Islam in Indonesia --- Where “soft Islam” is on the march
|Sunday, January 13,2008 10:21|
IS INDONESIA, the most populous Muslim-majority country, undergoing creeping Islamisation? It is not hard to assemble enough recent evidence to give Western Islamophobes goosebumps. In late December a mob attacked and burned a prayer house in West Java belonging to Ahmadiyah, a sect deemed heretical by some mainstream Islamic scholars. Earlier in the month the country"s Christian leaders complained that Muslim radicals, helped by local officials, had carried out a string of attacks on churches. Ten Muslim militants were jailed for attacks on Christians on Sulawesi island, including the beheading of three schoolgirls. In late November the religious-affairs ministry barred a liberal Egyptian scholar, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (who calls the Koran a “cultural product”), from public speaking in Indonesia.
Behind many recent incidents is a vigilante group, the Islam Defenders" Front (FPI), which in September assaulted bars, cafés and hotels in Bogor, near Jakarta, accusing them of violating Ramadan. Another rising radical force is the Indonesian chapter of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which wants a caliphate to rule the whole Muslim world. Last August it gathered perhaps 90,000 supporters in a Jakarta stadium. Its leaders condemned democracy on the basis that sovereignty lies in God"s hands, not the people"s. A not dissimilar attack on pluralism was made in a hardline fatwa issued in 2005 by the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI). This same semi-official body recently demanded the banning of the liberal Egyptian scholar.
In 2006 a poll found that one in ten Indonesians supported terrorist attacks like the 2002 Bali bombings if intended to “protect the faith”. Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the terror group behind the Bali attacks, is still running several dozen pesantren (boarding schools), putting who knows what into impressionable teenage heads. The Bali bombers are due to be executed in the next few weeks, possibly triggering a backlash by radicals.
This all sounds worrying. But Indonesia is a huge, varied and complex place, and the radicals—even though some have a semi-official platform—are a small and not very influential minority. Contrary evidence abounds: liberals as well as radicals are making inroads. They have won a big battle over a “pornography” law that Islamists proposed in 2006. It would have banned bikinis and short skirts, for non-Muslim women too, and prohibited the Hindu minority"s traditional dances. But a public outcry forced lawmakers to strike out all the controversial bits—and it still has not passed in parliament. Two new anti-terrorist police squads have made much progress in arresting and breaking up JI"s leadership. There have been no attacks on foreign targets for two years.
As Indonesia democratised after the fall of the (secular) Suharto regime in 1998, local authorities gained autonomy and became directly elected. Many seized the opportunity to pass sharia-based laws, stoking fears of Islamisation. However, Greg Fealy, an Australian expert on Indonesian Islam, says these laws, though successful in winning votes for the local politicians pushing them, have usually had little practical impact. He recently revisited one such district, Tasikmalaya, where he found “there were more schoolgirls wearing the headscarf but just as much gambling, prostitution and drinking as before.”
The formerly separatist region of Aceh was allowed, under a peace pact with the rebels, to introduce strict sharia. The move was popular at first, says Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, but there was widespread revulsion when the authorities started publicly whipping miscreants. As a result the religious police were drastically reined in. Overall, Indonesians seem to prefer the idea of living under “God"s law” to the practice of it. Indonesian Islam has always been distinct from the Middle Eastern kind, infusing influences from Hinduism and other religions. This will make it hard for fundamentalists to get far, says Muhammad Hikam, a political consultant.
Whereas a relatively small number of fiery militants and fundamentalists get most attention, Mr Hikam says that liberal Islamic scholars have successfully broken the link between religious piety and political Islam. Indonesians seeking a more overt expression of their faith, as many do nowadays, can still believe in separation of mosque and state. As the 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections approach, secular parties have been attracting voters by creating Islamic—but not Islamist—wings. The in-phrase, says Mr Fealy, is Islam Lunak, “soft Islam”. Pollsters are telling politicians that it helps to add a mild religious tinge to speeches about social justice and anti-corruption. But radical stuff, like preaching an Islamic state, is a turn-off.
Indonesia"s two biggest Muslim organisations are Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)—whose long-time leader, Abdurrahman Wahid was president of Indonesia in 1999-2001—and Muhammadiyah, which together claim around 70m members. They indeed used to call for an Islamic state. Nowadays Masdar Farid Mas"udi, a senior NU figure, says all they mean by an “Islamic” state is a just and prosperous one. In some ways the two bodies have come to resemble Europe"s mainstream Christian churches: “Catholic” NU stresses traditional rites and the authority of religious leaders, whereas “Protestant” Muhammadiyah stresses the primacy of scripture. As with Catholics and Protestants it is family tradition, rather than theology, that usually determines which group one belongs to. Both now accept Indonesia"s secular founding creed, pancasila, which preaches religious tolerance (though you are supposed to believe in God).
Another, admits Zulkieflimansyah, a senior PKS parliamentarian, is that it has joined the (secular) coalition of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Its popularity has suffered because of tough policies such as cutting fuel subsidies. Mr Zulkieflimansyah sees his party as undergoing a desirable process of moderation as it “encounters reality”. PKS—like longer-established Muslim parties before it—is now having to ditch the fire and brimstone to transcend minority appeal. Rising younger figures in the party, like him, are more comfortable with this than its older generation, who studied in the Middle East. In general, the country"s larger Muslim parties are echoing Turkey"s ruling AK party—ditching Islamism while still appealing to the pious. Smaller ones still holding to a hard line may fare badly in 2009: Mr Fealy reckons that in 200 regional elections in the past two-and-a-half years not a single “sectarian” Muslim candidate has won.
Indonesia is, overall, edging away from radical Islamism. But the trend is not irreversible, and the authorities must avoid fostering fundamentalists by pandering to them. The MUI (the council of mullahs) and the FPI (the vigilantes) provide a lesson: both were created, for temporary reasons of expediency, by the Suharto regime but both have lingered to haunt its democratic successors. Mr Yudhoyono now seems to be trying to channel the MUI"s radical enthusiasm into issuing fatwas against “deviant” Islamic sects like Ahmadiyah. But this only encourages the FPI to take up its cudgels.
Other, more important ways to make sure Indonesia stays on the path to democratic pluralism are to keep the economy growing and to boost sluggish efforts at reforming graft-ridden public institutions. High unemployment provides recruits for communal violence like that in Sulawesi—whether or not religion is the spark that ignites the tinder. Poverty, combined with disgust at corrupt officialdom, push some people towards the Utopian promises of groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In Indonesia, unlike most Muslim countries, the ideological struggle between various forms of Islam is being fought largely by democratic means. The violent and the intolerant are still at the margins and, while the country"s steady progress persists, look likely to stay there.