Is the Issue of Conversion in Aceh Substantiated?

By: Hasan Basri M. Nur

The presence of foreign volunteers in the post-tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction of Aceh has triggered controversy over the conversion of the Acehnese from Islam to Christianity. Although the Acehnese initially exhibited a disinterested response to the issue, after continuous campaigns some sections of Acehnese society were finally drawn into the polemic.

With no concrete evidence of the supposed culprits behind it, more and more people tend to believe it. Public anxiety became widespread, further heightened by statements made by several public figures leaning toward allegation and provocation.

It was not known who had first started discussion on the issue of conversion. However, in the second month after the tsunami, an “ulema” from Java was zealously ranting into the microphone about this issue at the Baiturrahman grand mosque in Banda Aceh. The lecture of this “ulema”, who — if I am not mistaken — came from one of the Islamic organizations that frequently attack bars and discotheques in Jakarta, was broadcast live by the Baiturrahman radio station.

There is no convincing indications to show that conversion attempts have indeed taken place and no one knows how many Acehnese have been converted following the arrival of international workers. Only rumors, including those spread through SMS and e-mail, about conversion are often heard in Aceh these days.

When asked for clarification, people said that they only heard about the conversion from others, and so forth. Asked to give specifics, they will provide vague descriptions covering vast areas, such as Aceh Barat and Aceh Besar. This of course poses difficulty in the process of verification, which in Islam is known as tabayyun.

Written reports are different, like the one sent by a friend via e-mail, mentioning a village, the person suspected and the mode of conversion that involved primary school children.

Such information certainly makes it easier to track down the people involved from the details provided. As a follow-up to the e-mail, we conducted a spot check in the location to find out what actually happened so that preventive measures could be taken. After an investigation, however, no indications of conversion attempts as alleged were discovered.

Some people believe that a number of Acehnese citizens have been converted in the post-tsunami period. The assumption and belief may be based on several things. For instance, they have received aid from donors embracing different religions, while non-Islamic symbols and objects like crosses, figurines of the Virgin Mary and Bibles in Acehnese can also be found.

Such non-Islamic symbols are indeed circulated in some refugee camps, but it should be noted that we have no precise knowledge of the people behind their distribution. Certain parties may be purposely spreading and duplicating them to achieve their own goals. This occurrence is seldom criticized, particularly by the relevant organization, the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Association (Ikadi) and campus activists.

There are some basic questions I wish to raise in connection with the conversion debate in Aceh. Is it so easy to convert the Acehnese, whose forefathers were devout Muslims? Just because of receiving aid from people of different faiths, will the Acehnese turn apostates?

With the circulation of non-Islamic symbols, will the Acehnese readily become converts? In my conviction, it is easier said than done. I just perceive the presence of an overly anxious group.

This great anxiety indicates some failure on the part of Islamic leaders in educating their followers so far. If we are convinced of Islam as the religion of truth, such apprehension should not arise, unless other parties are exploiting underage children to serve their own goals.

In my observation, those who are blowing up the conversion issue have not offered any rational solution. They are only seeking the removal of foreign organizations with no evidence of any fault. It would surely be very unsympathetic to adopt this measure. Therefore, other far more sympathetic steps should be taken, such as providing Muslims with enlightenment about the truth of Islam.

Safeguarding Muslims against the influence of other religious symbols through deeper comprehension of Islam is far wiser than expelling expatriates for unproven sins. Apart from that, it is necessary to provide practical guidelines in leaflet or pocket book form on the Islamic culture of Aceh for foreign nationals engaged in Aceh’s rehabilitation and reconstruction. I am confident that they will respect the local culture as long as they are acquainted with it.

Indonesian law prohibits the propagation of a religion among those already professing another faith. Consequently, if there is evidence of the dissemination of certain religious teachings among Muslim people in Aceh, such activities must be properly dealt with and prevented. To this end, an investigating team is needed to further probe the conversion allegations in Aceh.

Through scientifically based investigation, everything behind the conversion debate will be revealed. The responsibility for this inquiry not to be shouldered by the government alone. The parties so far promoting this issue should also be proactive. It is in line with the Islamic norm to demand investigation and clarification of reports received.

The team’s recommendations will certainly be very useful for the government, especially the Agency for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR) as coordinator of Aceh’s post-tsunami development, to take action.

The writer is the director of religious affairs, Agency for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh-Nias. He can be reached at

This article has been publish by The Jakarta Post
on Wednesday, January 11, 2006


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