Members of the United Mentawai Alliance (AMB) demonstrating against the new 2022 Law on West Sumatra. Photo by Antara.

There are signs that intolerance and radicalism are growing in the predominantly Muslim province of West Sumatra. A new law passed by the national legislature (DPR) in July 2022 could make the situation even worse.

The downfall of Soeharto’s authoritarian regime, and the relaxation of New Order restrictions on conservative Islam, created room for hard-line Islamists to make demands on the government. This pattern has been observed in West Sumatra.

West Sumatra has long had a reputation for Islamic piety. Over recent years, it has also seen growing intolerance, a trend that has worsened with the growing strength of political Islam and the political and societal polarisation that has accompanied it. One of the most prominent examples of the growing strength of political Islam was the “212 movement” that targeted Jakarta’s Christian and ethnic Chinese governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, in 2016 and 2017. Thousands of West Sumatra residents participated in the movement and brought divisive and exclusivist ways of thinking back home.

For example, in 2019, there was national outrage after authorities in Kampung Baru village, Dharmasraya district, “banned” the celebration of Christmas. Leaders in the village unanimously agreed to ban a community of about 16 Christian families from celebrating the holiday, forcing them to travel hundreds of kilometres away to the nearest church.

A year later, a high school in the provincial capital, Padang, came under the national spotlight for imposing a mandatory hijab policy, not only for Muslim girls but also non-Muslims. In 2005, then-Padang Mayor Fauzi Bahar had issued an instruction mandating hijabs for Muslim girls and long skirts for non-Muslims. When the school’s policy was made public in 2021, Fauzi defended the 2005 regulation, stating wearing jilbabs helped protect students from dengue fever, because “there are no spots for mosquitoes to bite”.

The growing politicisation of religion in West Sumatra is a significant concern for the future of the province. Unfortunately, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo likely made things worse when he decided to sign off on Law No. 17 of 2022 on West Sumatra, seemingly in an effort to boost the popularity in the province of the government – and Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

The new law, passed by the national legislature (DPR) in July 2022, formally recognises that the culture and customs of the Minangkabau (the dominant ethnic group in West Sumatra) are based on the philosophy of “adat basandi syara’, syara’ basandi kitabullah”. This can be loosely translated as “customs/traditions are based on Islamic Law or shari’a, and shari’a is based on the Qur’an”. There are concerns that this emphasis on Islam as a central part of West Sumatran identity and culture could legitimise discrimination and violence against religious minorities in the province. It also raises questions about the status of long-standing local traditions that are at odds with Islamic law.

Certainly, the minority Mentawai ethnic group, who live about 150 kilometres off the western coast of Sumatra, have expressed deep concern about the new law. Some of their 64,000-strong population still follow an animist belief system known as Adat Sabulungan, while others have converted to Christianity. In late 2022, a group of Mentawai community members therefore launched a challenge to the Law on West Sumatra at the Constitutional Court. But it was thrown out on 23 November on a technicality.

It is important to recognise that conservative understandings of Islam should not be equated with violent extremism, and some groups may be intolerant toward minorities without ever engaging in violence. However, one concern with this new law is that radical and terrorist groups might view it as giving them the green light to operate in West Sumatra. For example, suspected Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader Para Widjayanto has previously said that a pro-shari’a environment is important for promoting “JI values” in society, and could support the organisation’s causes.

This is a problem, because hard-line movements, including some associated with acts of terrorism, have recently been shown to be active in West Sumatra. For example, in July 2019, authorities arrested a man named Novendri, who was believed to be a member of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) — a group associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — in Padang.

Novendri reportedly planned to attack an Indonesian Independence Day celebration on 17 August that year. He is believed to have been supported with funds from a friend, Saefullah Chaniago, who was an internationally active JAD operative killed in Afghanistan by the US joint operation in June 2019.

Saefullah was originally from West Sumatra and had previously worked as a librarian at the Ibnu Mas’ud Islamic boarding school (pesantren) in Bogor, West Java. The pesantren was supervised by the now-jailed JAD leader Aman Abdurrahman, and was closed by authorities in 2017.

Further, on 2 August 2022, police counterterrorism unit Detachment 88 arrested a prolific JI operative identified as ABD Rahman Yurisya (aka Deni), in East Java. Deni is from the West Sumatra village of Sungai Durian in Lamposi Tigo Nagori district.

He conducted his military training with the Free Syrian Army and later encouraged JI leaders to send more militants to be trained in Syria. On returning to Indonesia from Syria, Deni subsequently organised a JI sub-division called Misykat. Its role was to map out international routes to be used by JI’s aspiring military trainees in Syria.

Because of his strong overseas networks, which increased JI’s relevance in the global terrorism movement, Deni held a strategic position in the terrorist organisation. The 35-year-old could be considered the first West Sumatran to hold a significant position in JI, which has the most organised structure of any terrorist organisation in the country.

The cases of Novendri, Saefullah, and Deni show how West Sumatrans are taking more senior roles in terrorist organisations.

In addition to these figures, Detachment 88 has reported that it identified 1,125 members of the Indonesian Islamic State (NII, sometimes also known as Darul Islam) in the province’s Dharmasraya district. Although NII is not considered to pose as significant threat in terms of conducting violent acts, the size of the NII movement in West Sumatra shows the extent to which radical movements have been able to gain a foothold in the province.

While it would be going too far to draw a direct link between the new Law on West Sumatra and the risk of terrorism, there is a definite possibility that it could see the province end up becoming a haven for intolerant religious leaders to spread “hate speech” against non-Muslims, which could end up justifying discrimination, and even violence.

The fact that many parties in the DPR gave their support to this new law shows that they are not aware of – or willing to ignore – the potential safety and security issues with it. To minimise the potential for future violence, the government should revise the law or, better still, revoke it altogether.

It is important that Indonesia’s leaders recognise that while they might find politicising religion useful during elections, it also constitutes a significant threat to the country’s unity.

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