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 Wednesday, 8 January, 2003, 01:07 GMT
The changing face of Indonesian Islam
Indonesian Muslims shout
There are fears of a gradual drift towards militancy
In the wake of the Bali bombing, BBC South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head looks at how Indonesia's Muslims are responding to the world's new interest in them.

Green lasers flash across the sky above the huge square in central Jakarta.

Drummers and musicians start up a rippling rhythm on an extravagant Arabian stage-set, as 100 white-clad women perform a synchronised dance in front of thousands of onlookers.

Indonesian police officer guards the bomb site
The Bali bomb turned the world's eye on Indonesian Muslims
And the main speaker is not a bearded mullah or a firebrand preacher, he is a 40-year-old businessman who wields a laptop and a decidedly secular message.

Abdullah Gymnastiar is by far the most popular Islam figure in Indonesia.

Tonight, as usual, he speaks not about religion or the Koran, but about the failings of politicians.

This is the moderate, easy-going face of Islam for which Indonesia has long been known. But it is changing.

Bin Laden idolised

I visited the town of Cianjur, around 50 miles south of Jakarta.

It is one of the most devoutly Islamic parts of the country. Outside the mosque in Cianjur, a group of young Muslim students had set up stalls selling low price products for the poor.

Alongside the cheap perfume and crockery, I spotted tapes of speeches by Osama Bin Laden for sale and videos of Palestinian suicide bombers.

The students told me they did not view Bin Laden as a terrorist, but as a courageous fighter for Islam.

None of the students supported violent actions like the Bali bombs, but one man, Mohammad Asep, told me he did not accept the Western view that Islamic militants were to blame.

This nation is full of corruption, this nation has no justice - so people have become very, very frustrated

Syafi'e Ma'arif, chairman of Muhammadiyah

"For the moment, people shouldn't point fingers at Muslims or any others; there isn't enough evidence yet. It only causes bad feelings. So please, all people - Indonesians and foreigners - stop blaming the radical Muslim groups."

Mainstream Muslims, though, are becoming concerned about a gradual drift towards fundamentalism, especially among the young.

"More people go to the mosque, more people want to perform haj, for example; but this is symbolic you see," Syafi'e Ma'arif, chairman of Muhammadiyah - the second largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia, with 27 million members - told me.

I'm not swayed whether Islam can offer the guidance - can offer the solution - for the complexity of problems," he said.

Chilling warning

Two hundred miles to the west of Cianjur, musicians performed part of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, in the Royal Palace of Yogyakarta.

This city is the heart of traditional Javanese culture which blends Islam with older Hindu and animist faiths. But despite its long reputation for tolerance and moderation, Yogyakarta now has extremists of its own, campaigning from offices inside the city.

Following evening prayers, Irfan Awwas preached a hardline view of the world to his young and impressionable audience, as a chilling warning for the West.

"If America continues to commit atrocities against the Islamic community - at the moment they're threatening Iraq and they're pressurising the Indonesian government to arrest Muslims - then I am certain that a new generation will be born, blessed by God, and aware of everything America has done which will carry out actions much bigger than what we saw in Bali."


Today, few Indonesians see things the way that Irfan Awwas does. There is even a campaign now in Yogyakarta, led by the traditional Sultan, to drive the extremists out of their city.

Whether or not he wins more converts, Syafi'e Ma'arif said, depends a great deal on whether Indonesia can pull itself out of the chaos left after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship four-and-a-half years ago.

"Why do they kill? Something very, very interesting - because this nation is a trembling nation now. This nation is full of corruption. This nation has no justice. So people have become very, very frustrated," he said.

"But (if) these militants are not deported, actually, they will fail. I think failure is their future," he added.

Governments across the world, who are now watching the shaky steps being taken to build a democracy in the world's largest Muslim nation, must be holding their breath and hoping he is right.

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06 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
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