By Sadanand Dhume
22 November 2009
If you had to pick the place in the Muslim world least susceptible to any kind of religious extremism, it would be hard to find a better candidate than Indonesia. The world's most populous Muslim country is on Islam's eastern edge, separated from the faith's Arabian birthplace by space and time. Islam washed up in the archipelago in the 12th century, took root in the 15th and became dominant as late as the 17th. For the most part, it arrived through trade rather than conquest, by Indian dhow rather than Arab charger. It was preceded by more than a millennium of Hinduism and Buddhism, whose achievements included Borobudur, a massive 9th-century Buddhist stupa.
As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote in comparing Indonesia to Morocco: "In Indonesia Islam did not construct a civilization, it appropriated one."
In India, a strain of Islamic orthodoxy was sometimes in open conflict with Hinduism. But in Indonesia, the new faith sat comfortably atop a Hindu-Buddhist past. Like most Indians, and unlike the Arabs, most Indonesians continued to believe that there are many paths to God. Indeed, until recently, Indonesian Islam - steeped in a culture of music and mysticism - was synonymous with tolerance. By and large, the one-in-eight Indonesians who are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Animist, rarely faced discrimination, much less religious violence.
Most strikingly, Indonesians did not confuse being Muslim with being Arab. Their national airline is named Garuda. The national epic is the Mahabharata. In Bahasa Indonesia, the word for heaven is surga, the word for hell neraka.
But this culture of pluralism and tolerance can no longer be taken for granted. Today, Indonesia is struggling to cope with the same conflict between moderate and radical Islam that has ripped apart Muslim communities from Morocco to Mindanao. Radical Muslims, those who seek to order every aspect of society and the state - from burqas to banking - by the medieval dictates of sharia law remain in the minority, but their numbers are growing. Moreover, these believers make up for numbers with zeal, organization and the conviction that history is on their side.
For Indians the drama unfolding in Indonesia is especially urgent because the conflict there is as much cultural as political, a battle between a native, deeply Indicized Islam and a strident Arab import. Over the past 30 years, Arab names have gradually edged out Sanskrit ones in kindergartens. Headscarves have mushroomed on college campuses. In offices, the greeting assalamu alaikum has become an alternative to the religiously neutral selamat pagi, or good morning. The traditional tiered-roof Javanese mosque has given way to the ubiquitous onion dome. For the first time, a generation of Javanese children is growing up unfamiliar with Arjuna and Bhima from the Mahabharata.
The political consequences of this broad cultural shift are already apparent. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's ruling coalition includes the Prosperous Justice Party, a highly disciplined cadre-based organization whose roots can be traced to the banned Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. In recent years, a demand that Indonesian Muslims follow Sharia law has resurfaced.
In universities throughout the archipelago, students congregate in mosques to study the writings of the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb, or to enrol in Hizbut Tahrir, another group banned in many countries for its call to unite all Muslims in a single superstate that recalls the Ottoman Caliphate. To be sure, only a fraction of orthodox Indonesian Muslims espouse violence, but that has been enough to make the past decade the bloodiest in the country's history since the anti-communist pogroms of the 1960s. Terrorist attacks - Bali bombings, and the Jakarta hotel bombings - make headlines. But much more goes on under the international radar screen. In the Moluccas, the once fabled Spice Islands, the aftermath of a bloody civil war has segregated Muslims and Christians on religious lines. Across Java, Christians complain of church burnings and intimidation by local militias. As in Pakistan, the tiny Ahmadiyya community is under attack for departing from mainstream Sunni orthodoxy. by claiming that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), received revelations directly from God. Balinese Hindus have protested against a so-called "anti-pornography" law, which they see as an attempt to impose orthodox Islamic values on non-Muslims.
Nonetheless, despite these inroads by radicals, the battle for Indonesia is far from lost. Moderates can count on the deep roots of Javanese culture, a non-sectarian constitution and deeply secular business, military and cultural elite. Indonesia may yet live up to its promise as a bastion of moderation, a Muslim version of, say, Thailand. But by the same token, nobody who follows the region should be surprised by a very different outcome, an Indonesia where radical Islam continues its march toward cultural and political influence, in short a Southeast Asian version of Pakistan.
The writer, a Washington-based journalist, has reported from New Delhi and Jakarta for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is the author of 'My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist'
Source: The Times Of India, 22 Nov 2009