The Magazine

The Southeast Asian Front

Creeping towards Islamization in Indonesia.

Apr 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 29 • By PAUL MARSHALL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.)