BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: Crossing Continents  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Friday, 5 March, 1999, 18:22 GMT
Islamic politics, Indonesian style
Enthusiastic demonstrators for the PKB - one of Indonesia's new Muslim political parties

By Hugh Levinson

There are 500 steps up the hillside on the route to Gunung Kawi. As you climb, you pass resthouses, fortune tellers, restaurants, souvenir vendors, farmers selling sweet potatoes, florists, tobacconists and candlemakers. Sounds mingle in the air.

Chanting from a Chinese temple, where Confucianists and Taoists pray together. Clanging Javanese gongs from a wedding at a village at the base of the hill, where pre-Islamic practices mix with Muslim rituals. Arabic readings from a group of pilgrims, paying their respects at the tomb of a Muslim saint. This site in Eastern Java is not unique in Indonesia in mixing many faiths - Islamic, Chinese and local animist beliefs - in a tolerant brew. But this tradition is coming under strain as tensions increase across the archipelago, sometimes exploding into violence.

The worst outbreak was in Jakarta in May 1998 when mobs went on the rampage, looting the shops and houses of ethnic Chinese Indonesians. The riots left 1,200 people dead. Since then, the attacks have taken on an increasingly religious character. There were clashes in Kupang in West Timor, where rival mobs attacked churches and mosques. In November in Jakarta, 25 churches were burnt down and 13 people killed in rioting.

The rioting has spread even to the island of Ambon in the Moluccas, known as a place where Christians and Muslims have lived in harmony for centuries. Around 150 people died in February. Whole villages have been razed to the ground. Thousands of refugees are trying to leave the island on dangerously overcrowded ships.

Ali Maschan of the Nadhlutal Ulama in Surabaya
But the leaders of mainstream Islam in Indonesia are trying to calm these tensions. Ali Maschan, a preacher in Surabaya, calls on his flock to turn away from the path of violence, as he speaks at the noon Friday prayers, the most important of the week. "I'm trying to convince these people to reduce the acts of destruction," he says.

Ali is second-in-command of the East Java division of the Nadhlatul Ulama. Due to Indonesia's status as the world's most populous Muslim country, the NU has become the world's largest Muslim organisation. Over the last decade, it has made a concerted attempt to build bridges with Christians. The NU sends students from its Islamic boarding schools to attend Christian seminaries. It has also deployed its youth militia to protect churches from rioters.

This impulse comes from the very top - from the NU's charismatic leader, Abdurrahman Wahid. He is often cryptic and unpredictable, but on the subject of relations between the faiths, his message is clear. He believes in an equality of religions and praises Christianity and Christians. "We have to say that we will learn from them," Mr. Wahid declares. "For me, the Christians apply Islamic principles in life - how to educate people, how to make social systems work, how this, how that. They are more advanced than us!"

The praise is repaid by Christian thinkers, like Father Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit priest and theologian, born in Germany but resident in Indonesia for most of his life. He says that it is a hopeful sign that religious leaders from both sides have reacted in a moderate way, without calls for vengeance. He traces the wave of violence to Indonesia's recent history, to 30 years of suppression under President Suharto's "New Order."

This meant that communities could not express themselves politically, and instead their attention was concentrated on "primordial, tribal, communal" feelings. Differences - ethnic, economic and social - were heightened. Suharto's "transmigration" policy, which exported people from overpopulated Java to the outer islands, only aggravated the problem. "From an inclusive 'we Indonesians' feeling, they more and more felt 'us and them,' and 'we' was always narrower and narrower," he says.

But most observers in Indonesia believe there is another, darker element at work. They point to the activities of agents provocateurs, who are accused of spreading rumours, fomenting hatred and committing atrocities. There is little hard evidence to back up these claims. But as political analyst Muhammad Hikam puts it, there are many stacks of dry hay in Indonesia - and also many people with matches.

He believes the most likely forces backing the agents provocateurs are elements associated with the New Order regime. They have, he points out, much to gain - by creating chaos to forestall prosecutions for corruption and abuse of power. There have already been calls for the introduction of martial law. If the violence spreads, it could lead to the delay or cancellation of the elections scheduled for June 7th.

These elections will be crucial, as the first free poll in decades. Election fever has already spread across Indonesia. Party flags flutter over roadsides, and political graffiti adorns walls. Islam could become a decisive political factor. Many Muslims believe that Suharto repressed Islamic politics, permitting only one Islam-based party, which was under his indirect control. Now Islam-based parties are flourishing.

Prof. Bob Hefner, University of Gaja Mahda
Professor Bob Hefner, of the University of Gaja Mahda in Yogyakarta, says that Islam has come into the political mainstream thanks to its central role in the democratisation struggle of 1997 and 1998. "It's very much in the political arena," he says. "But the nature of that struggle was not such that it in any way has increased the likelihood of some kind of fundamentalist turn in Indonesian politics."

He points to the new thinking on the rise in Indonesia, combining Islam and democracy. Thinktanks are springing up - among them LKIS, which also runs a publishing house. LKIS is working on theories of "transformational Islam," heavily influenced by Catholic liberation theology. They see transformational Islam as encouraging people to be critical of government and established authority.

"Religion is a source of inspiration, a source of strength, for those who wish to criticise injustice, those who wish to criticise the state," says Amiruddin, an LKIS analyst. In his view, Islam should influence politics through its values - of social justice and tolerance - rather than directly. Instead of creating say, specifically Islamic schools or hospitals, he believes Muslims should ensure that all institutions are infused with these positive Islamic values.

LKIS is closely tied to the thinking of Abdurrahman Wahid, who has created his own political party, the PKB or National Awakening Party. Although it is officially non-sectarian, its power base is the 30-million-strong membership of the Nadhlatul Ulama. Mr. Wahid is confident that his party will do well at the polls, and there are suggestions that he could form a coalition with the opposition front-runner, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Amien Rais chats to supporters at a meeting
But there are other Islamic contenders. One of the most prominent is Amien Rais, who heads the National Mandate Party or PAN. A political scientist trained at the University of Chicago, Mr. Rais returned to Indonesia to head Muhammadiyah, another huge Islamic organisation. Like the NU, Muhammadiyah runs a network of schools, universities, hospitals and other social institutions. But while the NU is seen as being strongest in the countryside and among traditionalist Muslims, Muhammadiyah draws its strength from the new urban middle class.

Mr. Rais can draw on support from outside his Muhammadiyah base thanks to his outspoken criticism of Suharto during the former president's last years in power. "He was the most courageous man at that time," says Bara Hasibuan, a young Christian. Mr. Hasibuan was so impressed that he quit his job as a management consultant to head PAN's international division.

Dewi Ratnuwalan: has Amien Rais moved with the times?
Others are more suspicious. Mr. Rais still has the reputation of being an Islamic firebrand, a reputation that dates from his previous support for "representative democracy" in politics. This means that since Muslims make up such a high proportion of the population, they should have a proportionate share of political power. Observers like Dewi Ratnuwalan, a womens' rights activist in Yogyakarta, say that although they admire Mr. Rais's personal courage, they are still worried about his Islamic zealotry. "I suspect he hasn't really changed his views," she says.

However, Mr. Rais rejects such criticism. He says he only stood for such proportionality because Suharto was actively suppressing Muslim power. Now he rejects any ideas of positive discrimination in favour of Muslims. "Discrimination is discrimination, whether it's positive or negative," he says. "But at least we can base our policies on fairness and honesty and justice. Based on fairness and honesty and justice, bit by bit we can improve the situation."

WEB EXCLUSIVES: Father Franz Magnis-Suseno,
Jesuit theologian: "I can see a pattern behind the religious clashes..."
Muhammad Hikam, political analyst:
"Who has most at stake in this reform?"
Amiruddin, analyst from LKIS
(Islamic think tank): "Islam must challenge the state"
See also:

01 Mar 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
22 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
14 May 98 | AUDIOBOX
29 Nov 98 | Asia-Pacific
01 Mar 99 | South Asia
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Crossing Continents stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |