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Hardline Islamists Gain Ground In Indonesia

Walter Russell Mead

A blasphemy scandal involving the Christian governor of Jakarta continues to inflame tensions in Indonesia, as hardline Islamists gain ground in a country typically known for its religious moderation. The Wall Street Journal reports from Jakarta:

Mainstream Muslims here used to dismiss the Islamic Defenders Front as a fringe group—moralist thugs who attacked bars serving alcohol during Ramadan or threatened “sinful” events such as a Lady Gaga concert.

But in recent weeks, the organization has captured center stage, sidelining moderate religious groups as it whips up public fury in mass demonstrations against Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaha Purnama, for allegedly insulting the Quran.

“We are in the forefront because we are used to holding rallies,” said Novel Bamukmin, a leader of the Front, known as FPI. “We are trusted.” […]

Groups like the FPI have capitalized on the case to boost their street credentials. By tapping into anger at Mr. Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian whose brash manner and attempts to overhaul the bureaucracy have earned him enemies, they have united moderates and conservatives and exploited divisions in mainstream Muslim groups, right activists say.

We wrote about the Indonesian blasphemy scandal last month; at the time, police had agreed to investigate the complaint and the governor apologized for his comments, in an attempt to cool the rising tensions. But these gestures have hardly had the desired effect. If anything, hardline Islamists have been increasingly emboldened as they exploit the scandal to build support for their cause.

For many years, the world’s most populous Muslim nation has resisted the siren call of fanaticism. That increasingly appears to be changing, with the rising influence of hardcore forms of Islam. Apart from its effect on Indonesia’s domestic politics, this changing climate could have significant effects on the Asian power balance. Indonesia is a key link in the group of coastal Asian countries, from India to Japan, that have tried to balance China’s rising power. Even shifts in the political balance in relatively small countries like the Philippines can ripple across the region; a shift in Indonesia would be a much bigger deal.

The ongoing radicalization in Indonesia also suggests that the intellectual foundations behind Obama Asia’s policy were weak. Obama’s pivot was grounded in the belief that non-Chinese Asia could be rallied around Western ideas of international law and democratic development. This is conspicuously not happening.

Asia appeared to be becoming more “Western” as it modernized in the 1990s, but that is much less clear today. Military rule in Thailand, Buddhist and nationalist resentment against the Rohingya in Burma, ethnic polarization in Malaysia, populism in the Philippines and the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia: in each country the specifics vary based on local history and culture, but the larger trend is clearly away from European and North American ideas about post-historical cosmopolitan modernity.

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