Moderates in Indonesia find their voices


The often-silent majority is finally closing ranks and speaking out against Muslim militant groups.

The central message of a recent seminar here on Islamic extremism was clear and pointed: that moderate Muslims in Indonesia should stand up against radicalism.

There is nothing new in the message. The United States and other countries have periodically urged Indonesia’s often-silent majority to take a stronger line against militant groups.

Probe deeper and there is a double significance. It is the first time Muslim moderate scholars are making such a call in a unified fashion.

Secondly, and more importantly, it reflects how the ground has moved over the last year in the country with the moderates in the ascendant.

Before the Oct 12 Bali blasts and the dramatic arrests of nearly 70 Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members in Indonesia – including its spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir – the radicals came to the fore as a small but potent and noisy force.

They were strong enough for major political players in the country to take notice of.

Religious zealots dominated discourse in Indonesian politics and grabbed the media spotlight by parading with swords and machine guns while calling for a ‘holy war’ in Maluku islands or other restive spots.

It was a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

But the tide is slowly shifting the other way as the three-day conference on radicalism – an event unthinkable in the past – illustrated.

Speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of moderation and religious plurality.

Ironically, the man who made the strongest pitch was Professor Azyumardi, head of the State Islamic University (UIN), who 18 months ago was one of the many who openly questioned whether there were terrorists in Indonesia.

‘It is time for moderate Muslim leaders to speak more clearly and loudly,’ he said.

Highlighting the dangers of misinterpreting and ‘abusing’ the tenets of the Quran, he maintained that they should also explain to their followers that a literal interpretation of Islam ‘will lead to the type of extremism that is unacceptable to Islam’.

His second point was equally important: that two of the largest Muslim groups in Indonesia – the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah – work together to fight terrorism.

It is no secret that the two, together with other moderate outfits, have held regular meetings since the Bali massacre to explore ways to counter extremism.

But according to Prof Azyumardi, in most cases such talk never translated into ‘any systematic agenda of activities’.

Symbolically, cooperation between the two groups, which together have 60 million members, could counter religious extremism.

There has been a marked increase in Islamic political activity across the country in recent years, especially 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 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, several speakers noted, were unrepresentative of the large Muslim community in Indonesia. There is little to suggest that the country is heading towards an Islamic state.

Dr Rizal Sukma from the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies made it clear that the emergence of several Islamic parties campaigning for the imposition of Syariah laws should not be seen as a serious challenge.

‘Those who support the agenda of Syariah through constitutional means remain a tiny minority group,’ he said.

Public support for these groups and hardline political parties was very low, he noted.

This was reflected in the results of the 1999 general election.

The parties that advocated them – the United Development Party, the Crescent Star Party and the Justice Party – secured less than 15 per cent of the votes.

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 and the United Development Party.

There is little chance of Muslim parties capturing power 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, 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. But that is as far as it will go.

Said Mr Bachtiar Effendy of UIN: ‘As long as Islam is being used as a party symbol, then its impact on the country’s politics is insignificant.’

Another key point raised was that the growth of extremist discourse in Indonesia was not without a ‘counter-movement’ from within the Muslim community.

This included the establishment of the Liberal Islam Network by several young moderate Muslim thinkers led by Nadhlatul Ulama’s Ulil Absar Abdalla.

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

Participants noted that some generals might be using militant Islam as a means to a certain political end as is the case in the Maluku islands and elsewhere.

But the military as an institution is 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, with increasing intensity now following Bali.

Islam was left out of that equation for much of the Suharto era. Not any more.

The country is now at that crucial intersection where religion is becoming more pronounced in public life than it ever was.

Will theocracy be the next likely destination?

Judging from the reaction of the moderates in the seminar, there is little chance for the radicals to push the Islamic agenda even if some groups like JI continue to pose a significant terror threat.

The moderates are clearly emerging from the shadows of yesteryear to act as a bulwark against religious extremism.


Moderate Muslim leaders should tell their followers that a literal interpretation of Islam will lead to extremism not acceptable to Islam.’
– Prof Azyumardi Azra (left), head of the State Islamic University


If the radicals succeed in implementing their agenda, then damage will be done to Islam and Muslims.’
– Co-founder Ulil Abshar Abdalla (right) of the Liberal Islam Network, which promotes universal values of plurality, humanism and gender equality to counter growing militancy

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