Once Mild, Islam Looks Harsher in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Sept. 2 — The moderate strand of Islam that absorbed touches of Buddhism and Hinduism, and some mysticism, along its journey over the centuries here, is being eroded, some fear at a rapid pace.

The battle for the soul of Islam in Indonesia is under way. Some have begun to ask whether the Islamists who want to create a caliphate across the Muslim areas of Southeast Asia will at the very least eventually succeed in Indonesia.

A group of American experts, headed by a former United States ambassador to Syria, Edward P. Djerejian, is scheduled to arrive here in coming weeks as part of a worldwide look at Islam. Eventually, they will report to the Bush administration on how to mold the American message to the Muslim world. They are likely to find some of the same underlying themes in Indonesia as in the Middle East, where the group has begun its work.

Far-reaching changes in Indonesia’s Islam have been under way for 20 years, says the distinguished historian of Indonesia, Merle Ricklefs. But the trends were largely hidden, he says, during the three-decade authoritarian rule of Gen. Suharto, which ended in 1998.

No one argues about what’s causing it: a political and economic leadership that even after the end of the dictatorship remains corrupt and inordinately selfish. World Bank statistics show that indicators of poverty and health improved under the Suharto government. But these numbers do not mean a lot to the 40 percent of the 220 million population who, by most estimates, are unemployed.

To compound the social malaise, the Indonesian military — which commands respect and remains one of the most revered institutions — is widely regarded as corrupt. During the late 1990’s, the army high command tolerated links between some of its officers and militant Islamic groups. Jemaah Islamiyah, whose spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir was sentenced to four years in jail today, seems not to have enjoyed military support. But Laskar Jihad, a group that specialized in fighting Christians in the Maluku Islands, and the Islamic Defenders’ Front, which has vandalized nightclubs and bars in Jakarta, have been linked by human rights groups to the army.

Adding to this volatile mix came Suharto’s decision in his waning days to court Muslim associations that he had previously suppressed. With his encouragement, they sent students to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and many returned with anti-Western and anti-Semitic ideologies that had been largely absent from Indonesia. This growing connection with the Middle East developed further in the 1990’s, when Saudi Arabian charities began financing mosques and the large network of Muslim boarding schools in Indonesia. The highly conservative Wahhabi strain of Islam, which was largely unknown in Indonesia, filtered into some of the boarding schools through teachers from Saudi Arabia.

The end of the Suharto government gave an important impetus to the most extreme of Indonesia’s Islamic groups, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Many of its members, young men in their 20’s and 30’s, had been forced into exile in Malaysia, and from there had gone for training at Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. After 1998 they returned home to the freer atmosphere of a more democratic Indonesia. They used familiar stamping grounds — mostly small religious boarding schools, like Al Mukmin in the village of Ngruki in central Java — to regroup, and plot their terror attacks.

But Jemaah Islamiyah was only the most extreme of a number of groups that were galvanized by the events of 9/11 and the American response in Afghanistan. Indonesia’s Council of Muslim Scholars, considered a fairly benign organization, intensified its polemics, calling on all Muslims of the world to unite against the United States. The articulation of such common grievances helped fortify Indonesian Islam with the anti-Western and anti-Jewish ideology of the Arab world in ways that were quite new.

The growing strength of the militant groups has been accompanied by adherence to stricter forms of Islam among mainstream Muslims. In a recent poll by Tempo magazine, the nation’s leading newsweekly, 60 percent of those questioned said they would not object to the introduction of Sharia, the often harsh Muslim system of justice. A new political party, the Justice Party, has made the imposition of Sharia one of its main planks. The party is led by smart, highly educated men and women, who say they are determined to bring both orthodox Islam and economic prosperity to Indonesia.

The Justice Party has only a few seats in the Parliament, but in alliance with other larger Islamic parties it has pushed legislation calling for such things as a legal right for Muslims to be treated by Muslim doctors.

So far, none of these bills have made it into the law books. But each time they come up for discussion they serve as the catalyst for volatile debates and make some Westerners wonder whether they should view Indonesia as a creeping Islamic state.

The president of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is the daughter of Sukarno, the nation’s founder and a determined secularist. She is reputed to be a secularist, too, but unlike her forceful father, she remains mostly above the fray. She has said virtually nothing about Jemaah Islamiyah, or any of the militant groups. The leaders of the major moderate Muslim organizations have refrained from criticism, too. It is not appropriate, they argue, for one Muslim to criticize another.

Mr. Djerejian’s group, which includes Dr. Shibley Telhami, professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, and John Zogby, the president of the polling firm, Zogby International, is supposed to figure out how to win friends for the United States in the Muslim world. If they are finding it a hard slog in the Middle East, they are unlikely to find it much easier in Indonesia.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Sep. 3, 2003
Jane Perlez
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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 7, 2003.
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