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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 00:04 GMT 01:04 UK
Letter: Indonesia's 'tired' politics
University students burn campaign posters during the July 2004 elections
Indonesia's first direct presidential election was not without conflict
Malaysian historian Dr Farish A Noor has been encountering the many interpretations of Islam in the world's largest Muslim country.

He reflects on the unique influence of Indonesia's history on the development of Islam in its islands and reports on his encounters with members of the population, from students to mystics.

Capek - That's the Indonesian word for "tired", "worn out", "fed up" or "sick of it all".

Activist AA Sudirman is telling me how he feels about the state of Indonesian politics as we dine on mutton satay and rice soup at a warong, or street-side stall, on Wahid Hashim street in the middle of Jakarta.

It's night and the air is hot and humid. Amidst the din of traffic and uneven quality of singing offered by the city's buskers, brightly painted prostitutes and transvestites cruise the street for their daily income.

AA's choice of words is not an accident - he looks as he sounds: tired, worn out and fed up with it all.

I was in Indonesia as I'd been shanghai-ed to do a series of lecture tours from Palembang in Sumatra all the way to Makassar, Sulawesi.

In the space of three weeks I had given more than 20 lectures, and I'd travelled across Indonesia by plane, bus, taxi and motorbike.

My friends at the Centre for Islam and Pluralism wanted me to talk about the future of progressive Islam in South-East Asia.

Defining Islam

What few people elsewhere don't seem to realise is that there is, at present, a complex struggle that is being fought in Indonesia over the form and content of Islam and how it is practised in the country.

The stakes in this struggle are high: Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country.

For more than three decades when the Western-backed authoritarian leader President Suharto was in power, the forces of resurgent Islam were kept at bay by force.

General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the favourite to win the run-off election
Indonesia's military elite tried their best to keep political Islam under control, but in the process many sections of the country's Muslim population felt themselves alienated, persecuted and marginalised.

In time, the more desperate sections of that society grew more radical and militant, many of them came from the urban slums and countryside made poorer by Suharto's developmental policies.

After Suharto was forced to step down from power in 1998, more than 50 Islamist parties mushroomed all over the country, with a number of other new, violent and extremist organisations thrown into the bargain.

'Progressive Muslims'

At the forefront of this struggle for hearts and minds are those Muslim intellectuals, activists and leaders who regard themselves as 'progressive Muslims'.

These are the Muslims who see Islam as a universal creed based on universal values such as justice, freedom and equality for all.

Today these groups are fighting for an interpretation of Islam which sees it as a force for democratic reform and social emancipation.

But the struggle ahead is a daunting one, when we consider the statistics.

Islam is the only solution to everything... what we need here is an Islamic state under a Caliphate, that will unite all Muslims!"
Member of the hardline Hizb-ut Tahrir
Indonesia has more than 220 million people living in an archipelago made up of 17,000 islands stretching the length of Europe.

Long before South-East Asia was designated the second front in the so-called war against terror, Indonesia was already at the centre of concern for technocrats and strategists all over the world.

This is one country you simply cannot ignore.

Indonesia remains fascinating for me thanks to its colourful array of Islamist groups, ranging from the hardline conservatives to eclectic mystical brotherhoods who even claim that there is no such thing as religion per se, only God.

Christian minority

For my friend AA, the activist, who happens to belong to the Christian minority, the development of these groups in Indonesia is no mere academic concern.

His future may well depend on it.

I had a few run-ins with the hardline Islamists as I toured the country lecturing on Progressive Islam.

In Palembang, a young member of the hardline Hizb-ut Tahrir movement began his tirade with the cry "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great).

As he went on to make his point his level of animosity increased accordingly:

"What do you mean when you talk about 'Progressive Islam'?" he barked at me.

"Islam is the only solution to everything, can't you see?

"Modern Progressives like you talk about democracy and human rights, but what we need here is an Islamic state under a Caliphate, that will unite all Muslims and give us the power to destroy our enemies, the Jews and the Americans!"

I pointed out to the young hotspur that his way of dividing the world into Muslims and non-Muslims was itself a modern mode of thinking, and that Islamist parties and organisations like his were already part of modernity.

But I don't want to give the impression that Indonesia is a country about to be overrun by angry young men driven to despair.


If anything, the hyperbole of the young activist was a reflection of his relative isolation in the country.

While it is true that Indonesia has become a home for a host of new hardline groups like the Laskar Jihad and Hizb-ut Tahrir, the fact remains that even when put together they make up a small segment of a much broader spectrum.

The most outstanding feature of Indonesian Muslim society remains its openness, tolerance and genuine embrace of pluralism; which can only be appreciated when we understand the character of Indonesians themselves.

Islam is great and supple. Islam did not come to us like a typhoon, destroying everything in its path. It came as gentle waves, melting into our society and blending in slowly
Preacher Kyai Rahmat Hidayat
The one thing that has saved Indonesia from religious extremism and exclusivity is the culture and history of the Indonesian people, something Indonesians can be justifiably proud of.

With the coming of Islam, Indonesians were converted to the new faith but they also converted it in turn.

The Indonesians' greatest talent in this respect was and remains their ability to interpret Islamic laws and rules according to the needs of their society.

Perhaps this is why the rights of women are not compromised as they have been in the case of some other Muslim countries.

As far back as the 17th Century Muslim women have played a visible role in commerce and politics in Indonesia.

Embracing pluralism

The region of Aceh - long noted for its staunch adherence to Islamic laws and customs - had a succession of women rulers, and even a Muslim woman as the commander of its navy - Laksamana Kumalahayati.

This tradition of adaptation and compromise is still alive today, and its proponents include hugely popular and powerful figures like former President Abdurrahman Wahid, down to local preachers like Kyai Rahmat Hidayat, who leads a growing community of urban Sufis, or mystics, in Jakarta.

18-year-old Andina, Miss Indonesia contestant
Andina from Aceh does not see her headscarf as a barrier to becoming the next Miss Indonesia
He invited me to one of his study sessions at his religious centre in Jakarta - again, to talk about Progressive Islam - and I had a taste of the mystical Islam he had to offer. I have to say, it tasted sweet.

"Islam itu luas dan luwes", he said, as he began his sermon.

"Islam is great and supple. Islam did not come to us like a typhoon, destroying everything in its path. It came as gentle waves, melting into our society and blending in slowly. Most of all, it came with love. Always love, rahman."

I felt like I was a member of the Beatles and I was sitting at the feet of some Mahaguru spinning some transcendental jive that was cooling my temper.

Even my aching back - made worse by three weeks of travel - felt relieved for a while.

But Kyai Rahmat was not some lovey-dovey hippy guru selling miracle cures for pain relief.

Demanding justice

He spoke about the problems Indonesia was facing, from the resurgence of the military to the rise of religious intolerance and extremism with a clarity that a political scientist like me could appreciate:

"Today we seem to be going back to the bad days of the past," he noted.

"Lawlessness and corruption is everywhere, and the people are getting tired of being lied to by their leaders."

My thoughts turned back to my friend AA, capek by the roadside.

"But all of these problems are there because we have lost our way, and we no longer live like Muslims should. Islam is not just about rituals.

Voter casting their vote at the polls
The July 2004 election was Indonesia's first ever direct presidential poll
"That is just the dress we wear. But what about what is happening inside of us, in our hearts?

"As long as we are guided by our egoistic wants, these problems will remain: corruption, abuse of power, authoritarian leaders.

"We need to struggle, but the struggle of Islam begins within all of us. What are the evils we fight against? Racism, prejudice, sexism, greed. This is our real struggle, our real jihad."

Cultural openess

Talking about Progressive Islam is possible in Indonesia only because of the openness of the Indonesians themselves, and their attachment to an ancient culture and civilisation.

What complicates matters today, however, is the sudden discovery of "Progressive Islam" by the West.

Fearful of any other variant of Islam that carries the "Made in Afghanistan" label, Western politicians seem to be falling over themselves to support any kind of Islam that can stand in the way of the advance of the hardliners.

But what Mr Bush Junior and his friends in Washington don't seem to understand is that Progressive Islam is not new nor marginal.

I feel so proud to be an Indonesian. I feel like I don't have to go anywhere else in the world, the world has come to us.
Indonesian student and tour guide
In Indonesia, Islam has evolved through the prism of culture and local identity, and it was the local genius of the Indonesians themselves who gave Indonesian Islam its colourful face.

There they even have a word for it: "Islam warna-warni" (Multicoloured Islam)!

This simple fact was brought home to me when I visited the ancient Buddhist and Hindu monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan in Central Java.

While conservative Muslims in places like Afghanistan have gone on the warpath against such monuments of the pre-Islamic past, in Indonesia it is the Muslims themselves who have gone out of their way to protect their heritage and culture.

Spirit of accommodation

But it was in the ancient Kraton, or palace of Cirebon, on the northern coast of Java, that I met a young guide who summed up Indonesia's spirit of accommodation most succinctly.

She was a student at the local Islamic school and after school hours she would go to the palace to offer free tours to layabout itinerant scholars like me.

Pointing to the obvious Indian and Chinese influences that could be seen all over the palace complex, she grinned and said smilingly:

"Don't you think it was nice to live then in the past, when we were so open to all these foreign cultures?

"Sometimes when I'm sad I come here to look at these monuments and temples and I feel better afterwards.

"It's as if our ancestors are still here with us, and when I see how mixed we were before, I feel so proud to be an Indonesian. I feel like I don't have to go anywhere else in the world, the world has come to us."

Indonesia today is in a state of serious institutional and economic crisis.

The one thing the nation needs - time to heal its wounds and come to terms with three decades of military rule - is a luxury it cannot afford.


For Indonesia's Muslims, Islam remains as the glue that keeps them together.

The hardliners and conservatives would like to see this country turned into an Islamic state that will erase its past and live in a permanent present that is wholly and exclusively Islamic.
Free Aceh movement (GAM) rebels
At least 10,000 people have been killed in the separatist conflict

But it is in the quiet corners of Indonesian society that the real battle for the hearts and minds of the Indonesian Muslims is being fought.

AA and my activist friends may feel somewhat capek after their long struggle for reform and democracy, but they should not lose hope as the people are still with them in spirit.

Verbal pyrotechnics and rhetoric aside, the conservative hardliners are fighting against a culture that is 4,000-years-old, and not about to step aside that easily.

It just can't be done or as they say in Indonesia: "Nggak bisa dong!"

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is the secretary general of the International Movement for a Just World and has studied the phenomenon of Islamist political movements in South-East Asia.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters offers their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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