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Back-to-the-land spiritual movement in Indonesia sparks government crackdown

Two men remove the Indonesian flag as a compound established by the Gafatar movement burns Jan. 19 after being set on fire by residents of Antibar village in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, in western Borneo. (© Antara Photo Agency / Reuters/Reuters)

In December, Dwiyanto Adi Nugroho quit his job as a financial analyst in the central Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, sold his belongings and moved to rural western Borneo to join a community set up there by a mysterious social-religious organic farming movement.

A few weeks later, police and soldiers stormed the compound, evacuated the residents and let local mobs burn their makeshift city to the ground.

Dwiyanto, 31, was flown back to his home province, along with an estimated 8,000 other members of the group, known as Gafatar, from various sites in Borneo. Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, calls the forcible evictions the largest-scale violation of a religious group's rights in Indonesia in more than a decade.

That was in mid-January, but the persecution of former members of Gafatar is only picking up.

The group, which was founded in 2012 and claims about 50,000 followers, is a back-to-the-land movement based on the idea that materialism and cities corrupt spiritual life. It does not call itself a religion. Most of its members, however, subscribe to Millah Abraham, a new messianic faith that draws on elements of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Because it is illegal to establish a new religion in Indonesia, the government has also banned Gafatar, accusing it of peddling heresies to the weak-minded, and deploying imams, psychologists and soldiers to “rehabilitate” recruits.

Many, though, refuse to return to a state-approved version of Islam.

“Maybe we have been brainwashed,” Farah Meifira, a movement leader and former chiropractor, said over coffee at a posh mall in South Jakarta. “But if your brain is dirty, better that it gets washed.”

Adam Mirza, her lunch partner, agreed that they are on a godly path. “Many people think the stories in the Bible and the Koran are a fairy tale,” he said. “They’re not. We’re living it.”

But the government refuses to let them. In late May, it arrested three Gafatar founders, including Ahmad Mushaddeq, the movement's self-proclaimed heir to the prophet Muhammad, and charged them with blasphemy and treason — the latter reflecting its wariness of potentially separatist tendencies. It marked the first time such charges have been brought against religious figures at the national level under President Joko Widodo, who took office in 2014 pledging to uphold religious tolerance.

“Why are those who committed arson not being processed, while we victims of the violence are locked up?” asked Andry Cahya, Mushaddeq’s son, who is in prison. Cahya, who oversaw organic and permaculture farming operations in western Borneo, said he was prepared to accept the state’s punishment. “We don’t want to be detained. But we don’t worry, because God is behind us.”

The president’s office declined to comment on how Gafatar is being treated, referring queries to the national police. Boy Rafli Amar, chief spokesman for the force, said via WhatsApp: “The religious teachings being spread aren’t compatible with an established religion. They can be categorized as ‘leading people astray.’ ”

It is only the latest sign that Indonesia's nominally secular state is committed to policing religious boundaries. The majority-Muslim country's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but only six faiths are officially recognized — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism — and there is no recognition of agnosticism or atheism. The state takes a particularly hard line against faiths holding that there have been other prophets since Muhammad. In 2008, the Ahmadiyya, a 100-year-old religion that has no ties to the Gafatar movement but that also believes its founder was a successor to Muhammad, was banned from proselytizing in Indonesia.

Koentjoro Soeparno, head of the social psychology department at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, examined ex-
Gafatar members who had returned from Borneo and likened them to cultists. "Ex-Gafatar are usually skilled people," he said, "but they aren't critically minded, so their worldview can be easily influenced."

Meifira vigorously rejects the idea that adherents of Millah Abraham are gullible. “We’re not a dumb people,” she says. They worship in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, rather than in Arabic, the traditional language of Muslim liturgy but one that many Indonesians do not understand. “We’re actually reading the meaning of it and trying to connect and . . . trace it down,” Meifira said.

According to Millah Abraham, a new messiah arrives roughly every 1,400 years to restore for long-standing religions the kind of relationship Abraham had with God. They even believe that one day, a new messiah will emerge who will be persecuted by followers of Millah Abraham, just as Millah Abraham is being persecuted in Indonesia today.

“What Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad delivered is the same as what Gafatar delivers,” Dwiyanto, the financial consultant, wrote via WhatsApp. “Night turns into day.”

The state has been aggressively attempting to reeducate ex-
Gafatar members and return them to their communities in an attempt to stamp out the movement. In one detention center in Boyolali, in central Java, some were enrolled in a controversial training program for the Indonesian military's Bela Negara — or "National Defense" — civil militia, perhaps to revive their allegiance to the state.

Dwiyanto was held in a detention center for days after he returned to Yogyakarta in January but has since been released and has returned to work. Hundreds of ex-Gafatar are less lucky, having been rejected by their families and communities. Children have been especially traumatized.

At a June 8 news conference organized for former members of Gafatar by the country’s Legal Aid Institute, one alumna, Rizka Amelia, burst into tears while describing the trauma her young child experienced when police suddenly uprooted him from their farming community in Borneo. “I don’t want him to grow up afraid,” she said.

Still, leaders of the faith insist that they will not be deterred by persecution.

“You cannot kill religion,” Farah Meifira said. “You cannot.”

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