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.
Von Jürgen Kremb

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.

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.

"A Political Catastrophe for our Country"

But not everyone welcomes the advance of the Islamists. "If the anti-pornography law is enacted, it will be a political catastrophe for our country," says Eva Sundari, a member of parliament who sits on the legal committee. Until now religious tolerance has been a distinguishing feature of Indonesia, a nation scattered across more than 18,000 islands. Under the so-called Pancasila, or "Five Principles," instituted by the country's founder Sukarno, the government expressly guarantees freedom of religion.

Sundari is wearing a short, pleated skirt and a tight T-shirt. "The radicals want to force Indonesia to take on a different face," says Sundari. But despite her combative stance, Sundari senses that she is increasingly supporting a losing cause. "There are days," she says, "when the PKS representatives in the committee simply start speaking Arabic" -- in lieu of the official national language Indonesian. When that happens she leaves the room in protest, which at least temporarily prevents the committee from adopting resolutions. But the PKS, as the unstable government's coalition partner, is in demand these days. "If President Yudhoyono wants to be re-elected," says Syafi'i Anwar, director of the Jakarta-based International Centre for Islam and Pluralism. "He'll need the Islamists to get his majority." Yudhoyono's party holds only about 10 percent of seats in the parliament, while the other major parties plan to put up their own candidates in the presidential election two years from now.

In other words, an increase of conservative Islam influence seems unavoidable, but just how far the process will ultimately go remains a question. It is being spurred on by imams from Saudi Arabia who preach Wahhabism, a particularly strict form of Islam. Every year they flood Indonesia with millions of free books that promote their interpretation of the Koran with mosques and the religious boarding schools known as pesantras gratefully accepting the literature. Riyadh also selectively hands out grants to radicals from the Islamic universities, including people like FPI founder Rizieq.

But even the government feels uneasy about all this missionary zeal. "In the past there was no question that our country stood for openness," says former journalist Yenny Zannuba Wahid, 32. "Today we must increasingly justify our openness to the West."

Yenny is one of Indonesia's most politically influential women. When her father, the blind Islamic scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, better known by the name Gus Dur, was president from 1999 to 2001, she was his right hand. Today Yenny is an advisor to President Yudhoyono and heads a center for inter-religious dialogue. She is also one of the leaders of her father's party, the political voice of the country's largest Muslim association Nahdlatul Ulama, with its 30-million members.

Victim of the United States

Yenny wears a silvery green silk scarf over her hair to suggest a headscarf. Without the jilbab, admits Yenny, who was educated in the West, she would no longer be accepted, not even in her organization, which is considered liberal. "The religious agenda is shaping more and more areas of daily life," she says. She is especially concerned by the fact that the radicals are far more successful in rural parts of the country than in urban centers.

Central Java is one of those rural areas. It's evening in Solo, and Imam Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, an elderly man with a handlebar moustache, leads the prayers in the house of a well-known publisher who specializes in schoolbooks. More than 500 prominent citizens in this old city of Sultans are in attendance, their Mercedes and BMW limousines lined up outside the villa.

Intelligence agencies are convinced that Ba'asyir heads the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. He also runs Al-Mukmin, an Islamic school on the city's outskirts where many of the October 2002 attackers were educated. He acquired even more respect at home when, despite strong objections from the West, he was pardoned after being imprisoned for almost two years on charges of conspiracy. "The emir is merely the victim of the anti-Islamic policies of the United States and Australia," says the publisher and host, defending his prominent guest.

Ba'asyir wants to re-establish the caliphate -- the Islamic form of government which once united the Muslim world. And in some parts of Indonesia, other aspects of conservative Muslim rule have already been put in place. The province of Aceh at Indonesia's northwestern tip, devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, has been administered by Sharia law since 2001. At the time, the government granted the deeply religious region this special right to prevent Aceh from seceding. But nowadays the only ones in Aceh who monitor compliance with the religious rules are radical clerics.

When women refuse to wear headscarves, their heads are shaved in public as punishment. An adulteress has already been stoned. And the boyfriend of a French aid worker who was recently caught kissing her in a car was subjected to the humiliation of a public caning.

Aceh stopped being an exception long ago. More than 60 regional administrative bodies throughout the country have already established their own religious rules. One of them is Padang, a large city in western Sumatra where schoolgirls, female university students and female public servants have been required to wear headscarves for some time. Fauzi Bahar, the city's 44-year-old mayor and a former member of the Indonesian navy, has even barred Christian restaurant owners from opening their businesses in the daytime during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Harmless soap operas

And in Tangerang, a large city just west of Jakarta, special police units patrol the streets every night searching for women they believe to be prostitutes. Their victims are promptly thrown into reformatories.

That was how Lilies Lindawati, a 35-year-old teacher, ended up in police custody. A mother of two and pregnant with a third, she was picked up as she was walking home from work in the evening. As evidence of her supposedly amoral way of life, the police cited the fact that they found lipstick in her purse.

The mistake was discovered and Tangerang's mayor apologized to Lindawati. But the discussion on Muslim morality triggered by the incident spread quickly to the capital. Anjasmara, the actor photographed with a nude Jahja for the controversial poster, apologized to the radical Islamists of the FPI for the transgression and promptly denounced "Western decadence." Since then he has only appeared on Indonesia's TV screens in harmless soap operas.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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