This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...


Offenses committed against religious minorities has been one of the most serious human rights issues in Indonesia since its democratization in 1998. The number of incidents has increased significantly in the past decade. According to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, there have been more than 200 violent attacks a year on religious minorities after 2008. In 2008 and 2012, there were more than 260 such cases.[1] Shi‘a are the second-most frequently attacked groups, next to Ahmadiyah, in Sunni-majority Indonesia. The violent attacks on Shi‘a communities in Sampang, Madura in 2011-12 were the most destructive incidents. This essay discusses how Shi‘a groups, as a part of civil society organizations (CSOs), have responded to the Sampang incidents and articulated their political will in the Indonesian political configuration.

Scholarship on Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia, especially on Indonesia, has developed significantly in recent years.[2] These studies have done well to explain why intolerance and specifically anti-Shi‘ism has emerged in Indonesia. However, they have paid scant attention to how Shi‘ite groups have responded—a gap in the literature that this essay seeks partially to fill. The main argument of this essay is that major Shi‘ite groups cooperate with human rights NGOs and Sunni religious individuals to protect their rights and enhance their social recognition. Their personal networks have worked as social and political safeguards, even though they are not enough to prevent the sporadic attacks against them.

Shiites in Contemporary Indonesia

Estimates of the number of Shi‘a in Indonesia vary widely from 1 to 5 million. Those who emphasize the threat of Shi‘a tend to exaggerate the number. The BIN (State Intelligence Agency) considers the number to be 1 to 2 million. The Ahlul Bayt Indonesian Jamaah Association (IJABI) puts the number as somewhere between the latter figures, though it has never conducted an official count.[3]

Jalaluddin Rahmat, a notable Shi‘ite intellectual and the founder of IJABI,[4] identifies three waves of growth in awareness of Shiism in Indonesia: before the Iranian Revolution, after the revolution and the rise of Qom-educated scholars.[5] Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, most people had not been aware of some of the Islamic cultural practices in Indonesia that are common to Shi‘ite traditions. The Iranian Revolution—the catalyst for the second wave—had a deep impact on Muslim campus activists. The revolution inspired their interest in Shi‘ism as a political ideology and religious orthodoxy. Books by Iranian ideologues and philosophers such as Ali Shariati and Morteza Motahhari were translated and widely read. IJABI, founded by former Muhammadiyah-affiliated student activist Jalaluddin Rahmat, represents this second wave. The third wave was generated by the rising number of scholars returning from Qom. They have been dominated by sayyids (Arabs who claim descent from the Prophet and who are usually called habib in Indonesia), who mostly “converted” to Shi‘ism after the revolution. They put more importance on orthodox jurisprudence (fiqh) compared to campus activists. These sayyids formed the ABI in 2010, although non-sayyids were also included in some strategic positions. Both Shi‘a activists and scholars generally share this three-wave theory.[6] Many outside scholars describe ABI as being more fiqh oriented, which differentiates it from IJABI, besides also being sayyid-centered.[7]

Ahlul Bayt Indonesia (ABI) leader Musa Kazim Al-Habsyi explained that whereas IJABI is more oriented toward Sufism (tasawwuf), ABI is based on awareness of fiqh.[8] However, he does point out another aspect that previous studies largely ignored: ABI is a political and social organization rather than an intellectual one. He explains that the main reason for the founding of ABI was to establish communication with the government.[9] As IJABI’s Jalaluddin Rahmat was elected as a member of the national parliament (DPR) in 2014, IJABI, or Jalaluddin himself, also more consciously seeks political aims that include the recognition and protection of the Shi‘a community in Indonesia. It is important to emphasize these political aspects of Shi‘a organizations, which can be observed through responses to the Sampang incidents.

The Sampang Incidents and Responses of Shiite Organizations

1. The Sampang incidents

The growing awareness of Shi‘ism after the Iranian Revolution cultivated anti-Shi‘ism among the Sunni majority in Indonesia. Though it certainly reflected the Saudi campaign of financial support against the exporting of Iran’s revolution and more recent tensions in the Middle East, anti-Shi‘a groups were not limited to Salafi and jihadi circles. Anti-Shi‘a sentiments among Salafists and jihadis were largely limited to discourse. The international and ideological tensions are just background. Rather, anti-Shi‘a violence erupted in Central and East Java, where the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)—a traditionalist Sunni movement committed to spreading tolerant Islam—is based. In most cases, this violence occurred not because of growing anti-Shi‘a ideology, but as a result of rivalries between particular religious schools and their leaders.[10]

Among these incidents, the Sampang case in Madura, East Java Province, was the most serious and destructive.[11] These incidents constituted violent reactions to the growing popularity of the young Shi‘a preacher Tajul Muluk, who criticized existing religious leaders (kiai) for accepting payment in exchange for providing blessings. The anti-Shi‘a offensive began soon after Tajul’s respected father Kiai Ma’mun died in 2004. Tajul's former teacher Kiai Ali Karrar published a pamphlet that condemned him for deviations, and began mobilizing both the religious and the political authorities against Shi‘a communities. In 2009 and 2010, Ali Karrar and other religious leaders intensified their offensive in the name of Association of Pesantren-Based Ulama in Madura (BASSRA) and demanded the prohibition of the teaching of Shi‘ism and that Tajul leave Sampang. In April 2011, as the anti-Shi‘a movement intensified, Tajul was forced to move from Sampang to Malang. By the end of May, NU and the Council of Indonesian Ulama's (MUI) district branch, the district and provincial governments and security authorities all endorsed prohibiting Shi‘a religious activities and relocating Shi‘a followers out of Sampang.

The anti-Shi‘a campaign culminated in violence which first erupted on December 20, 2011 when a mob numbering several hundred burned down the homes of Tajul and his followers as well as their pesantren (boarding school). On January 21, 2012, responding to pressure from BASSRA and the district MUI, the provincial MUI issued a legal opinion (fatwa) that found Shi‘ism heretical. Sampang District Head Noer Tjahaja and even Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali condemned Shi‘a followers, but not those who attacked them.

Tajul was arrested in March 2012 on blasphemy charges. That July, the Sampang District Court sentenced him to two years in prison. In the same month, the provincial governor Soekarwo issued a regulation on religious activities and cult monitoring, which did not mention Shi‘ism by name but intended to regulate possible deviant sects. Again on August 26, a mob of 1,500 people attacked two Shi‘a communities. One man was killed, and almost 50 houses were destroyed. A few hundred people were expelled from their communities. Nearly 600 people were temporarily evacuated to the Sampang Sports Stadium (GOR), and 354 Shi‘a followers were further relocated to the Puspa Agro blocks in Sidoarjo in July 2013. As of February 2016, most of them were still displaced.[12]

Local religious authorities led the anti-Shi‘ism offensive. The local administrative, political and legal authorities did not intervene to stop the offensive; their inaction contributed to a worsening of the violence. The regional head was apparently aware that his reelection was near.[13] The provincial and central governments were either helpless or lacked the will to resolve the conflicts.

2. Responses of Shia groups and civil society organizations

National Shi‘a groups have tried to protect fellow Shi‘a residents in Sampang by cooperating with other CSOs and lobbying national and regional politicians time to time, yet these responses mostly came after the attacks.

IJABI formed a special team for Sampang in 2006 aimed at mediation with local social and religious leaders. In 2007, Tajuk Muluk was installed as the head of IJABI for Sampang District. However, as IJABI convinced Tajul to move from Sampang with financial support from the provincial government, he became disappointed with IJABI and eventually withdrew from it in 2010.[14] Tajul then turned for support to ABI instead. After the first attack at the end of 2011, 48 organizations, including two Shi‘a groups and national and regional human rights NGOs such as Kontras, issued joint communiqués appealing to national media and organized fact-finding missions.

ABI set up the Sampang Crisis Center, and its legal aid organization Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Universalia (YLBHU) took part in legal issues. ABI leader Musa Kazim Al Habsyi communicated with local sayyid and kiai, along with local CSOs such as NU-related Gusdurian, to socialize reconciliation.[15] ABI facilitated refugee children being sent to Shi‘ite schools, including an IJABI-run school in Bandung. YLBHU sought judicial review of blasphemy in criminal law, for which Tajul was charged in 2012. After losing its legal battles, ABI/YLBHU sought political solutions. It lobbied national politicians with certain influence in Madura. In March 2014, with support from the United Development Party (PPP) senior politician/Kiai Nur Iskandar SQ and Minister for Public Housing Djan Farid (also from the PPP) agreed to build houses in Sampang to accommodate refugees. However, this effort failed mainly—according to YLBHU’s leader[16]—due to the reluctance of Soekarwo. The ABI has continuously sought a political solution for the refugee problem by lobbying President Joko Widodo, who was inaugurated in October 2014. It was not a coincidence that Jalaluddin Rahmat himself sought a seat in parliament in the 2014 election as a candidate of the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), with the expectation that the party’s presidential candidate Joko Widodo would win.[17]

The extended personal networks of habib, connected to ABI, undoubtedly contributed to the political articulation and social recognition of Shi‘ism. Besides the aforementioned Nur Iskandar SQ, key figures such as Din Syamsuddin, former chairman of Muhammadiyah, and Habib Rizieq Shihab, chairman of the Front Pembela Islam, Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) are “friends” of ABI chairman Hasan Alaydrus.[18] Din Syamsuddin is greatly appreciated by the Shi‘a community for his commitment to pluralism. Habib Rizieq Shihab—known for his notorious rhetorical and physical attacks against other religious minorities—seldom mentions Shi‘ism and, as a result, has faced criticism from other hardliners.

Pluralist CSOs and activists in East Java contribute to Shi‘a refugees on a daily basis. The Surabaya-based Center for Marginalized Communities Studies (CMAR) provides education for children from Monday to Wednesday, and the Catholic student organization PMKRI sends volunteers on Sunday.[19] CMAR is run mainly by NU-affiliated students and young lecturers who also lead the Gusdurian branch in Surabaya. These pluralist CSOs have built networks since the Suharto era. Gusdurian, which emerged in the early 2010s, has tried to regenerate regional networks, based on the recognition that democratization turned some civil society activists into party politicians, which undermined the social bases of pluralist CSOs.[20]

IJABI and ABI branches are regular participants in Gusdurian and similar pluralist gatherings. It is important to note that both of them express their rights in the context of Indonesian nationalism, which is based on religious pluralism. They claim that Shi‘a traditions have deep roots in Indonesia that are in common with NU and other local religious groups. ABI, which was established in 2010, has actively engaged in liberal and progressive discourse, besides asserting religious freedom and the rights of Shi‘a communities.[21] IJABI’s Jalaluddin Rahmat, a renowned intellectual, has led such discourse since the 1980s. On the other hand, a weakness of IJABI is that the organization solely depends on its leader.

Conclusion: Political articulation among Shi’ite Organizations in Indonesia

Shi‘a organizations in Indonesia emerged during the democratization era. Besides seeking to enhance their religious authenticity within Shi’ism, they have tried to secure social recognition within the Indonesian political configuration. It is notable that Shi‘a organizations have been regular participants in pluralist civil society networks and that their informal networks have helped Shi‘a refugees on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, as the Sampang case suggests, members of the Shi‘a community have continued to be the targets of sporadic attacks. Incidents of violence have occurred mostly in rural areas and small cities where civil society networks are weak. Shi‘a organizations face challenges even where their networks are strong. There is a risk, for example, that the emergence of informal Shi‘a political activism might induce a strong reaction among Sunni’s ideological hardliners.

Ultimately, Shi‘a groups, together with other plural CSOs, will have to involve, and obtain the cooperation of formal institutions, such as local governments and security authorities, in order to prevent acts of violence against religious and other minority groups. 


[1] Bonor Tigor Naipospos, Ed., Kepemimpinan Tanpa Prakarsa: Kondisi Kebebasan Beragama/Berkeyakinan di Indonesia 2012 (Jakarta: Pustaka Masyarakat Setara), 75-97.

[2] Zulkifli produced the first comprehensive examination in English of the Shi‘a community in Indonesia: The Struggle of the Shi‘is In Indonesia, Ph.D dissertation, Leiden University (2009). The latter study provides a historical overview of Indonesia’s Shi‘a; profiles of their leaders, schools and publications; the foundation of the first mass organization, Ikatan Jamaah Ahlul Bayt Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Ahlu Bayt Associations, or IJABI); and responses from the Sunni majority. Formichi observes the newly emerged Shi‘a organization Ahlul Bayt Indonesia (ABI) and its impact on Shiite rituals in relation to IJABI. [See Chiara Formichi, “Violence, Sectarianism, and the Politics of Religion: Articulations of Anti-Shi‘a Discourse,” Indonesia 98 (October 2014): 1-27; and “Shaping Shi‘a Identities in Contemporary Indonesia between Local Tradition and Foreign Orthodoxy,” Die Welt des Islams 54 (2014): 212-236.] Formichi and Feener have shown the rich historical and cultural backgrounds of Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia. They proposed the idea of ‘Alid piety, which reframes the widespread reverence for Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law; Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter and wife of Ali; and their progeny. They emphasize that modern conceptions of “pure” Islam severely hampered earlier attempts to understand the importance of the Prophet’s family (Ar. Ahl al-bayt) as they appear in diverse religious, literary and cultural expressions of Islam. [See Chiara Formichi and Michael R. Feener, (Eds.), Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia: Alid Piety and Sectarian Constructions (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).] Regarding the growing religious intolerance and anti-Shi‘ism phenomena in Indonesia, van Bruinessen points out that democratization has drawn many of those who were previously involved in organizations supporting intellectual debate towards careers in political parties, thereby weakening the social basis of liberal and progressive Islamic discourse. [See Martin van Bruinessen, “Introduction: Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam and the ‘Conservative Turn’ of the Early Twenty-first Century,” in Martin van Bruinessen, (Ed.), Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the “Conservative Turn” (Singapore: ISEAS, 2013), 1-20.] Menchik argues that Indonesian nationalism is in fact “assertively religious” and that “the archetype of a good citizen is one who believes in God and uses that belief to motivate his or her behavior.”’ [Jeremy Menchik, “Productive intolerance: godly nationalism in Indonesia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56, 3 (2014), 591–621.] Bush shows that President Yudhoyono’s appointment of key ministers such as Suryadharma Ali as minister for religious affairs shaped and influenced these intolerant trends. [Robin Bush, “Religious politics and minority rights during the Yudhoyono presidency,” in Edward Aspinall, Marcus Mietzner and Dirk Tomsa, (Eds.), The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia’s Decade of Stability and Stagnation (Singapore: ISEAS, 2013), 239-257.] Formichi situates the anti-Shi‘ism into national dynamics that have changed since the 1980s. [Chiara Formichi, “Violence, Sectarianism, and the Politics of Religion: Articulations of Anti-Shi‘a Discourse,” Indonesia 98 (October 2014): 1-27]. IPAC details the development of anti-Shi‘a movements and issues related to possible violent attacks on the Shi’a minority. [See IPAC, “The Anti-Shi’a Movement in Indonesia,” IPAC Report No. 27, April 27, 2016.].

[3] Interview with Miftah F. Rakhmat (the son of Jalaluddin Rahmat), February 15, 2016.

[4] For Jalaluddin’s profile and thoughts, see Michael R. Feener, Muslim Legal Thought in Modern Indonesia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 121-130.

[5] Interview with Jalaluddin Rahmat. February 25, 2016. In fact, among the 270 graduates from Qom, only one became involved with IJABI’s current leadership—Miftah himself. Interview with Miftah F. Rakhmat, February 15, 2016.

[6] See Zifulki, The Struggle of the Shi‘is In Indonesia, 15-54.

[7] Formichi, “Shaping Shi‘a Identities in Contemporary Indonesia”; Umar Faruk Assegaf, “Aspects of Shiʿism in Contemporary Indonesia: A Quest for Social Recognition in the Post-Suharto Era (1998-2008),” in Chiara Formichi and Michael R. Feener, (Eds.), Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia: Alid Piety and Sectarian Constructions (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015): 249-267; and IPAC, The Anti-Shi’a Movement in Indonesia.

[8] Interview with Musa Kazim Al-Habsyi, 23 January 2016. He is the son of Husein Al-Habsyi, who established YAPI (Yayasan Pesantren Islam, the Foundation of Islamic Pesantren), one of the first Shi‘ite-affiliated schools, in Bangil, East Java, in 1976. Tajul graduated from YAPI.

[9] Interview with Musa Kazim Al-Habsyi, January 23, 2016.

[10]  It should be noted that NU as an organization doesn’t involve anti-Shi‘a campaign. Current NU chairperson Said Aqil Siradj is known for his moderate attitude toward Shi‘ism and many NU affiliated young activists engage in religious pluralism.

[11] The description of the Sampang attacks was reconstructed from the following human rights reports: Ismail Hasani and Bonar Tigor Naipospos, (Eds.,), Politik Diskriminasi Rezim Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono: Kondisi Kebebasan Beragama/berkeyakinan di Indonesia 2011 (Jakarta: Pustaka Masyarakat Setara, 2012), 122-133; Bonar Tigor Naipospos, (Ed.), Kepemimpinan Tanpa Prakarsa: Kondisi Kebebasan Beragama/Berkeyakinan di Indonesia 2012 (Jakarta: Pustaka Masyarakat Setara, 2013), 75-97; KontraS Surabaya, Investigation and Monitoring Case: Shiite Sampang (2012), accessed August 20, 2016, Investigasi Syiah di Sampang.pdf; Finding and Recommendation Team (TTR), “Restore constitutional rights to Shia followers in Sampang,” August 26, 2013; and IPAC, “The Anti-Shi’a Movement in Indonesia,” IPAC Report No. 27, April 27, 2016.].

[12] The number of families increased from 74 to 84, as 10 families who went to Malaysia for work returned, according to Siti, a refugee in the Puspa Agro blocks. Interview with Siti, February 27, 2016.

[13] See “Isu Syiah Sampang Jadi Komoditas Politik Pilkada,” Tempo, May 7, 2013.

[14] Interviews with Miftah F. Rakhmat, February 15, 2016 and Jalaluddin Rahmat, February 25, 2016.

[15] Gusdurian is an advocacy NGO and network aimed at realizing the pluralist ideal of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), the president of Indonesia in 2000-2001. Alisa Wahid, the daughter of Abdurrahman, currently leads the organization.

[16] Interview with Hertasning Iklas, YLBHU, February 16, 2016.

[17] Interview with Jalaluddin Rahmat, February 25, 2016. See also Jalaluddin Rahmat, “Politik Kita Politik Cinta!,” July 5, 2014, accessed September 1, 2016,….

[18] Interview with Hasan Alaydrus, March 2016.

[19] Interview with CMAR volunteer and personal observation in the Puspa Agro blocks, Sidoarjo, February 27, 2016.

[20] Interview with Alisa Wahid, August 21, 2015. See also Martin van Bruinessen, “Introduction: Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam and the “Conservative Turn” of the Early Twenty-first Century,” in Martin van Bruinessen, (Ed.), Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the “Conservative Turn” (Singapore: ISEAS, 2013), 5.

[21] See for the large number and variety of issues on which they have expressed their views. 


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