In Indonesia, the Struggle within Islam

By Tom McCawley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 2005 | Go to article overview
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In Indonesia, the Struggle within Islam


Tom McCawley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Here in the world's largest Muslim country a war of ideas within Islam is playing out on an unlikely stage: a bohemian arts community in a crowded Jakarta side street. The patrons of the Utan Kayu Theater, including some of Indonesia's leading novelists and writers, normally gather to discuss such topics as avant-garde art or prewar Russian cinema.

But in recent weeks, a fierce debate over how Muslims should be allowed to worship, marry, and even think has caught the theater in its crossfire. Hard-line Muslim groups have been threatening to evict the Liberal Islam Network, a small group of intellectuals known as JIL, from their offices in the theater complex by the beginning of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan - Wednesday.

The struggle, observers say, is not only over how to interpret Islam's 1,400-year-old holy book, the Koran, but what role it will play in Indonesia's future. The tensions are driving a rising confrontation between liberals and an alliance of conservative and radical groups.

JIL's crime, according to the white-robed vigilante group the Islamic Defenders Front, is spreading liberal ideas about Islam. "The intellectual fight has turned physical," says Nong Darol Mahmada, a female JIL member, telling of death threats by telephone. "The hard-line conservatives are getting more powerful."

The Islamic Defenders, famous for attacking cafes with samurai swords, have also tried to recruit nearby poor residents to help evict JIL and its supporters, including a radio station and media think tank. JIL is preparing lawyers, and plans to seek protection from the courts.

The threats from the Islamic Defenders follow a series of fatwas, or religious edicts, from Indonesia's powerful Islamic scholar's council, the MUI. On July 29, the council issued fatwas condemning "liberalism, secularism, and pluralism." The 11 fatwas, read to a meeting of 400 Islamic scholars from across the country, also condemn inter-faith prayers and marriages between religions.

Growing power of conservative Islam

JIL activists say that fatwas mark the growing power of ultra- conservative Islam, a movement that unites both elected politicians and street vigilantes. Supporters of the fatwas say they are following their duty to protect Islam from the threat of globalization and Western ideas.

"The liberals think everything is open to interpretation," said Ma'ruf Amin, head of the MUI's fatwa commission, "and that clashes with Islamic teachings."

Syafi'i Ma'arif, former chairman of Indonesia's second largest Muslim organization, the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah, warned reporters that: "the fatwas will embolden hard-line, power-hungry groups." Since July 29 an alliance of Muslim vigilante groups, the Anti-Apostasy Movement, has stepped up a campaign to get rid of informal prayer groups and churches, causing a total of 23 to close within a year.

Mobs have also attacked the houses and mosques of the 200-member Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect, declared by the fatwas to be "deviant," because they recognize their founder to be Islam's last prophet instead of Muhammad. In an interview, the MUI's Mr.

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