The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


FIGHTING FOR FAITH © Duncan Graham 2005

By Indonesian standards of religious conflict the attack was relatively mild.

In late July an estimated 10,000 youth stormed the Bogor, West Java compound of the Ahmadiyah religious group. Some buildings were burned. The 700 residents fled, but no one was killed or seriously injured.

The police were reported to have been present. There were no arrests, but the hoons earned the wrath of vice president Jusuf Kalla, other senior figures in the government and mainstream Islamic organisations.

The attackers called themselves the Indonesian Muslim Solidarity Group. They claimed they were motivated by a fatwa (edict) issued by the peak Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) - the Indonesian Scholars’ Council.

The MUI had declared Ahmadiyah a deviant Islamic organisation because it allegedly does not recognise Muhammad as the last prophet. Ahmadiyah was formed in Pakistan last century. It has an estimated 200,000 followers in Indonesia where it’s been operating for about 80 years.

Ironically – or perhaps deliberately - the assault occurred just as an international forum on inter-faith issues held in Bali called for the recognition of pluralism and the right of individuals to choose their own religion. The forum was opened by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who stressed the need for tolerance and understanding.

The government-sanctioned MUI responded by declaring secularism and pluralism forbidden under Islam. In its national congress just after the Bali forum, delegates also approved fatwa against inter-faith marriages, joint prayers with people of other faiths unless led by a Muslim, and women leading prayers when men are present.

MUI executive Cholil Ridwan ordered preachers nationwide to spread the edicts. In keeping with the Indonesian practice of creating acronyms to simplify complex issues and give them a twist he referred to secularism, pluralism and liberalism as SIPILIS. This is also the Indonesian word for syphilis.

In the past similar edicts from Islamic conservatives in Indonesia have roused limited ire. But this time opponents mounted a full on verbal attack that lifted the issue onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

A rapidly formed assembly of religious leaders and leading intellectuals, including former president Abdurrahman Wahid (widely known as Gus Dur) condemned the MUI edicts and asked the government to ban the organisation.

Although Indonesia claims to be a secular state religion is an all-pervading political and administrative issue. The Department of Religious Affairs is the nation’s third largest bureaucracy.

According to the department about 85 per cent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims. All citizens have to profess one of five approved religions and have their faith stamped on compulsory ID cards.

The religions are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Local wags say that Indonesians are free to practise religion, but not free to practise no religion.

Foremost among the opponents of MUI has been scholar and activist Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, 39. In 2003 he attracted the wrath of the old men for publishing a newspaper article criticising conservative Muslim leaders. Another Islamic group issued a fatwa to kill the young critic, but so far he has survived.

Ulil belongs to the Liberal Islamic Network which raises issues of pluralism and gender equality at every opportunity. Not surprisingly it’s been labelled anti-Islam and a tool of the West. As Ulil also fronts a think tank called the Freedom Institute, which is widely believed to have US funding, this charge resonates. (Ulil says the money comes from a major philanthropist.)

He is also head of the Research and Human Resources Development Department in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of two major Islamic organisations in Indonesia and which claims a membership of 40 million. (The other is Muhammadiyah, which like NU also condemned the attack on the Ahmadiyah compound.)

“I’ve had a solid Islamic education in a conservative and traditional environment,” Ulil said. “I was educated in the madrasah and pesantren (Islamic schools) and I went to an Islamic university. (He studied Syariah – Islamic law.)

“I have developed my understanding of Islam through my curiosity. I can challenge the conservatives on their terms. I’m ready to engage in dialogue with them. If you want to be a reformer you must have earned your credentials from within your own organisation.”

At the heart of the issue is the direction and power of Islam in a nation recently liberated from authoritarian control. Under the New Order government of former general Suharto public discourse was heavily censored. Specifically banned were discussions of race, religion and ethnicity.

Also kept on a tight rein were radical Islamic organisations. Particularly curbed were those calling for Indonesia to become an Islamic state and throw off the concept of pluralism enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

When Suharto resigned in 1998 after 32 years in total control these restrictions were lifted as Indonesia embraced democracy. But freedom of speech and assembly didn’t just apply to liberals, and it wasn’t long before Friday prayers were being used to raise the once taboo topics.

In 1999 during Gus Dur’s presidency serious violence broke out between Muslims and Christians on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas, and around Poso in Central Sulawesi. An estimated 9,000 people have lost their lives and up to 100,000 made homeless in this poorly reported conflict.

At the height of the fighting Islamic radicals from Java sailed to Ambon against the president’s orders allegedly to defend fellow Muslims. Sporadic shootings and bombings continue to occur despite peace agreements.

It’s against this recent history that the clash between the MUI and the liberals is taking place. It’s not just a case of who determines how Muslims should behave and what they should believe – it’s also a struggle for the place of Islam in the state, and a fear that Indonesia will be Christianised if Islamic power wanes.

“There’s a strong indication that radical Islam is gaining ground,” said Ulil. “It’s definitely something that moderate Indonesian Muslims must take note.

“At the same time there’s a reform underway in Islam which is equal to the birth of Protestantism through Martin Luther. Most of the pesantren are dynamic institutions going through a very interesting process of re-evaluating Islamic theology.

“I’m not defending all pesantren but I reject the claims by some Western politicians that pesantren are breeding grounds for violence. It’s dangerous to take a monolithic view. The fundamentalists have come from a background of secular education promoting zealotry and bigotry. They have no real understanding of Islam because they haven’t been through the rigid analysis of religion. They are not speaking in God’s name.”

But who does? Mustering a mob to protest any issue is easy in Indonesia which has an estimated 20 million unemployed or under-employed. During last year’s general election thousands of young men were paid the equivalent of a couple of dollars to swell demonstrations and plant banners.

Many openly admitted they were happy to wear a candidate’s T-shirt and distribute propaganda but had no intention of supporting him or her at the ballot box.

Consequently there are always suggestions that attacks, like the one on the Ahmadiyah compound and those in Ambon, have been orchestrated by what commentators like to call ‘sinister forces’. This is local code for die-hard New Order power brokers unhappy with political developments diluting their once rigid grip on society.

Although no one will name names such spoiler tactics have more sinister overtones than an attack driven by a spontaneous feeling of outrage.

Conspiracy theorists allege an international Jewish-Christian-Chinese-Capitalist Western master plan to undermine Indonesian Islam. These notions were once confined to the fringe but have moved towards the centre following the fall of Suharto and the independence of East Timor. A PEW global attitudes survey released this year claimed 38 per cent of Indonesians viewed Christians unfavourably.

October marks the start of the fasting month of Ramadan and a time when fundamentalists seek to impose their standards on others. Watch out for more demonstrations – real or contrived - against liberalism as the world’s most populous Islamic nation wrestles with concepts of democracy.

(First published in The Diplomat (Australia) October 2005)