Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Indonesia's Culture War

Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of Muslims in the world are not Arab. Islam, of course, originated in Arabia, and has often had a streak of Arab supremacy about it. However, according to PBS, only 12% of all Muslims worldwide are Arabs. In fact, the world's largest Muslim nation is not even in the Middle East: it is in Southeast Asia. With an estimated population of 234 million people, over 86% of them Muslim, Indonesia is the world's largest majority-Muslim nation.

Indonesia defies many of the negative stereotypes about Islam. It is both a democracy and home to a tolerant form of Islam that is consistent with local culture and traditions. In short, Saudi Arabia it isn't. Sadly, this state of affairs has begun to change. Calvin Sims, writing in the April 15th New York Times, gives one anecdotal but telling example:

SEVEN years ago, in the pre-9/11 fall of 2000, I was retrieving my luggage at the airport in Jakarta when a tall Indonesian man in a flowing white robe and green scarf accidentally bumped me off my feet.

He apologized and helped me up. Then I noticed he was part of a gang of grim young men stalking the airport with wooden rods.

He said they were from the Islamic Defenders Front and were searching for Israelis to kill. I doubt they found any, but I was shocked. Such bullying and militancy contrasted sharply with the Indonesia I had come to know on previous reporting trips: a model of Islam as a tolerant, compassionate, inclusive and peaceful religion.

(Emphasis added-DD)

As is the case throughout the Muslim world, radical Islamism exported from Saudi Arabia, and backed by Saudi petrodollars, has gained a foothold in Indonesia and proceeded to wage a culture war against anything it deems "un-Islamic". This April 6th article from Der Spiegel gives just one example:

A poster on display at the Jakarta Biennale art festival two years ago -- depicting Jahja in the nude, but in a rather modest pose, with well-known actor Anjasmara -- set off a furor among radical Islamists from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who stormed the event. They demanded that the "work of pornography" be removed, and threatened to kill Jahja and the actor if their demands were not met. But when Jahja filed a complaint against the radicals, she was the one who was arrested. Only after civil rights groups protested her arrest was she released.

Yes, this is the same Islamic Defenders' Front encountered by Mr. Sims in 2000. From the same article, Der Spiegel provides a look at the FPI and its ideology:

Islamic Defenders Front founder Habib Rizieq, 41, is proud of the actions taken by his supporters. He wears a white turban and a long kaftan, clearly imitating his Saudi teachers; he spent 10 years living in the Saudi capital Riyadh. The only decoration in his sparsely furnished office in eastern Jakarta is a portrait of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Rizieq is convinced that he too is on a holy mission. His struggle, he says, is directed against the Western decadence he insists is inundating "Indonesia's great culture."

The FPI's roughly 3,000 activists, dressed in white, have become almost as audacious in public as Iran's Revolutionary Guards or Malaysia's religious police. The group besieged the offices of Playboy magazine in Jakarta until the publication gave in and moved to Bali, a liberal vacation paradise. Editor-in-chief Erwin Arnada was acquitted on Thursday of disseminating indecent pictures to the public with the court referring to Indonesian media laws passed in the wake of Suharto's downfall.

(Emphasis added-DD)

In an April 17th piece for the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens provided some additional background on Rizieq and the FPI. As with radical Islamist movements in other countries, the organization is aided both by Saudi-funded Islamic "charities" and by local politicians who choose to pander to the Islamists for short-term gain.

Unfortunately, the FPI is just one small part of a much bigger problem. While the former movement is a relative fringe and has settled for thug tactics, the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) has sought to exploit Indonesia's democratic political system to spread Islamism. Modeling itself on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, the PKS enjoys influence well beyond the mere 7% of the vote it received in 2004. Among other things, it works diligently to infiltrate social and educational institutions in true Gramscian style. According to this March 1st Associated Press article their efforts have been remarkably successful (link via Jihad Watch):

More than 50 legislative bodies — from westernmost Sumatra island to Sulawesi further east — have passed laws inspired by the Islamic legal code, or Sharia, to regulate moral behavior.

On a federal level, hard-liners are pushing an anti-pornography bill that calls for prison terms of up to five years for kissing in public and one year for exposure of a woman's "sensual" body parts, though few expect it to pass in its present form.

"I call it creeping Sharia-ization of our society," said Syafi'i Anwar, executive director of the Jakarta-based International Center for Islam and Pluralism, noting that because Muslim groups have done poorly in national elections they are pushing their will through the "back door."

Many people remain silent for fear of being labeled unIslamic, analysts note. Others share concerns of conservatives about moral decay — pointing to girls in miniskirts, Playboy magazines hawked on street corners — albeit in a toned down Indonesian version — and offerings of alcohol on restaurant menus.

And the remainder do not care about the Islamic legislation or fail to see any danger from it.

(Emphasis added-DD)

The censorship efforts of Indonesian Islamists include charging the editor of Indonesia's version of Playboy with publishing illegal pornography (he was acquitted) and trying to regulate the content of popular music.

Such examples may seem relatively silly. However, it is in areas where Islamic Sharia law is now being applied that the totalitarian nature of the Islamist project becomes evident. Der Spiegel, in the article cited above, describes the situation in Banda Aceh, which was ravaged by the horrific 2004 tsunami:

When women refuse to wear headscarves, their heads are shaved in public as punishment. An adulteress has already been stoned. And the boyfriend of a French aid worker who was recently caught kissing her in a car was subjected to the humiliation of a public caning.

Aceh stopped being an exception long ago. More than 60 regional administrative bodies throughout the country have already established their own religious rules. One of them is Padang, a large city in western Sumatra where schoolgirls, female university students and female public servants have been required to wear headscarves for some time. Fauzi Bahar, the city's 44-year-old mayor and a former member of the Indonesian navy, has even barred Christian restaurant owners from opening their businesses in the daytime during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

To be fair, the situation is not entirely bleak. The Islamists are for now a small minority, and the majority of Indonesian Muslims remain opposed to their agenda. Filmmakers, musicians, and even the country's most prominent religious leader have been outspoken in their opposition to the Islamists.

Still, despite these factors, Indonesia's Islamists have been remarkably successful in their culture war against tolerance and pluralism. Even a small minority, when it is organized and motivated in pursuit of a revolutionary political agenda, and enjoys global sources of support, can overcome an apathetic and unorganized majority under the right circumstances. This is why we ignore the spread of radical Islamism at our peril.


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