As Idul-Fitri, or the end of the holy month of Ramadan, approaches on Sunday, police in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, are on the lookout for confrontations sparked by groups defying the government’s ban on prayers in mosques, a think-tank that studies security issues has said.
The Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) released a report on Tuesday pointing to how some mosques across the archipelago, which is home to 270 million people, had continued to hold tarawih or prayer sessions despite warnings from the central government for people to stay home.
In Pare-Pare, South Sulawesi – the province with the highest number of Covid-19 patients outside Java – people climbed over the locked gate of a mosque so they could hold tarawih prayers on the first day of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dusk to dawn.
Separately, a video that went viral on social media last month showed hundreds of people in Banjar regency in South Kalimantan breaking a gate to enter a mosque.
On Tuesday, Indonesia’s Coordinating Legal, Political and Human Rights Minister Mahfud MD said all mass religious activities, including congregational prayers, were banned for the time being as part of the government’s coronavirus social distancing regulations.
“The government strongly asks that [the public] does not violate these provisions,” Mahfud was quoted as saying by The Jakarta Post after a Cabinet meeting.
But he did not elaborate on how violations would be dealt with, instead suggesting that “religious leaders, organisations and traditional community leaders” should convince people not to venture out. “It is part of the effort to avoid disaster,” said Mahfud.
Indonesia has just over 19,000 infections and 1,242 deaths, the second-highest number of fatalities in Asia outside China.
Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, a legislator and member of the country’s largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said that while “small pockets of tensions” are bound to occur, the situation is unlikely to get out of control.
“I do not think it will explode into something big because basically the Indonesian public still abides by the government and religious authorities, where the majority of them say there is no need to conduct Idul Fitri prayers in mosques. It is sufficient just to pray at home,” said Yaqut.
The NU claims over 50 million followers and is the face of moderate Islam in a country where more than 90 per cent of people identify as Muslim.
While most of them practise a secular form of the religion, Indonesia has seen a rise of a more hardline, insular brand of Islam.
IPAC noted that besides NU, the country’s other large Muslim group Muhmmadiyah and the MUI (Indonesian Council of Clerics) had also told people to stay at home, but noted that implementing this remained a challenge.
“The lack of clear guidance on enforcement or sanctions could lead to two unfortunate outcomes: New clusters of religious ‘super- spreaders’ or vigilantism, as some groups decide to take the law into its own hands,” said IPAC.
Public health experts had expressed concerns over a spike in Covid-19 cases after Eid celebrations, which mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, as people are “emotionally bonded” to the event, and are likely to come out of their homes.
IPAC also highlighted the potential for clashes as Indonesia grapples with the economic fallout from the pandemic.
With movement restrictions in place, about 2.8 million people have lost their jobs in Jakarta and several provinces, and millions more are at risk.
President Joko Widodo has allocated billions of dollars in financial assistance, including food aid for 20 million beneficiary households to cover 30 per cent of the country’s poorest citizens, and cash for 9 million households outside Jakarta and urban areas.
IPAC said it had viewed a manual distributed to police officers in April 2020 titled “Confronting Covid-19 (Menghadapi Covid-19)”, which showed the government was “more worried (and rightly so) about economic issues than anything to do with religious tensions”.
“It [government] fears clashes triggered by perceived inequities in the distribution of aid, hoarding, food shortages, inflation and rising crime linked to economic hardship,” the report added.
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.