Talking to Jihadis
By Michael Scott Moore
As the United States tries to spread democracy throughout the Muslim world, a rare meeting with Islamic radicals in Indonesia shows the downside of the country’s post-Suharto representative politics: It has allowed fundamentalists to openly thrive in a country where they were once suppressed. Are there lessons to be learned here for Iraq ?
As people shopped for groceries at an open-air market on New Year’s Eve in the Indonesian coastal town of Palu , a homemade bomb loaded with nails killed at least eight people and ripped apart a kiosk selling pork. Christians on the island of Sulawesi eat pork on New Year’s, but devout Muslims, of course, don’t. Indonesian police believe the bombing is the latest tragic installment in a long-simmering religious struggle, like the decapitation of three Christian girls on another part of the island last October. Militants with machetes attacked the girls in a cocoa plantation while they walked to a Christian school, and — just to make sure they made their point nice and clear — they left one of the heads lying outside a church.
The message was war: Sulawesi is half-Christian, but jihadis there think the island should be sanitized for Islam. The idea is to win a limited war for shariah law in an area where radicals think they can set up an Islamic government.
Much of Sulawesi — like most of Indonesia — is peaceful and calm. But there are scattered battlegrounds. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world: It has a secular constitution, but (like Iraq ) it’s new to democracy.
I went there in spring 2004 to research a book and watch the people elect a president. A right-wing dictator, General Suharto, had ruled the vast chain of tropical islands for more than thirty years, from 1965 to 1998; but a student movement inspired by a rotten economy forced him out, and while I was there Indonesians were casting their first direct votes for president.
I also dropped in on members of Majelis Mujahideen of Indonesia — MMI, or the Council of Martyrs — which is a front group for Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaida linked group that contributes foot soldiers in Sulawesi .
Meeting the fundamentalists
My guides and translators were university students in Yogyakarta , a lively cultural hub in the middle of Java. When I asked them to put me in touch with “fundamentalists,” I wasn’t sure what to expect, but through Abi and Syihab I got to have a rare conversation about democracy and shariah law with hard-core (but unarmed) Indonesian jihadis.
With my form in his hands, Hasyim squinted. He wasn’t sure if he could trust me. He started with a few principles: Muslims viewed God as the only source of truth, and therefore the only source of law. Democracies since the French Revolution had turned “majority rule” into God. Muslims, on the other hand, had a perfect way of ordering society. God had given them an unimpeachable set of laws, through the Koran and the hadiths, or acts of Mohammed, which would solve every human problem.
I said no one confused God with majority rule in the United States . The founders of both America and modern France had seen a distinction between the law of God and the law of man. Christianity allowed this distinction.
Hasyim asked for evidence.
“Evidence?” I asked Abi.
“He’s asking if you remember any specific lines from the Bible that allow people to have laws outside Christianity.”
In other words, to Hasyim, western systems were Christian systems. He didn’t believe there was separation of church and state. So I tried to think of a good line from the Bible.
“Well, there’s a proverb from Jesus — ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s.’ He was talking to Jews about paying tax to the Romans.”
Hasyim had never heard this quotation. He asked me to repeat it. Then he explained that in Islam, law came only from God.
Allah and traffic laws
“Allah makes law for every human problem,” Rian said in careful English. “Why should we make law again?”
“Every problem? Even the small ones?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” Rian said.
“How about parking and traffic laws?”
At first they were confused. I wasn’t trying to be facetious. But Rian said bitterly, “Can you think of a problem with traffic-parking that goes against the rule of Allah?”
“So human laws are allowed if they don’t violate Islam?”
Abi explained, “Minor laws can be extrapolated from larger laws in the Koran.”
“Then is democracy an acceptable way to arrive at smaller laws, as long as they don’t contradict the Koran?” I asked.
“Aha.” Hasyim had me here. In his aggressive, precise and rapid dry voice he spun out another argument, and Abi translated: “We cannot divide between Islam and democracy, because Islam is by nature democratic.”
“One law in the Koran says, ‘Males and females who have done their duties correctly will be given the same reward.'”
“I see. Equality under God.”
“Yes.” Abi translated Hasyim: “Islam as a law of living is perfect; it’s been blessed by Allah himself. There’s democracy as a doctrine, and Islam as a doctrine. But the true one is Islam.”
A doctrine? Abi had used this word more than once. Hasyim went on: The trouble with America, he argued, was that it had no single moral standard. There were many standards; this led to confusion. How did I account for America’s social problems under democracy? They were the result of different standards. In France, Muslim dress had been outlawed — was that democratic? In Indonesia or any Muslim nation I was free to worship as I pleased. In fact, Islam was more tolerant than western democracy. Since the 14th century there had never been a church, or temple, or synagogue, or holy house from any foreign tradition destroyed by Muslims in any Islamic society. Yet there was intolerance of Muslims in Europe and America. How did I account for these contradictions?
The killing in Sulawesi that had been going on for several years seemed worth mentioning, but Hasyim’s answer had turned into a rant. The idea that no church or temple or synagogue had ever been destroyed by Muslims in centuries was such nonsense I had no idea what to say. Hasyim was baiting me. The reason for violence against other religions in Muslim areas is normally some variation on self-defense. Islam is under attack — which is what militants think in Sulawesi, because so many Christians do missionary work there — so Muslims need to take up arms.
I went back to another subject. I asked Hasyim about the word “doctrine.” To me, democracy wasn’t a doctrine — it was a process. Not a perfect one, and people weren’t perfect under it. But a democratic system could evolve.
“But it cannot give answers to the human problem,” he said.
I asked how he accounted for social problems in theocracies like Iran, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, where shariah was in force.
“They don’t stay close enough to the Koran and the hadiths,” said Rian. “God and his law are perfect, men are fallible. Also, people who commit violence in the name of Islam do dishonor to Islam, in the eyes of the world.”
“Then Muslim terrorists aren’t true Muslims?”
Hasyim scowled. His forehead furrowed around the dark prayer callous and he started to shout: “George Bush is the terrorist!” he said. “Not Muslims! There are no Muslim terrorists! George Bush …”
Abi also said something interesting. In spite of the shabby office building, and the poor-looking clothes, fundamentalists in Yogyakarta tended to be middle-class students from technical universities. “Science and religion aren’t separated here, as in the west,” he explained. “But some people raised in secular homes have no exposure to Islam until they are at university.” They discover these ideas as technical students and convert with fervor. Rian at the MMI office had said his family in Sulawesi was aristocratic — “but I no longer call myself an aristocrat; I am a Muslim” — and Abi thought that was a good example. “Rian may have been raised in a secular home,” he said.
Can fighting poverty help stop terror?
The radicals I met in Indonesia contradict the vague idea in America that violent Islam is a function of oppression and poverty. Where dictators keep people destitute, goes the thinking, frustrated young men turn to extreme religion. That was one point of the Iraq war. Beyond the fizzled excuse about weapons of mass destruction, one of the main justifications for the invasion was that “a stable, peaceful, and democratic” Middle East would breed fewer terrorists, not only because terrorists relied on certain dictators for money but also because ordinary Muslims would have less reason to bomb London or New York if they could feed their families and vote for their leaders.
What complicates the situation in Indonesia is that democracy seems to have had the opposite effect. The collapse of Suharto’s dictatorship enabled Baashir to freely set up MMI in Yogyakarta in 2000, and let Jemaah Islamiyah spread to the major cities and rebel flashpoints of Indonesia, starting with East Timor. Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) reports that “fundamentalists in Jakarta’s universities are gearing up to assume power in the 2008 parliamentary elections” — but that doesn’t mean that what they have in mind is democracy.
When middle-class or even rich young men discover the poetry of the Koran, the austerities of sharia, along with the fiery rhetoric of rebellion against an imperial, decadent west, it is easy enough to end up with warriors for the law of God in any system. And democracy gives them freedom to move. To most Americans, this tolerance of subversion is the great virtue of a liberal society, but in Indonesia — for example — it fails to move Hasyim Abdullah’s heart with gratitude.
This, of course, raises an important question for Iraq: If fostering democracy in other Muslim nations has enabled the return of extremism, how can Baghdad avoid a similar fate?