The Rise Of Islamic Hard-Liners: Is Indonesia Turning Into Pakistan?

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Riot police stand guard as members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) hardline Muslim group take part in a pro-Palestinian rally outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta
Riot police stand guard as members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) hardline Muslim group take part in a pro-Palestinian rally outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta

Islamic hard-liners in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, are cracking down on “sinful” activities like alcohol and pornography in tandem with the monthlong fasting observance of Ramadan. Muslims are required to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or having sex from dawn till dusk during Ramadan, making it the ideal period for Islamic fundamentalists to target nightclubs, alcohol vendors and other entities they contend violate Muslim principles.

One prominent hard-line group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) – which some moderate Indonesians would like to see banned by the government – also use the pretext of “morality” to attack religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. “We will take firm action against the circulation of alcohol, naked dancing and prostitution,” Habib Idrus Algadri, leader of an FPI group in Depok, a district outside Jakarta, told a local paper.

Habib Salim Alatas, who leads FPI in Jakarta, told Agence France-Presse that men from his group would raid nightclubs and bars in the city that sell alcohol. “We will send out groups of two to three wearing civilian clothes to spy on sinful activities like the drinking of alcohol taking place around Jakarta during the Ramadan holy month,” he warned.

The FPI, formed in 1998, seeks to establish strict Shariah law in Indonesia and has, in the past, enjoyed the support of prominent police and military officials. The group generated global headlines last year when it successfully prevented U.S. pop star Lady Gaga from performing in a concert in Jakarta by threatening to burn down the arena where she was to appear. Hard-liners condemned Gaga as the “devil’s messenger.”

Perhaps to appease hard-core Islamic adherents, Indonesian police and security officials have claimed that they, too, seek to eradicate illegal alcohol sales, as well as such items as pornographic videos. Despite periodic calls to ban alcohol by Islamic fundamentalists and others, drinking is legal for anyone over 21.

However, just ahead of Ramadan, the country’s Supreme Court granted a judicial review of alcohol bylaws, pleasing groups like FPI. This measure could lead parliament to pass stricter regulations on the sale and consumption of liquor. “It is a good decision, because in our view the judge of the Supreme Court considered the social impact and the health impacts [of alcohol consumption],” an FPI spokesman named Munarman said. The parliament also passed an anti-porn bill almost five years ago, but smut remains available on the Internet or through DVDs. The push-and-pull between Islamic conservatism and modern social trends seems to place Indonesia in two different worlds simultaneously.

A survey released by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in May of this year suggested that a great majority (72 percent) of Indonesian Muslims would like to see Shariah law established and enforced as the nation’s legal code. Under such a system, for example, adulterers could be stoned to death and thieves would be amputated. “Religious commitment is closely linked to views about Shariah,” the Pew study said. “Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely to say Shariah is the revealed word of God, to say that it has only one interpretation and to support the implementation of Islamic law in their country.”

But the Pew study was criticized by some Muslim leaders who insist that most people in Indonesia wish to live in a moderate, secular society. “The 72 percent figure doesn’t make any sense,” Azyumardi Azra, the director of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University’s graduate studies in Jakarta, told The Jakarta Post. “The sampling method could be biased to justify Western media’s misconception that the majority of Muslims want the implementation of the Islamic criminal code.”

Indeed, Azra and other Indonesian scholars suggest that most people in the country abide by the core principles of “Pancasila,” a set of democratic and human rights values established in the constitution by former nationalist leader Sukarno.

Still, some analysts feel that the government (which rules a nation where some 87 percent, or about 210 million people, of the population are Muslim) is making it easier for extremists like FPI to intimidate and discriminate against minorities. Pallavi Aiyar, a columnist for the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, labeled what is happening in Indonesia as “Pakistanization.” Aiyar noted that, as in Pakistan, mainstream Sunni Muslims in Indonesia reject and condemn the Ahmadi sect of Islam. In 2005, he said, the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, a coalition of Muslim organizations, issued a fatwa condemning the Ahmaddiyas as religiously “deviant.” “The Ahmadis are not the only ones to have fallen victim to growing intolerance,” Aiyar wrote.

“On a recent evening in Jakarta, this reporter spent several hours talking with victims of religious violence and discrimination from across the country. Their complaints ranged from administrative inconveniences, to intimidation, violence and even murder at the hand of hard-line Sunni Muslims. The vast majority of Indonesia’s Muslims are Sunni.” Among other transgressions witnessed in recent years, Shi'a Muslim villages have been torched and Christian groups have faced obstacles in building new churches, despite the guarantee of religious freedom as spelled out in the constitution.

“What we are seeing is a creeping Pakistanization of Indonesia,” Andreas Harsono, who covers Indonesia for Human Rights Watch, told the Hindu. Harsono noted that Indonesia and Pakistan were both regarded as tolerant, secular states in the 1970s, but changed drastically in the 1980s when open enmity towards Ahmadiyyas and other minorities became acceptable.

By 1998, after the overthrow of the longtime dictator Gen. Suharto, the emergence of democracy ironically allowed hard-line Islamic fundamentalists to participate in the political process and make threats against minorities. “Over the last eight years the government has basically laid down the legal infrastructure which discriminates against religious minorities,” said Harsono. “This allows Islamists to take the law into their own hands, while the police look the other way. … Once you allow religion to pervade politics and society, it becomes very difficult to undo it in an Islamic context.”

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