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Radical Islam in Indonesia – implications for religious freedom

11 October, 2011 0 Comments

By Greg Sheridan | The Australian | 11 October 2011

WHAT is the single greatest failing of Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono?

Ismail Yusanto, the public face of Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Jakarta, tells me: “The government of Indonesia works on a secular system. In terms of politics, economics and society, a secular system will always produce many, many problems. We are not dissatisfied with the government because of its corruption and low performance but because of the secular system itself.

“The people and the government should implement sharia. It will bring our state to a much better condition.

“Look at what’s happening in Europe and other Western countries. We believe Indonesia will also face problems of economic turmoil because of the capitalist system. So we want sharia law to be the basis of economic and social life.

“The government of Indonesia is much too close to the United States. In his speech in America, SBY said he considers the US to be his second country. SBY and Obama are very close. We have information that the US still supports SBY very closely. And SBY still protects all US interests in Indonesia, all their businesses.”

I ask the HUT leader about the Ahmadiya case, which has polarised Indonesian opinion.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir fatwa

Ahmadiya is a minority faith, with perhaps 200,000 followers, which has been present in Indonesia since the 1920s. It calls itself Muslim but regards its founder as a prophet, whereas orthodox Islam regards Mohammed as the last prophet.

Last year, and again this year, enraged mobs of Muslim activists burned down Ahmadiya centres and beat Ahmadis to death. Those few convicted of such offences have received light sentences, often less than a year in jail.

Many liberal Indonesians have been harshly critical of SBY for not condemning the sectarian violence more strongly, not standing up more vigorously for religious freedom and not galvanising the law-enforcement agencies to protect the Ahmadis.

HUT has a different view. Its spokesman does not mention the loss of life in the violence but says: “This is a very clear case, with Ahmadiya, to conclude that SBY is a bad president. Ahmadiya is considered a deviant group, not only by the Muslim Council but by many Indonesian groups.

“Ahmadiya should be banned,” Ismail says. “There are so many reasons for SBY to ban Ahmadiya, so much evidence, but until now he has done nothing to ban them. I have information from inside the [presidential] palace that SBY has no brief to take any action to ban Ahmadiya.”

It should be noted that HUT represents a small minority of Indonesian Muslim opinion. But it is not an insignificant minority. The best independent observers in Jakarta think the organisation has two or three million members and supporters. Ismail does not want to be specific but says I can use a figure of a few million. Other Indonesians tell me the group is present on every university campus in the country. The views of HUT are certainly in the minority, but there is a real contest under way in Indonesia for the soul of Islam.

There are few ideological or religious struggles of more importance to Australia unfolding anywhere on the planet, yet even the broadest contours of the Indonesian debate are all but unknown in Australia.

Sabam Siagian is a Christian, a member of the Indonesian Reformed Church, a former editor of The Jakarta Post and a former highly successful Indonesian ambassador to Australia. Over an otherwise convivial dinner in Jakarta, he tells me: “This country faces three great challenges. The first is the decline of religious tolerance. The second is the cancer of corruption. And the third is the eroding respect for authority and institutions.

“There are few ideological or religious struggles of more importance to Australia unfolding anywhere on the planet, yet even the broadest contours of the Indonesian debate are all but unknown in Australia.”

Sabam says the first challenge, growing religious intolerance, is the greatest threat and that religious minorities — Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and others — now feel insecure and often under threat in Indonesia.

Because as well as the attacks on the Ahmadis, there have been a number of arson attacks on Christian churches this year.

Yet it is still undoubtedly true that the vast majority of Indonesians are tolerant and pluralist. And such Indonesians are not hard to find.

I spend a day at two of the sprawling campuses of the State Islamic University (UIN), just outside Jakarta. One thing I strike there, apart from a warm welcome from everyone, is a strong diversity of opinion, among both faculty and students.

Reformist Islam

The university gives all its students a grounding in Islam. But it teaches a mainstream curriculum as well, being most proud of its new medicine faculty. The rector, Komaruddin Hidayat, does not like to talk of secular subjects, as he thinks there is room for an Islamic perspective on all areas of learning. The distinction between religious and secular knowledge is one he does not accept.

But make no mistake, UIN is a bastion of moderate, progressive and even reformist Islam. Everyone on the campus, it seems to me, is grappling to some extent with the challenge of extremism.

Ali Munharif, a slender man in a batik shirt and with a moustache but no beard, is the director of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Society at UIN. He says extremist Islam is marginal in Indonesia and that mainstream Muslim organisations, such as Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have been central to the development of Indonesian democracy. And in national elections, he points out, overtly Islamic parties score only about 15 per cent of the vote.

Asserting identity

Nonetheless, he does acknowledge that the temper of Indonesian Islam has become more conservative in the past 10 years. This, he thinks, is a question of people seeking to assert an identity in the face of rapid economic, social and political change.

“The conservative leaders are more like US Republicans in the 1960s trying to ban the teaching of evolution.” Ali says. “It’s more about how people with a limited understanding try to cope with rapid change. Ethnic identities are fading. Old cultural traditions are fading, so Islam provides the sense of identity and replaces that.”

Yet he points to a historical oddity of Indonesia’s development. Traditionally, there were three strong forces in the country: communism, Islam and secular nationalism. After communism was destroyed in the mid-1960s, there were only two left. Yet today, even parties with an explicitly secular tradition do not proclaim themselves as secular parties; rather, they conscript Islam as an element of their party identity. Ali offers two reasons for this: the success of religious education in Indonesia, and the way both political and religious elites have sought to frame the transformation, including the democratic transformation, in their own interests.

The next day I meet a remarkable young man, Fajar Riza Ul Haq, in a Jakarta cafe. Like a good Muslim he avoids coffee and drinks hot chocolate, while I take my third caffeine hit for the day.

Fajar heads the Maarif Foundation, which works to promote the idea of human rights as a central part of Islam. Like Ali, he offers a primarily sociological explanation for religious extremism in Indonesia: “The problems of terrorism and radicalism come from the political problem, not the religion itself. People are frustrated by the situation today. They feel marginalised by the economy. They feel the economic system has not worked in bringing justice and prosperity, that it’s not producing a good society. Some Muslim organisations teach their followers we are living in an infidel society, so religious teaching can be a problem in radicalisation, but the biggest problem is political.”

I find myself uneasy with the sociological explanations for extremism. But the scholars at UIN, and Fajar, readily offer other factors as well.

Saudi money

Both nominate the enormous amount of Saudi money that goes into financing extremely conservative religious institutions in Indonesia. Fajar recounts the tale of a teacher he had in his home town of Solo who attended a three-week course at a Saudi-funded institution in Bogor. “He used to teach me about pluralism and tolerance, but after training at the Saudi-funded institution, he came back totally opposite: totally opposed to democracy and human rights, saying they were Western imports and haram [unclean]. They have very intensive training at those institutions.”

Back at UIN, I ask the rector, Komaruddin, about a recent case of a UIN alumnus who had constructed a bomb disguised as a book, as an act of Islamist terror, which blew up and caused serious injury. “There is the question of how this young guy from this university became radicalised,” Komaruddin says. “When he was here he was just a regular guy, if anything rather naughty. He represents not so much a movement as just one individual. When he became involved in a project to re-build Aceh, that’s when he became radicalised.”

I ask the rector about the Ahmadya case, and he is uncompromising and straightforward in his defence of human rights: “We need the government to say and to declare that Ahmadiya is a legal organisation. And then it’s up to the police to protect them.”

No ifs or buts there, just a straight call for human rights and law enforcement.

But some Indonesian editors in what normally would be regarded as liberal publications tell me they have trouble getting their staff to write editorials in favour of protecting the Ahmadis or even to conduct investigative journalism into the violence. The extremists are clever, one analyst tells me, in picking targets that will arouse a good deal of hostility.

Student conversations

At UIN, I spend the day among scholars and clever and articulate students. About 70 or 80 per cent of the students come from pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and madrassas (Islamic religious schools). All the women seem to be wearing Islamic head dress — the jilbab, as it’s called in Indonesia. But that should not be taken to suggest drab uniformity. Some young women wear tight jeans and a jilbab, others very loose and modest robes.

One of the most striking pronouncements I hear during the day is that Islam has recently married capitalism in Indonesia, and this has produced “the sparkling jilbab”.

In the afternoon, a friend convenes an informal focus group of students for me. One extremely articulate and well-spoken young woman says, somewhat to my surprise, that she wishes the Ahmadiyas would keep quiet and keep a low profile and not claim to be Islamic, then they would not face such problems.

This rouses a young man, on the opposite side of the table, to say such issues are completely secondary. The first duty of the police is to protect people’s lives, whatever their religious affiliations.

I ask the group why they chose to attend UIN, and several admit it was not their first choice but they did not do well enough to gain admittance to the University of Indonesia. But all say they are happy they came to UIN.

One young man is brutally honest about how he came to be there. “I didn’t have any input into the decisions about what I studied or where. My father forced me to come here. He is the headmaster of an Islamic boarding school back home, and he wants me to follow him and be a teacher there and then take over as headmaster.”

Yet this is certainly not a depressed or antsy group of young people. One young man invites me to attend a performance of his choral group. What sort of music? Latin, as in Latin American, songs.

Apart from the fact they are all bilingual, I could almost be sitting with a group of Australian undergraduates: two or three are constantly fiddling with their BlackBerries or mobile phones, and another has a laptop open and seems perfectly able to follow every nuance of the conversation while emailing, reading and whatever else one does on a laptop during a conversation.

The students are polite to each other. Each is a practising Muslim. They are lively and speak up strongly for their points of view, and there is plenty of laughter.

Almost any generalisation you make about Islam in Indonesia will have some element of truth to it, as will the opposite generalisation. It’s an astonishingly diverse society and a very diverse religion.

And while ever there’s much laughter, surely too there are grounds for optimism.

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