Hunting for heretics in the 21st century
“Popular imagination relegates ‘heresy’ to the Middle Ages…” says the Wikipedia entry on heresy. The Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and other excesses of religious zeal against dissenters also seem to be located comfortably far back in the past. But several news items these past few days have shown that hunts for heretics continue in the 21st century. Locations, religions and methods may be different, but the intolerance is the same.
“Thousands of hardline Indonesian Muslims rallied outside the presidential palace and Jakarta police headquarters on Monday to urge the president to disband a sect branded by many Muslims as “deviant”, a news report from our Jakarta office said. “Militant Muslim groups have attacked mosques and buildings associated with Ahmadiyya, and are lobbying the government to outlaw the sect.”
Ahmadiyya, a late 19th-century movement that considers its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a latter-day prophet who came to perfect Islam, says it is a Muslim denomination. Most Muslim scholars dispute this, saying Mohammed was the last one, the “seal of the prophets”. Comparisons between religions are always tricky, but its situation looks similar to that of Mormonism within Christianity. Mormons say they are Christians with latter-day prophets and scriptures, but several traditional Christian churches dispute this. This disagreement may have lost Mitt Romney some votes in the Republican primaries in the United States, but otherwise it has not had much effect on public life.
But in Indonesia, the Islamists demand that the state ban Ahmadiyya because — as the Indonesian Ulema Council has decreed — its teachings deviate from mainstream Islam. Islamic radicals have damaged mosques and other property belonging to Ahmadis in Indonesia. “Today is the beginning of our fight. We are ready to die for the Ahmadiyya sect’s dismissal,” said Abdurrahman of Indonesia’s Muslim Forum (FUI) at the rally on Monday. “If ( President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) ignores us, we will bring him down.” As that threat indicates, the issue has become a political football and could influence elections next year.
The government finally decided to issue a stern warning to Ahmadiyya followers that they could face five years in jail for “tarnishing religion” but stopped short of banning the movement. Human Rights Watch promptly called on Jakarta to withdraw the decree. Religion experts said the Ahmadiyya unrest fits into a larger picture of rising religious intolerance in Indonesia.
Anti-Ahmadi protesters have an easier time in Pakistan, which officially declared the group non-Muslim in 1974. At the Punjab Medical College in Faisalabad, 23 students have just been “rusticated” (a term a Pakistani blogger translates as expelled) after Islamist students beat them up and demonstrated against them. The college principal told the Daily Times on Sunday that “the issue of Ahmadis was one of the most provocative in the world”. He said the college was sympathetic to the students but it was clear it had to give in to the Islamist students’ pressure.
Witch hunts are also still practiced. “Villagers in Assam stoned four members of a family, including two women, and then buried them alive on suspicion of practising witchcraft, police said on Wednesday,” according to our report from Guwahati in India. “More than 500 people have been killed in the state in the past few years because their neighbours thought they were witches, police say.”