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The Southeast Asian Front: Creeping Towards Islamization in Indonesia

Paul Marshall

The struggle against extremist Islam is not only military and diplomatic, it is also a war of ideas. In this battle there are few more important countries than Indonesia, whose 230 million people make it by far the largest Muslim country and democracy. It is also home to the largest concentration of Muslims developing an understanding of Islam at home in a democratic and diverse world, and committed to resisting the reactionary versions being exported from Saudi Arabia.

However, the country remains under threat from Islamist radicals, and its impending elections provide ample opportunity for extremist mischief. Its problem is that the radicals are committed, organized, have a clear vision, and are often well funded, and so can intimidate and outmaneuver their larger but more hesitant Muslim and nationalist opponents.

Islam came to Indonesia via merchants and preachers, not conquerors. A moderate Sufi style took hold in a largely Hindu culture adept at taking the edge off incoming religions. Recent polls show that only about 14 percent of the population could be called Islamist on even the most expansive definition.

In Western lists of the world’s Islamic leaders, we seldom find Hasyim Muzadi or Ahmad Syafii Maarif. Yet they head two huge Muslim social, religious, and educational organizations—Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah—that reach up to 50 million and 40 million people respectively, more than the population of any Arab country except Egypt. They, and others such as Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholish Madjid, are developing and propagating an understanding of Islam that is creative and culturally attuned. They have studied in the West and also in the major centers of Islamic learning in the Middle East, and tend to resent being lectured on Islam by Arabs. Three of them have told me that they find Islamists, whether homegrown or Arab, woefully ignorant of Islamic texts and historic Islam, with little grasp of Islam beyond a collection of laws.

It should be noted that many Indonesian radical leaders have Arab backgrounds, some stemming from a century-old influx from bin Laden’s home turf, the Hadramawt Valley on the Yemeni/Saudi border. And for at least a decade, the Saudis have been pumping in money with the goal of replacing Indonesia’s Islam with their own strict Wahhabi version.

Despite Indonesia’s moderate heritage, militant Islam is gaining ground, and may make further advances this year. The Islamists are trying four ways to impose their views. One is changing the constitution to incorporate Islamic sharia law. Another is terrorism. The third is piecemeal legislative change, and the fourth is domination of towns and provinces where the militants can impose their views through local support or by intimidation. The first two are unlikely to come to anything. The last two—both forms of creeping Islamization—are having more success.

So far, the constitutional route is blocked. Indonesia’s 1945 independence constitution enshrined monotheism and morality as core principles, but deliberately did not incorporate Islamic law. At the time of independence, Islamists proposed an amendment, the “Jakarta Charter,” requiring all Muslims to follow sharia. The amendment was defeated, prompting some of its proponents to launch an insurrection, the Darul Islam movement, that was not put down until the 1950s.

Following the collapse of the 32-year authoritarian Suharto regime in 1998, Islamists renewed their campaign to enshrine the Charter. Since this was a public effort, in full view of the Muslim and non-Muslim population, it failed conspicuously—most Indonesians simply do not want it. Back in the 1950s, parties supporting the Charter garnered about 40 percent of the national vote, but in 2003 its proponents chose not to bring it to a parliamentary vote because the result would have humiliated them.

The failure of this legal route has led to the growth of terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, which may have roots in Darul Islam. These groups were active, usually against the country’s large Christian population, long before the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombing brought them to world attention. In eastern Indonesia, on the islands of Maluku and Sulawesi, ongoing fighting between Christians and Muslims has left more than 10,000 dead and up to half a million refugees. The groups also share bin Laden’s view that Australia’s effort to “separate East Timor from Indonesia” is part of an “international conspiracy by followers of the Cross.” One of the convicted Bali bombers, Amrozi bin Nurhasiym, says his goal is to establish an Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia. Other militant groups, such as Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defenders Front, are committed to the same end. (Yusuf Galan, one of the suspects of the March 2004 Madrid bombing, is believed to have done terrorist training in Indonesia.)

The Indonesian government has tried and sentenced Jemaah Islamiyah members for widespread bombings in 2000 as well as the nightclub bombing in Bali, but it still downplays the extent of the terrorist networks. Laskar Jihad, responsible for massacres of Christians in the eastern areas, announced that it was disbanding but now seems to be regrouping in Papua and Ceram. The International Crisis Group’s Sidney Jones believes that Jemaah Islamiyah has now splintered into several hard-line factions. One of these, the Mujahedeen Kompak, is active in Sulawesi. Another, the Republik Persatuan Islam Indonesia, has been training in the Philippines.

The government’s response to terrorism has been weak. Abu Bakar Bashir, widely regarded as the mastermind of Jemaah Islamiyah, was convicted of treason and breaking immigration laws, but received only a four-year sentence, far less than prosecutors had sought. Subsequently, his treason conviction was tossed out, and on March 9, 2004, the Supreme Court, without explanation, reduced his immigration sentence to 18 months. He will be released shortly and vows to continue jihad against Islam’s enemies. Indonesian vice president Hamzah Haz visited Bashir in prison and defended him, accusing America of being the real terrorist. Bashir’s Islamic academy, Al-Mukmin Ngruki, which produced 5 of the 11 key Bali bombers, is still functioning.

Despite the government’s flaccid response, these movements cannot take over the country. The real danger lies elsewhere, in the creeping Islamization produced by legislative change and local pressure. This is likely to be exacerbated as Indonesia goes through a season of elections.

The mind-numbing complexity of Indonesia’s electoral process makes America’s primaries look like a model of rationality. The simplified version runs like this. On April 5, elections will be held for parliament, for the 32 provincial legislatures, and for about 400 district-level bodies. The Electoral Commission has 30 days to certify the results. Any party that can get 5 percent of the vote or 3 percent of the seats in the lower house can then nominate candidates for the presidential and vice presidential elections due on July 5. The Commission has to certify the result of this vote by August 5. If, as seems likely, no ticket gets more than 50 percent of the nationwide vote and at least 20 percent of the vote in half the provinces, there must be a runoff between the two top tickets on September 20, with the vote to be validated by October 5 and the victors sworn in on October 20. The length of this process, combined with the fragmentation and corruption of the political establishment, provides plentiful opportunities for Islamists to exploit the parliamentary and party system.

Radicals have already proved adept at exploiting divisions within the parliament. Like its elections, Indonesia’s party system is complex and fluid, but, broadly, there are two large nationalist parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, led by President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Golkar, the party Suharto created during his long rule. Neither has the votes to govern on its own, so each must seek the support of the smaller parties that hold the balance of power.

As the price for their support, the small radical parties demand “Islamic” legislation or strategic positions in the government. Yusril Mahendra, whose Crescent Moon and Star party received only 3 percent of the votes in the 1999 elections, has become the spectacularly misnamed “minister of justice and human rights.” He is pushing reactionary legislation stipulating that only Muslims may teach Islam to Muslims, even when their parents send them to Christian schools, as is common. All schools with any Muslim students would also be required to have mosques or their equivalent, meaning that mosques would have to be built on the church grounds on which many Christian schools sit.

A proposed health bill would bar doctors from treating people of a different religion. Other bills would forbid interreligious marriage. The draft “Law on Inter-Religious Toleration” would require people “to uphold the teachings and values of his respective religion” and forbid views “not aligned with the principal teaching of such religion.” Speech or writing “repugnant…to a religion” could bring a five-year sentence, as could words leading people not to follow “any religion that is based on the belief in one God.” The state could force people by law to follow the decrees of a religious teacher and forbid all religious dissent. Religions such as Confucianism and animism would be banned entirely.

Megawati has criticized these proposals, as have Madjid and Nahdlatul Ulama and, to a degree, Muhammadiyah leaders. Former Indonesian president and Nahdlatul Ulama head Wahid described Mahendra to me as the equivalent of a Ku Klux Klan leader, and said he should be fired immediately. Nevertheless, these bills make headway because parties such as Golkar flirt with them in a search for Islamist votes, while other legislators go along in order to avoid the charge of being “against Islam.” Then there is intimidation: One high-ranking member of parliament says he is “terrified” of the Islamists.

Meanwhile, the conservative Council of Ulemas has supported the bills, and other Muslim leaders are wobbly. Maarif, though criticizing the proposals, still says he “wants them debated.” Din Syamsuddin, secretary general of the Council of Ulemas and probably the next head of Muhammadiyah, told me “it is unwise to confront the radicals—better to keep them inside.” The moderates become a “silent majority,” with no clear leadership. So an Islamist drift continues.

Radicals are also taking the law into their own hands to enforce sharia on a local level in Sulawesi, Sumatra, Eastern Java, Banten, Flores, Sumba, and the Bandung area. They force women to wear hijabs, threaten alcohol vendors, attack nightclubs, and at prayer times force shops to close and cars to pull over or be stoned. South Sulawesi has Islamic criminal laws on the books, though it has no power to implement them. In March 2004, in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, with nearly 3 million people, thousands demonstrated for the introduction of sharia.

Non-Muslims are coming under increased threat. In recent weeks, a bomb was discovered in a church in Medan, while two churches closed near Surabaya after death threats. Churches in Bekasi, outside Jakarta, have been torn apart by mobs. In 2002 the Jakarta government issued “Letter of Decision No. 137,” which provides for closing churches if local residents object to their existence. In Jakarta a dozen churches have been closed in the last three months, often after pressure on local Muslims by outsiders. On Lompok island, after radicals destroyed 18 churches, the local government gave permission to rebuild only one.

There is also frequent violence. There were 13 bombings in Sulawesi in February, and a bomb factory blew up in Jakarta last week. In all this, moderate Muslims are being threatened. Ulil Abshar-Abdallah, a founder of the group Liberal Islam, was hit by a fatwa death sentence by west Javanese clerics because of his writings.

The United States has taken notice of Indonesia’s terrorism, but less so of the country’s creeping Islamization. President Bush has promised $157 million to help improve education in the country’s schools, including the Islamic boarding schools called pesantrens. Money is sorely needed, especially to counter Saudi influence. But most pesantrens are run by Nahdlatul Ulama and already teach moderate Islam. With Indonesia’s patterns of corruption and intimidation, the money could leach away to radicals. As an alternative, Wahid suggests equipping moderates to prevail in the battle of ideas. Let them tell Indonesians why the extremists are bad Muslims. Instead of receiving translations of Saudi works, he says, Indonesians should translate their own works into Arabic.

There are many reasons to care about Indonesia. It is by far the largest country in Southeast Asia, a struggling democracy, and an oil and gas exporter that sits astride the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In President Bush’s words, Indonesia’s success “as a pluralistic and democratic state is essential to the peace and prosperity of this region.” Beyond that, Islam will need the influence of moderates such as Madjid, Wahid, and Abshar-Abdullah if the Muslim world is to avoid sliding into a dark age that imperils us all.

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