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
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. …