Jakarta protester with poster against Ahmadiyya founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 9 June 2008/Dadang Tri“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.

Protester’s headband reads “Reject and disband Ahmadiyya now”, 20 April 2008/Crack PalinggiBut 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.