Indonesian Islam's softer hard line

Posted in Broader Middle East | 29-Jun-07 | Author: Seth Mydans| Source: International Herald Tribune

Civil police in Tangerang, Indonesia, with confiscated alcohol.

TANGERANG, Indonesia: When Lieutenant Colonel Antonius Tihadi confronts an unmarried couple in a hotel room, he does so very politely, he said.

"We don't kick down the door or anything like that."

Under a local ordinance that includes elements of Islamic Shariah law, Tihadi heads the enforcement unit that raids shops that sell alcohol, interrogates women who are out alone at night and arrests unmarried couples for what he calls immoral behavior.

"We ask politely to see their documents," he said of the couples they catch in hotel rooms. "If they do not have the same address we ask them separately to tell us the names of their in-laws. If they don't know that, they aren't married."

This is the extreme version of the possible future of Indonesia, where up to 50 communities have adopted similar Shariah regulations in recent years. A conservative tide is challenging the moderate, tolerant traditions of the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Still, most analysts doubt that Tangerang is a model for a future Indonesia, despite the emergence in the country of hard-line organizations and Islamic political parties, an increase in the use of Islamic head scarves by women and periodic attacks by terror groups.

"There is a view that Islam is on the march," said Greg Fealy, an expert on Indonesia at the Australian National University. "I don't see any evidence for that. Yes, there is a religious and cultural Islamization, in private and public. But in the political realm, there is hardly any evidence to support the view that Islam is rising."

Some analysts said the Shariah ordinances are largely a response to the social dislocations that have accompanied the economic downturn of the past decade, colored by a rise in religiosity that has little to do with radicalism.

More broadly, they said, this Islamic ferment is a product of the democratic clamor that was unleashed in 1998 when the longtime strongman Suharto was driven from power.

The lifting of restrictions on organizations of all kinds, coupled with political decentralization, has permitted local communities to formulate many of their own laws.

The changes in mood can be seen on campuses, where students who might have demonstrated for democracy a decade ago are forming Islamic associations and turning toward religion. The short skirts of the past have been replaced by head scarves.

"Democracy is like a gate that is opened to let people say what they want," said Budi, a student at the secular University of Indonesia who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. "Having the door open wider, it was easier for us to promote Islamic values and teaching."

Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia's 235 million people call themselves Muslims. But Indonesian Islam has a history of accommodation of other beliefs and tolerance for differences.

After Muslim traders brought their religion in the 12th century, it embraced elements of the Hinduism, Buddhism and animism that flourished here. It is still characterized more by the mysticism of these roots than by the orthodoxy of Islamists.

"I don't think they're going to be liberal, but I'm vaguely optimistic that they'll be pluralist in some fashion," said Robert Hefner, an expert at Boston University on Indonesian Islam. "Indonesia has these awful political crises. But one thing that has consistently survived is this kind of sweet nationalism, not a racist nationalism - it's a multiethnic thing."

The tension between Islam and secular democracy goes back to the founding of the nation in 1945, when the Islamists failed in their attempt to insert into the Constitution what are known here as the seven words. They translate into English as "with obligation for Muslims to practice Shariah."

Islamist delegates to Parliament tried again to insert the phrase after the fall of Suharto and lost, in 2002, by an even larger margin.

"Here's the problem: How do you integrate religion into that democratic system?" Hefner said. "That's where the enormous struggle is going on, how Islam, and particularly Islamic law - Shariah - can be accommodated into this otherwise democratic system."

Radical Islam gained momentum here as part of a surge of Muslim solidarity when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But more recently, moderate Muslims, who had been relatively silent, have begun to raise their voices, and some analysts said radicalism had already passed its high-water mark.

After the Bali bombings of 2002, which killed more than 200 people, the government began to seriously pursue terrorists. It has weakened the main terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah, with scores of arrests.

A survey of 1,000 Indonesians, published June 21 by a private pollster and the Wahid Institute, a policy center, found that just 2 percent of Muslims believe that their religion allows violence against non-Muslims. Only 7 percent said they believed that Islam sanctions militancy.

"In my experience, Indonesian Islam will remain tolerant, remain moderate," said Azyumardi Azra, director of the graduate school at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University. "Of course there is growing conservatism, but not in terms of becoming more radical."

Referring to the proliferation of head scarves that are the most visible sign of a changing society, he said: "More women are wearing the jilbab, but they are not becoming more radical. It's a symbol of more religiosity."

Indonesians overwhelmingly say they support Shariah, said Azyumardi, who has studied public attitudes on the question. For most, though, he said, Shariah means Muslim morality rather than the imposition of Islamic law.

"When you ask them if they support Shariah in a general way, they support it," he said. "They think of prayer, fasting, the hajj" - the journey to the holy city of Mecca.

But he said most of these same people say they do not support the imposition of restrictive laws that include punishments like flogging or stoning for adultery.

"The implementation of 'Shariah' is not Shariah," he said of municipalities like Tangerang. "These so-called laws against prostitution and alcohol and moral issues are only bylaws with Islamic colors."

The exception is the province of Aceh, which until recently fought a separatist war against the government. Having been granted special autonomy, Aceh has adopted a fairly strict Shariah law that includes public canings, but even there the strictures are controversial.

Some analysts said the have seen signs of disenchantment as Shariah regulations have spread. "In the last two to four years, there was such a trend, but when people realized what was happening they reacted against it," said Ansyaad Mbai, the top counterterrorism official at the Coordinating Ministry for Security and Political Affairs. "I consider it a temporary phenomenon."

Hefner said the radical Web sites that flourished a few years ago are being overtaken by spiritual chat groups. "They are talking piety this and piety that," he said.

The Muslim political parties that emerged after the fall of Suharto have learned the hard way about the public's wariness of their Islamist agenda. Together, they have never drawn more than about a fifth of the electoral vote, and they have mostly stopped talking about Shariah in their campaigns.

One of the largest, the Justice and Welfare Party, now campaigns as the party of clean government and public service, although Shariah remains one of its founding principles.

"Islamic state, blah, blah, not an issue," said Zulkieflimansyah, a member of Parliament who is a leading voice among the party's younger generation. Shariah, he said, is much less than it is cracked up to be.

"They ask us, 'Are you going to have an Islamic country?' " he said, putting a friendly face on his party's ideology. "We will say, 'Yes, and the model is the United States with improved civic engagement.' "

He agreed that it is economic hardship that today drives the spread of Shariah ordinances, which are seen as a possible quick fix for people whose lives have not improved under a decade of democratic rule.

This seems to have been the story in Tangerang, an industrial city of 1.5 million people adjacent to the capital, Jakarta, that was badly hit by the economic crash of 1997.

Hard times brought a rise in crime, prostitution and narcotics and an epidemic of alcoholism that spread into surrounding villages, said Dewi Gustiana, the Tangerang reporter for the daily newspaper Suara Pembaruan.

"People were asking the government to do something, and there was pressure from groups trying to introduce Muslim values," she said.

The regulations were adopted in 2005 and enforcement fell to a local civil police force of about 200 officers. The work has been steady. In May, according to their own count, they raided 10 places selling alcohol, arrested one woman in a hotel room and arrested another on the street.

There have been complaints, Dewi said. Among other things, the force has been detaining young women factory workers on their way home from night shifts.

The government responded by suggesting a dress code that has nothing to do with head scarves. If a woman wants to avoid arrest as she waits for her bus home at night, officials said, she should be sure to wear her factory uniform.