June 26, 2023
JAKARTA – An Islamic school in West Java faces potential closure over allegations of heresy and links to religious separatists, raising concerns about a crackdown on religious freedom that could further muddy a highly political year.
For some time, the Al-Zaytun pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Indramayu has been considered a source of controversy for the local population in West Java.
But a raft of fresh allegations that the school and its leader Panji Gumilang have been promoting heretical teachings and that it could be linked to the breakaway Indonesian Islamic State (NII) movement has sparked concerns from rights groups, which have warned about the potential for state overreach and threats to religious freedom.
Halili Hasan, executive director of the Jakarta-based Setara Institute human rights watchdog, said the government’s involvement should be limited to the allegations of the school being linked to the separatist group.
“I think the government’s actions must be measured, and it should not get into the heresy controversy. That part of [religious] interpretation should be left to the domain of religious believers,” Halili told The Jakarta Post on Friday.
Instead of opening itself up to a charged religious debate, he said, the government should tread carefully and focus on protecting the rights of the students currently enrolled at the pesantren.
“If it is proven that the school is affiliated with the NII, that would mean the students could have been exposed to radical views that are anti-Pancasila and anti-Indonesia.”
Separately, Human Rights Watch Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said he objected to any allegation of heresy against an individual or organization.
“The measure for it is never clear, and it will violate [the rights] of the parties deemed heretical,” Andreas told the Post on Friday.
He suggested that the government focus only on groups or people who incited violence against others, leaving alone any religious debate that did not involve it.
It is currently unclear whether the links to the NII secessionist network are credible.
The pesantren caused controversy after a number of social media posts showed unsegregated rows of men and women participating in Idul Fitri prayers, which are usually partitioned by gender.
Another widely circulated video showed Al-Zaytun leader Panji having a woman deliver the Friday mass prayer sermon, or khotbah, traditionally reserved for men.
The posts went viral on social media and were picked up by online media outlets, prompting backlash from members of the public and Muslim figures, as well as a government response.
An investigation team from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) was coordinating with local police to bring criminal charges against Al-Zaytun, while the Religious Affairs Ministry said it was prepared to suspend the school’s operating license if it was found guilty of any serious offense.
West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil, a widely popular politician, has formed a multistakeholder team to investigate the boarding school.
The team, consisting of West Java authorities and community leaders, summoned pesantren leader Panji on Friday for questioning at Gedung Sate, the West Java governor’s office in Bandung.
Ridwan has been quoted by various online outlets as saying that Al-Zaytun had received “billions of rupiah” in funding from the Religious Affairs Ministry every year.
The ministry has denied the allegation, with spokesperson Anna Hasbie saying it only channeled assistance funds to enrolled pesantren students.
She said the ministry was closely studying the issue so as to make an informed decision.
“If Al-Zaytun is found to have committed a serious offense, such as spreading heresy, then we can suspend its […] permits,” Anna said in a statement on Thursday.
The stakes are particularly high this year, as politicians position themselves for the 2024 general election, for which many groups have sworn off identity politics, citing its divisive nature in previous elections.
Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD said on Thursday that his office was monitoring the situation and would seek to filter out any political sentiment.
“This is a political year, so we will separate legal matters, political matters and situations that are politicized. But we will work quickly on the matter,” he said in a statement.
He also said he would discuss the matter with the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Home Ministry, the National Police and other institutions next week.