Sliding Towards Conservative Islam Indonesia's Secular State under Siege

Indonesia is a nominally secular democracy. But the influence of conservative Islam is gaining in the world's biggest Muslim country. A further step away from tolerance may be just around the corner.

By Jürgen Kremb

A group of conservative Muslims protests against the acquittal of Playboy editor-in-chief Erwin Arnada on Thursday.

A group of conservative Muslims protests against the acquittal of Playboy editor-in-chief Erwin Arnada on Thursday.

It is Saturday afternoon in Kemang, the garish bar district in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. The young patrons partying at poolside on the roof deck of the trendy restaurant "Edge" enjoy a panoramic view of the entire southern part of the city. The only reminder that these partygoers are unwinding in the world's largest Muslim country is the muezzin's call to prayer at a nearby mosque.

Well-off models, successful trendsetters, designers and young filmmakers make up the guest list, and everyone is in high spirits, at least until Izabel Jahja, 30, speaks up. Wearing a tiny bikini, she raises her glass of red wine in a toast and says: "Let's enjoy life, as long as our country continues to allow it."

Jahja, the self-confident editor-in-chief of glossy magazine A-Plus, is dead serious. The Indonesian parliament has been debating a more stringent anti-pornography law for months. If the law is passed, it will ban a lot more than X-rated books and movies. In fact, it would spell the end of parties like this one, would make public kissing illegal and would mean prison time for anyone bold enough to wear "lascivious clothing." Theater, the cinema, painting and music, would likewise be curtailed, just as they are today in many countries of the Middle East. "We are on the brink of a comprehensive Islamicization of Indonesia," says Jahja.

For years, radical Islamists have taken advantage of the democracy gained after the 1998 ouster of former Indonesian dictator Suharto to question that very democracy, all in the name of piety. A cultural war has broken out between the supporters and opponents of religious fundamentalism, a struggle that could deeply change this country and its traditionally softer brand of Islam.

A brutal spectacle

With 221 million inhabitants, of which 194 million are Muslims, the island nation is not only Southeast Asia's most populous country, but is also home to the world's largest Muslim population. And that population looks to be growing increasingly devout. Significantly more women wear the headscarf today than a decade ago, and the number of Indonesians making the pilgrimage to Mecca grows year after year. Alcoholic beverages are disappearing from the shelves of supermarkets, and in some places those who violate the Islamic ban on alcohol already face public whipping -- a brutal spectacle that is even broadcast on local television stations.

Since two bombs killed 202 people, most of them Western tourists, at the Kuta beach resort on the island of Bali in the fall of 2002, Islamist terrorists have repeatedly attacked Western targets at the same time of the year, prompting Indonesians to refer to autumn as "bomb season." Al-Qaida, which is clearly allied with local extremists, has identified the country as a battlefield of the future.

While the country's secular president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, may be tough on terrorists, there is little he can do to stop the Islamists from gaining political ground. The winner of the struggle between proponents of a secular state and radical imams calling for a theocracy stands to capture a valuable prize -- one of the world's most strategically important countries. All major shipping routes connecting Europe and East Asia pass through the waters off this island nation. It is precisely here, in this archipelago between the Straits of Malacca and the Celebes Sea, that a new front in the battle of cultures is emerging.

That she would be assuming a pivotal role in this struggle is something the beautiful Izabel Jahja, once one of Indonesia's most successful models, would never have expected.

A poster on display at the Jakarta Biennale art festival two years ago -- depicting Jahja in the nude, but in a rather modest pose, with well-known actor Anjasmara -- set off a furor among radical Islamists from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who stormed the event. They demanded that the "work of pornography" be removed, and threatened to kill Jahja and the actor if their demands were not met. But when Jahja filed a complaint against the radicals, she was the one who was arrested. Only after civil rights groups protested her arrest was she released.

Too much Western decadence

Islamic Defenders Front founder Habib Rizieq, 41, is proud of the actions taken by his supporters. He wears a white turban and a long kaftan, clearly imitating his Saudi teachers; he spent 10 years living in the Saudi capital Riyadh. The only decoration in his sparsely furnished office in eastern Jakarta is a portrait of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Rizieq is convinced that he too is on a holy mission. His struggle, he says, is directed against the Western decadence he insists is inundating "Indonesia's great culture."

The FPI's roughly 3,000 activists, dressed in white, have become almost as audacious in public as Iran's Revolutionary Guards or Malaysia's religious police. The group besieged the offices of Playboy magazine in Jakarta until the publication gave in and moved to Bali, a liberal vacation paradise. Editor-in-chief Erwin Arnada was acquitted on Thursday of disseminating indecent pictures to the public with the court referring to Indonesian media laws passed in the wake of Suharto's downfall.

Recent outrage has been directed at Playboy magazine. But conservative dress has become the enforced norm for women across the country.
Getty Images

Recent outrage has been directed at Playboy magazine. But conservative dress has become the enforced norm for women across the country.

Despite the decision, groups like the FPI have little to worry about when it comes to the police; and the extremists and their demands have long been acceptable in the Indonesian parliament. Hidayat Nur Wahid, for example, former head of the Justice Welfare Party (PKS) -- a party modeled after the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas -- is speaker of Indonesia's parliament, the People's Consultative Assembly. In Indonesia's splintered party structure, the PKS captured 7.3 of the vote in the 2004 elections, garnering 45 seats in the parliament. Hidayat, who earned a doctorate at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, and his party are actively involved in social work, and hold themselves up as religious examples. The party wants to see Sharia law introduced countrywide.

In a country that has been at the losing end of globalization, the salient causes of Indonesia's religious conservative shift are economic. With foreign investment on the decline (it dropped by more than a third last year alone) and regional competitors like Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia booming, Indonesia has never truly recovered from the Asian financial crisis. For the roughly 42 percent of the population living on less than $2 a day, a strict religious order promises support.

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