Mega says it : No place for radical Islam

Hitting out at fringe militant groups, the President says Islam is a peaceful religion capable of creating prosperity.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri turned the political ratchet yesterday by sending a strong signal to

Indonesians and the international community that there was no place for radical Islam in the country.

Speaking before the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the 55-year-old leader launched a rare, biting attack on the ‘narrow fanaticism’ of fringe militant groups.

‘We want to show that Islam is a peaceful religion and is capable of creating prosperity in the world,’ she told the national congress of the 35-million-strong NU.

‘With that view, we can help or save those groups which are small but often claim to represent all Muslims and impose their narrow views, which are actually harmful to religion and the nation.

‘We can also broaden our religious horizons and shun narrow fanaticism and the view that differences are wrong.’

Political observers saw her comments as the first concerted attempt by the administration and moderate Muslim groups like the NU to marginalise extremists who, through public rancour, had painted a negative image of Indonesia abroad.

They said that the President’s decision to make her views known before the NU was ‘strategic’ because it was the most moderate of all the Islamic groups and could use its grassroots reach to squeeze out the radicals.

Political commentator Rizal Malarangeng told The Straits Times: ‘Extremists can penetrate other Muslim outfits in Indonesia easily. But they are going to face a brick wall with the NU, which traditionally has been their enemy.’

Ms Megawati’s task was made easier given that the NU and other moderate groups, like Muhammadiyah, were prepared to back her stance.

Both organisations, for example, have joined forces with churches in Indonesia to oppose a bid by radical groups to push for Islamic law to be included in the Constitution.

Some believe that the President’s views could also have the effect of calming the nerves of neighbouring countries and the United States.

They have for months been urging Jakarta to take a harder line against militants.

Well-placed sources said that she was ‘more confident’ about going on the offensive now, given US backing.

Doubts were cast on those efforts, however, after reports that Jaafar Umar Thalib, head of the notorious Laskar Jihad, was released from police detention late last night, ahead of his trial next week. An official in the Attorney General’s Office said his release was ‘a legal right and normal practice in most cases’.

His lawyer had given assurances that the militant leader, who is accused of inciting religious violence in Maluku, would not abscond.

The palace did not comment on Jaafar’s release, having gained political mileage from the President making inroads into the NU with her tough stance.

Sources in her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) said that Ms Megawati was keen to patch ties with the NU which soured last year after the ouster of then president Abdurrahman Wahid, who used to head it.

Given the PDI-P’s secular-nationalist bent, it was in the party’s interest to cultivate the Muslim ground or try to drive a wedge through the Islamic bloc, which poses a threat to the Megawati presidency today because of its sizeable presence in Parliament.

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