In the Shadow of a Fatwa
by Stephen Schwartz
JAKARTA — The Hotel Dharmawangsa, in the teeming, steaming Indonesian capital, is an old Javanese palace that has been turned into a luxury resort. Fortunately for tourists, the Indonesian inflationary crisis has reduced its rates to a little more than a hundred U.S. dollars a night. In the room, one immediately finds an artifact of Indonesian religious pluralism: a small card stating, "We are pleased to present you with a copy of the Koran or the Bible should you require any during your stay." Contrary to what a non-Muslim might suspect, the offering of the Islamic holy book is not intended for da'wa, or Muslim missionizing, but as a customary courtesy in hostelries, comparable to the Gideon editions of the Christian gospels; when I asked for a Koran, I was told it was only available in Indonesian, which I don't read.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Indonesian independence and the 40th year since the near civil war provoked by Indonesian Communists in 1965, which resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. Indonesia has serious problems with terrorism as well as its economic woes; the Dharmawangsa hotel has armed guards posted at its doors, and they check the undercarriage of arriving cars for bombs. Although it is a petroleum-producing country, Indonesia must now import oil to meet its needs. Jakarta has the chaotic feel of a typical Asian tropical city, but the country's varied and pluralistic imagination is equally exceptional--and under attack.
For example, when I arrived at the end of last month, the Sunday Jakarta Post included the headline "Drinking wine: New, popular trend for Indonesian yuppies"--something that would be rare in media even in such advanced Muslim countries as Bosnia-Hercegovina. Coca-Cola is widely consumed, with the word "halal"--the Muslim equivalent of "kosher"--on its bottle-caps. But reactionary clerics are fighting to impose a narrow interpretation of Islam on Indonesia. At the beginning of August, the country's official body of Muslims clerics, the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia or MUI), issued 11 fatwas, including condemnations of religious pluralism, of an organization called the Liberal Islam Network (LIN), and of the Muhammadiyah, a 20-million member movement. I had some indication that the attack on pluralism was directed against none other than myself, since I had received email from Jakarta asking if I considered Islamic pluralism to be the same as religious relativism. In addition, the LIN has discussed my book The Two Faces of Islam, and I had been invited to meet with the Muhammadiyah. But the atmosphere in Jakarta, although challenging, did not feel tense.
Besides, the Jakarta media reported that the fatwa against liberalism, pluralism, and secularism was "unpopular" with ordinary Indonesians, many of whom consider MUI an accomplice of the former dictatorship of General Suharto, who ruled from 1965 to 1998. Peter G. Riddell, an expert on radical Islam in Indonesia, has described MUI, in the recent Freedom House publication Radical Islam's Rules, as a group that after September 11, 2001, "increasingly began to embrace the rhetoric of Islamic radicalism," calling for global Muslim unity in fighting jihad against the U.S.-led coalition's combat in Afghanistan. Reassuringly the fatwa stated that the MUI favored no more than debate with the Liberal Islam and Muhammadiyah trends it condemned, rather than physical attacks.
Nevertheless, to cite another local headline, a "a struggle for the nation's soul" is clearly taking place. Recent events have included the closure of dozens of Christian churches in West Java in 2004--and the government of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has refused to restrain such actions, on the argument that the Christian communities shut down were "illegal congregations." In a speech I attended, Yudhoyono declared his commitment to the struggle against extremism, saying "we know that the terrorist cells are still active. They are still hiding, recruiting, networking, trying to find new funding . . . and even planning. We are still actively looking for a dangerous bomb maker, Malaysian Dr. Azahari and Noordin Muhammad Top." But Yudhoyono also said that an amnesty for Abubakr Baasyir, the al Qaeda ally who inspired the Bali bombing and other recent atrocities, would be unavoidable under the constitution. So far, the release of Baasyir has not been effected--he remains in jail.
The Aceh region, long troubled by separatist violence and still recovering from last year's tsunami--with considerable help from U.S. relief agencies--is the sole Indonesian province in which radical sharia has been imposed. At the end of August, an Islamic court in Aceh ordered the caning of two unmarried couples for consumption of alcohol and spending time together after nightfall in a private place. "The women fainted after being beaten 40 times . . . outside a mosque," according to witnesses. A local human rights group, Elsham, denounced the punishment as "insane" and called for its review by the national supreme court. But the blows had already been inflicted.
INDONESIAN MUSLIMS are subtle in their thinking, which cuts in multiple ways. For many of them, the Wahhabi cult, which has been the state religion in Saudi Arabia and spurred the formation of al Qaeda, was a reform movement aimed at the purification of Islam. Thus, although they will disclaim any support for Wahhabi violence, some will defend the sect's original aims. The Liberal Islam Network, an object of the above-mentioned fatwa, in an event held in 2003, stated that in "emphasizing the importance of [the model of] Islam in the first two centuries after the life of Mohammed, prior to the emergence of differing interpretations, the Wahhabis have the same positions as the Liberal Islam movement." Indonesian Islam has assumed a complicated and dialectical cast that is unpredictable and, one hopes, will fortify debate and acceptance of differences . . . even if it defends what it sees as Wahhabism.
Indeed, Wahhabi-style Islam has an old history in Indonesia, even though in a country with 220 million people--the largest Muslim country in the world--imposition of any single interpretation is probably bound to fail. In a volume produced last year by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the charitable foundation of the German Christian Democratic Party, titled Indonesia Today, a local author, Azyumardi Azra, recalled, "In the late 18th and early 19th centur[ies], the Padri--a Wahhabi-like movement in West Sumatra--attempted to force other Muslims in the area to subscribe to its literal understanding of Islam. This violent movement armed at spreading what they believed was a pure and pristine Islam . . . but it failed to gain support from a majority of Muslims, and it was the only example of Muslim radicalism in Southeast Asia."
In a visit to the Jakarta headquarters of the Muhammadiyah movement, which has had a peaceful, Sufi reputation, I was struck by its novel rhetoric: a colorful booklet proclaims, "Welcoming Globalization." Muhammadiyah maintains an extensive social welfare and educational network, including thousands of preschools, elementary/primary schools, junior high schools, senior high schools, hundreds of general hospitals, maternity hospitals, clinics, orphanages, family care centers, banks, microcredit, and even a life insurance country. Its organizational structure includes centers in the smallest villages.
Acceptance of globalization and modernization leads Muhammadiyah to argue that it "faces certain challenges, such as amending its messages, even its core Islamic doctrine, so it can be assimilated by the masses. Some Muhammadiyah figures have even begun to develop Islamic Sociology, Social Islamic Psychology . . . Others are shaping Islamic sciences and technologies . . . This frenetic rush is an effort to catch up where Islam was left behind." (The latter comment is, it seems, intended as self-praise).
I had been told in an email by my Muhammadiyah contact that "Islamic fundamentalism is in vogue in recent years in Indonesia, including within the Muhammadiyah community, even though not in the mainstream. [S]ome leaders of radical Islam have a Saudi academic background, and want to spread their understanding of Islam." A few young members of the movement with whom I met were influenced by the Wahhabi claim of purifying Islam, but one among them, Ahmad Najib Burhani, has published articles in The Jakarta Post opposing such acts of Islamic extremism as an attack on July 8 on a community of the Ahmadiyya, a "post-Islamic" group. The Ahmadis are shunned by most Muslims because they claim that their founder, a late 19th century figure named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a divine prophet comparable to the Messiah of the Jews--Islam recognizes no prophets after Mohammed. Burhani wrote of the assailants in the Ahmadiyya case, which caused considerable debate in Indonesia, "Imprisoned in authoritarianism, someone would speak, attack, and kill in God's name . . . authoritarianism is heresy, the highest sin in Islam."
The Indonesian MUI fatwas turned out to be nothing to worry about. Leaving the sometimes confusing but stimulating atmosphere of Indonesia, I proceeded to Singapore, a place widely identified with a "benign" authoritarianism. I was greeted on my arrival by a headline in The Strait Times, the state-controlled daily in English, proclaiming, "Moderate Muslims thrive in Singapore," and describing Singapore Muslims as "conservative in beliefs and practices [but] against radicalism and terrorism." Many moderate Muslims I have encountered believe that conservatism and traditionalism, rather than reform and liberalism, represent an appropriate alternative to radical Islam. In this way, they somewhat resemble Jewish and Christian neoconservatives.
In Singapore, the restrictive rules under which media function led to a series of speeches I gave being subject to a media blackout. But there as in Indonesia, Muslims are engaged in a highly creative process of self-definition. For example, the Naqshbandi Sufis are anathema to the Saudi Wahhabis, and the Singapore Naqshbandis had held their spiritual services in the Kampung Siglap mosque, off Marine Parade Road, which increasingly came under the Wahhabi influence. Eventually, the mosque officials barred the Sufis from entering the structure. The Naqshbandis responded by holding their observances in the mosque entranceway, and after several such instances, the Wahhabis gave up. Today, the youthful Naqshbandis of Singapore recount with a laugh, "we meet in a Wahhabi mosque!" From every indication, Islam in southeast Asia will continue to produce surprising, and, let us hope, positive developments.