanding and build a common understanding among the two groups.
It also affirms that previous misunderstandings between Sunnis and Shiites were not based on fundamental aspects from each religious teaching.
It is, however, very unfortunate that this kind of mutual understanding is found only within the elite and academic levels; the recent tragedy in Sampang illustrates what can happen if such awareness does not find its way to the grassroots level: namely, the common people.
The growing misunderstanding between Sunni and Shiite among ordinary people varies from theological differences, as with Sharia, which at an “elite” level is in fact not very significant, but there is a huge gap between academic dialogue at an intellectual level and what is understood among the majority of people. This happens because of the absence of a strategic approach to familiarize the dialogue process from the elite level in order to reach, and be accepted at, the grassroots level.
It is very interesting that culturally there have been several Islamic traditions that have sprung from the Shiite tradition.
Tabok and the remembrance of the month of Muharram is one example; although it has been mingled with various cultures from Java, Sulawesi and Sumatra along with their own cultural idiosyncrasies, the essence and the substance of the tradition remains the same.
This shows how an accepted culture in the form of a soft approach is more-easily welcomed by people than a hard approach, such as an overly theological or Sharia approach.
Also, there have been harmonious relations between Sunni and Shiite, and it’s already been interpreted into common acceptable tradition.
Such tradition also shows that culture can become an effective medium to translate elite-level dialogue for acceptance among ordinary people.
Thus, for the academic scholar, there should be some sort of comprehensive study to diagnose possible misunderstandings as perceived by people regarding the Sunni-Shiite issue, as well as to map the characteristics and the level of those misunderstandings according to particular provinces.
This information could be used to determine the extent to which such misunderstandings may threaten to erupt into serious horizontal conflict, which could be used as the basis of a blueprint to foster further dialogue. Misunderstandings between Sunni and Shiite followers in Indonesia are mostly due to the absence of culture as a means of propagation and dialogue.
Finally, the enemies of Islam — as for all religions — are oppression, poverty and ignorance. These common enemies of religion should be examined and understood by local ulema in order that they do not disrupt harmonious relations between different sects within a particular religion or between different religions.
The writer has a post graduate degree from the department of politics and international relations at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan and the lecture of Staimafa