Indonesia unlikely to become Islamic state

Political transitions provide fertile ground for the rise of extremist elements. As recent history has shown, Russia, South Africa and other fledgling democracies have fallen prey to gangsters and warlords, leaving governments there in a limbo to manage affairs.

Indonesia is no exception. The fall of President Suharto left a political void that allowed Muslim militants, persecuted and at times co-opted by the New Order regime, to resurface after 30 years in oblivion.

In a space of four years, these radical groups are now dominating political discourse in Indonesia. Television images from the country now feature religious zealots parading with swords and machine guns while calling for a ‘holy war’ in the Maluku islands.

The so-called holy war has claimed 5,000 lives already and the death toll is rising. At least 14 were hacked and burnt to death over the weekend when assailants in black masks and armed with daggers and bombs stormed a village populated by Christians.

Carnage like this leaves one to ponder whether we are seeing a more aggressive and imposing Islam in Indonesia today. Is this predominantly Muslim-populated country showing signs that it might evolve into a theocracy?

Indonesia appears to be giving that illusion. Hundreds of years after the religion took root in Indonesia, Muslims in the country seem to be alternating more pointedly now than ever before between tolerance and militancy.

If history is a linear progression, it is only a matter of time before the country heads in that direction.

Just look at the raison d’etre of paramilitary outfits like the Laskar Jihad that is fuelling the war in the Maluku islands. Its leader Jaafar Umar Thalib has made it very clear that he supports an Islamic state. And such views are growing in Indonesia.

The respected Van Zorge report notes that there has also been a marked increase in Islamic political activity in the major universities.

One group to emerge in recent years is Hammas. It links students from more than 50 universities across Java and some of the larger state universities in Sumatra and Sulawesi.

‘Purist’ Islamic groups of Saudi Arabian origin are also making their presence felt in Indonesia. The Tarbiyah movement in Indonesia is popular with students in Hammas and Kammi and a feeder for the ultra-radical Justice Party. They too aspire to an Islamic state.

Such views, while growing, are unrepresentative of the large Muslim community in Indonesia – the silent majority – that continues to be moderate.

With the exception of fringe extremist groups, there is little to suggest that Indonesia is heading towards an Islamic state, the likes of that found in countries in the Middle East – not for the next 20 years at least.

Yes, one can also argue that there is a marked intolerant strain of Islam that has support in pockets of Aceh, South Sulawesi, Madura and West Java.

It was these regions that displayed most restiveness, during the years of rebellion in the 1950s, to establish an Islamic state.

But these areas remain the exception to the rule in Indonesia.

Even with the backing of local militant groups like the Laskar Jihad, they do not have the demographic weight to force the central government into establishing a theocracy except to perhaps wrangle some concessions from Jakarta in the form of the syariah.

Three decades of modernisation in Indonesia has led to a cultural schizophrenia – McDonald’s and the thumping rhythm of discos against the drone of the traditional gamelan and Friday prayers at the mosque.

Most Indonesians of the MTV generation may be growing to be more devout Muslims, but they do not want to have excessive demands of piety imposed on them in day-to-day life.

Indeed, it is a striking paradox that as Indonesia is turning Islamic green, the two largest political parties in parliament – the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar – are of the secular-nationalist mould. Most of the radical Islamic parties did not do well in the 1999 parliamentary elections. This electoral pattern is likely to continue for the 2004 polls with only the Justice Party improving on its past record, but at the expense of other Islamic parties like the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and the United Development Party (PPP). There is little chance of Muslim parties capturing power because they are not a monolithic bloc. The now defunct Central Axis is split because of ideological and political differences.

Coalition governments in Indonesia, for at least the next decade, will be tactical alliances between the secular-nationalist and Muslim parties.

Creeping extremism in Indonesia, while having a strong religious and ideological subtext, has much more to do with domestic politics and the protection of elite interests than with Islamic issues – which are used as symbols to rally support and stir emotions.

Golkar and PDI-P legislators also realise the value of using these symbols and cultivating militant Islam to win support for their respective parties.

It is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. And the two political parties appear to be playing along.

The radicals are a small but potent and noisy force, strong enough for parties to take notice of them but not strong enough to sway the moderates and secularists in the direction of an Islamic state.

The biggest obstacle to the radicals of course is the Indonesian armed forces.

Some generals might be using militant Islam as a means to a certain political end as is the case of what is going on in the Maluku islands.

But they are in no way dreaming of establishing an Islamic state. It is instructive that Indonesian intelligence agencies still keep close tabs on Muslim radicals in the country.

Every historical era reflects a specific power configuration between political forces that shape a country’s destiny. Islam was left out of that equation for much of the Suharto era.

Not any more. Muslim activists see the end of the New Order regime as a historic opportunity to give Islam its rightful place in the country. Indonesia is now at that crucial intersection where religion is becoming more pronounced in public life than it ever was.

But to suggest that a theocracy is the next likely destination is a fallacy because most Indonesians are just not ready for it – for now at least.

Posted in Indonesia