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Where “soft Islam” is on the march

ICC Note:

A broader report on the politics of Indonesia suggesting that there are some regions where there is still hope for moderation.

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1/10/2008 Indonesia (Economist) In late December a mob attacked and burned a prayer house in West Java belonging to Ahmadiyah, a sect deemed heretical by some mainstream Islamic scholars. Earlier in the month the country’s Christian leaders complained that Muslim radicals, helped by local officials, had carried out a string of attacks on churches. Ten Muslim militants were jailed for attacks on Christians on Sulawesi island, including the beheading of three schoolgirls. In late November the religious-affairs ministry barred a liberal Egyptian scholar, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (who calls the Koran a “cultural product”), from public speaking in Indonesia.

Behind many recent incidents is a vigilante group, the Islam Defenders’ Front (FPI), which in September assaulted bars, cafés and hotels in Bogor, near Jakarta, accusing them of violating Ramadan. Another rising radical force is the Indonesian chapter of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which wants a caliphate to rule the whole Muslim world. Last August it gathered perhaps 90,000 supporters in a Jakarta stadium. Its leaders condemned democracy on the basis that sovereignty lies in God’s hands, not the people’s. A not dissimilar attack on pluralism was made in a hardline fatwa issued in 2005 by the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI). This same semi-official body recently demanded the banning of the liberal Egyptian scholar.

This all sounds worrying. But Indonesia is a huge, varied and complex place, and the radicals—even though some have a semi-official platform—are a small and not very influential minority. Contrary evidence abounds: liberals as well as radicals are making inroads. They have won a big battle over a “pornography” law that Islamists proposed in 2006. It would have banned bikinis and short skirts, for non-Muslim women too, and prohibited the Hindu minority’s traditional dances. But a public outcry forced lawmakers to strike out all the controversial bits—and it still has not passed in parliament.

The formerly separatist region of Aceh was allowed, under a peace pact with the rebels, to introduce strict sharia. The move was popular at first, says Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, but there was widespread revulsion when the authorities started publicly whipping miscreants. As a result the religious police were drastically reined in. Overall, Indonesians seem to prefer the idea of living under “God’s law” to the practice of it.

Indonesia is, overall, edging away from radical Islamism. But the trend is not irreversible, and the authorities must avoid fostering fundamentalists by pandering to them. The MUI (the council of mullahs) and the FPI (the vigilantes) provide a lesson: both were created, for temporary reasons of expediency, by the Suharto regime but both have lingered to haunt its democratic successors. Mr Yudhoyono now seems to be trying to channel the MUI’s radical enthusiasm into issuing fatwas against “deviant” Islamic sects like Ahmadiyah. But this only encourages the FPI to take up its cudgels.

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