With conflict brewing over a fundamentalist group that has been criticising local Islamic practices, community leaders in East Java are reminding local residents to be tolerant of religious differences,
The tension has been triggered by the growing presence of the Majlis Tafsir Al-Qur'an (MTA) congregation, which rejects as un-Islamic certain rituals practiced by local Muslims for centuries.
Hundreds of residents of Bangunsari marched peacefully on the streets of their town on May 31st with signs that read "People of Bangunsari reject the activities of MTA," "Don't disturb communal harmony," and "MTA No Way."
"We're not asking for the MTA to be dissolved, but we are rejecting their presence in Bangunsari," Manu, chairman of the local Youth Association, told marchers.
"The values or understanding and beliefs of MTA do not fit with the values that already exist and are embedded in Bangunsari society, making people confused and anxious," he said.
Group shuns long-cherished traditions
Among the rituals shunned by the MTA are life-cycle ceremonies, or selamatan, which community members observe on significant occasions such as births, marriages and deaths. Many Javanese consider them an integral part of a culture, which places a high value on harmony and community.
"We live in a society where we agreed to forge unity. Unfortunately, members of the MTA have never respected this value. In fact, they never come when invited to selamatan. Where is their togetherness?" Manu said.
Mukarromain Ihsan, who chairs the Forum for Religious Harmony (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama) in Madiun, encouraged everyone to respect the religions and faiths of others.
"We need to respect the worship carried on by others… Do not insult the religious teachings of others. Allow others an opportunity to worship, so that our society can live in peace and harmony," Mukarromain, who is also deputy of the Indonesian Ulema Council of Madiun, said in a speech.
Mukarromain told the audience that Indonesians should have respect and appreciation for others in accordance with Pancasila, Indonesia's official philosophical foundation, which names unity as one of five basic principles of the nation. "Pancasila was inspired from the tradition, culture, and personality of the Indonesian nation, and therefore, we must value it when we practice our religious beliefs," he added.
Door-to-door preachers spread influence
Inayah Sundari, an MTA follower living a few miles from Bangunsari, denied the group is sowing communal tension.
"Not all allegations they said about us were true. We would like to keep a relationship with our neighbours," Inayah told Khabar by telephone. "We are telling people regardless of whether they are Muslim or not about the main principles and truths of the Qur'an based on our beliefs."
She said the protests would not curb the activities of the group, originally launched in 1972 by the late Ustadz Abdullah Thufail Saputra in the central Java city of Surakarta. Since then, it has become widely known for preaching door to door. "This incident will not stop us. We will continue to speak up regardless of whether they believe or not," she said.
The head of Bangunsari village, Agus Khoirul, said the MTA has been in his area for about a year and a half, and has members from about 40 families who have been actively spreading their influence among local residents.
Friction over MTA teachings is not limited to Bangunsari, but has also cropped up in the towns of Purworejo and Kudus and elsewhere.
On September 29th, 2011, about 1,000 people demonstrated outside government buildings in the nearby city of Ponorogo, protesting what they said were radical Islamic teachings and incendiary broadcasts by an MTA radio station, Radio Idzatul Al Khoir.
"We strongly condemn the misleading practices, the divisiveness, what's more the forcing of beliefs on people. The government must stop this propaganda, so as not to trigger a horizontal conflict," M Asrofi, co-ordinator of the protest, was quoted as saying in TribunNews.
Officials call for co-existence and dialogue
District Chief Arik Krisdiananto, who witnessed the May 31st protest, said he had invited MTA leaders to meet with government bodies and local representatives of the Indonesian army in order to address the concerns.
"We want to discuss with them what is important to us in terms of spreading beliefs and also its influence on security," he said.
Arik said that he would continue to work on religious tolerance among villagers, along with the government. He noted that immediate action is important to prevent any unexpected actions or violence in the region.
Locals are particularly sensitive to the spectre of communal violence because of the tragedies that occurred a decade ago, when many churches and mosques were torched during a religious conflict in the region from 1997 to 2002.
"I will prioritise stabilisation of harmony and togetherness in our district by strengthening religious tolerance in the region. I will also encourage our people to not commit acts of violence against MTA worshipers or against those who disagree with MTA values," Arik told Khabar.