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|Posted April 16, 2007|
|TERRORISM, ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY|
|Indonesia: Gambling That Tolerance Will Trump Fear|
|In Jakarta, above, flowers are given out, pre-Islamic-style, after singing to Allah.|
By CALVIN SIMS
S EVEN years ago, in the pre-9/11 fall of 2000, I was retrieving my luggage at the airport in Jakarta when a tall Indonesian man in a flowing white robe and green scarf accidentally bumped me off my feet.
He apologized and helped me up. Then I noticed he was part of a gang of grim young men stalking the airport with wooden rods.
He said they were from the Islamic Defenders Front and were searching for Israelis to kill. I doubt they found any, but I was shocked. Such bullying and militancy contrasted sharply with the Indonesia I had come to know on previous reporting trips: a model of Islam as a tolerant, compassionate, inclusive and peaceful religion.
The many varieties of culture and styles of life in this enormous archipelago had bred a unique form of Islam or, more precisely, many such forms, thriving side by side and often drawing on a rich pre-Islamic history replete with magic, Buddhism and South Seas gods. I had thought the prospects for retaining this style had only been enhanced by the coming of democracy in 1998.
It has not quite worked out that way, and now the big questions facing Indonesia are: Can Islam and democracy co-exist? And what would such a democracy look like?
Many optimists argue that there may be no place on earth better suited to be a Muslim democracy. Indonesia has the worlds largest Muslim population some 207 million people, rivalling the number of Muslims in the Middle East and the optimists say its relaxed and varied traditions are one reason that the vast majority of Indonesians remain committed to a tolerant form of Islam. The fastest-growing Muslim movements, in fact, are moderate and outspoken in their promises to compete only through democratic processes.
But there is also fear that the global rise of militant fundamentalism has begun to change Indonesia. With democracys arrival, radical Islamists were allowed to return from exile, where the former military government had sent them. That was followed by the terrorist bombing of a nightclub on the predominantly Hindu island of Bali in 2002, in which 200 people died, then by other bombings in Jakarta and Bali, again. The government says it has seriously weakened Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorism network blamed for those attacks. But the Islamic Defenders Front, less lethal but more numerous, still vandalizes bars and discos in Jakarta and beats up their patrons, trying to force the businesses to close.
Meanwhile, Islamic observance has turned more conservative. Many more women wear the veil. And Islamic political parties have gained strength by arguing that they can do something about Indonesias endemic corruption and violence.
Indonesia is an experiment in Muslim democracy, which if successful could have ramifications for other parts of the world, said Sidney Jones, director of the International Crisis Groups Jakarta office. If the United States wants to advance democracy in the Islamic world, then Indonesia takes on added importance.
Experts dont think Indonesia is at risk of a takeover by Islamic militants anytime soon. The two largest Muslim organizations, the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, stress tolerance and freedom of thought, and together have 70 million members.
Those groups were big winners in the transition to democracy. In the nine years since the fall of its last autocrat, Suharto, who limited religious expression in the name of nationalism, Indonesia has had three fair and open presidential elections, one of which put a woman in the presidency. Security officials have been able to arrest, convict and sentence more than 200 people for terrorist acts, using an open legal system that would seem familiar in the West. Still, the Indonesia I knew in the late 1990s has become a more fearful place.
We are so happy with the democratization process in Indonesia, but there is a blackness in this process, said Eve Sundari, a legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party. Now the door is open. Everybody can fight for their power to control people. Suddenly Islamic groups want to impose to other Muslims their laws.
The surprise that democracy would complicate, rather than simplify, the prospects for peace raises perplexing questions about Indonesias example: Is democracy the best antidote to terrorism? Even if so, can a culture of tolerance survive that contest? Why are Indonesians appearing to turn more observant and traditional just now? And does that mean they would accept violence, repression, or sexism in the name of Islam?
The questions, yet to be answered, point to a conundrum: Pluralist democracy, by definition, requires tolerance. Fundamentalist religion, by definition, demands uniformity.
Indonesias history, optimists say, may point the way to a compromise.
A leading explanation for Indonesias traditional liberalism is that Islam did not go there by force. It arrived in the 13th century on trading ships from the Indian subcontinent, and island dwellers often layered its beliefs atop existing Buddhist or Hindu practices. Allah had to keep company with Dewi, goddess of the rice paddy; Nyai Loro Kidul, Queen of the South Seas; and Nini Tawek, the angel of the Javanese kitchen.
Part of Islams popularity in Indonesia has always been its adaptability. Early Islamic preachers used Indonesian shadow puppet shows to disseminate the religion culture instead of force. Even today, many Indonesian Muslims regularly consult shamans mystical healers believed to have paranormal powers to have fortunes told, or to have spells cast and removed.
That is the backdrop against which Azyumardi Azra, an Islamic scholar based in Jakarta, says that the vast majority of Indonesias Muslims believe in democracy and fully embrace its principles.
While there is a growing sense of Islamic identity or piety among Muslims in Indonesia people are free to practice religion in ways that were forbidden under the dictatorship far less than 1 percent of the population subscribes to extremist, global jihadist views, he says.
He and others argue that political and economic concerns, rather than religion, have propelled the turn to Islamic parties issues like sectarian and ethnic violence, poverty and corruption. A 43-year-old man named Rudy, who runs my favorite warung, or food stall, in Jakarta, put it this way: Indonesians are turning to Islam for help because everything else we have tried has failed us the Dutch, the military dictatorships, even democracy. My life is really no better today than it was under Suharto.
But any turn to religious movements worries some experts. It means, they say, that the terms of political debate have already begun to change, with many questions being framed around Islamic values.
Yenny Wahid, an outspoken critic of fundamentalism, says many would-be leaders now feel a need to look pious. When youre close to god, you are a good person and you have a certain level of impunity, she said.
An Indonesian government official said: It seems counterintuitive for us to be worried about Indonesias small bands of religious radicals in a country of tens of millions of moderates. But there is a battle for the soul of our religion going on here, and the voices that ring loudest these days are the extremists.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, April 15, 2007.
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