Pious but Moderate

By Honorine, Solenn | Newsweek International, March 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Pious but Moderate


Honorine, Solenn, Newsweek International


Byline: Solenn Honorine

Back in his boyhood home of Indonesia, Obama will find a conservative state that has fought off radical Islam.

When Barack Obama arrives in Indonesia this month he will find a country far different from the one he lived in. When he moved there at the age of 6, in 1967, the country's economy was verging toward bankruptcy; strongman Suharto had just started his 32-year-long, iron-fisted reign; and millions of people embraced a type of Islam tinted with animism and a belief that the volcanoes that dot the land housed powerful spirits. Today Indonesia is a thriving democracy, an emerging economic powerhouse, and far more rigorously Muslim in character. More than 40 percent of the books published annually are now dedicated to Islamic teachings or Muslim pop culture, and in the past 10 years, sales of Muslim books have surpassed those of schoolbooks. A 2007 poll showed that Indonesians were more likely to consider religion the most important factor in defining their identity than nationality or ethnicity.

But Obama will find that one thing has not changed. In the public school he attended as a boy, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim pupils still study side by side. Despite the growing religiosity of Indonesia's 200 million Muslims--86 percent of its population--the Constitution guarantees that no religion supersedes the others, and its political landscape remains, for the most part, deeply pluralistic and resistant to radical Islam.

Part of the reason is that Indonesians took centuries to adopt a spiritual, sometimes mystical approach to Islam that mixed with the pre-Islamic local culture. At the nation's 1945 independence its founding fathers rejected the option of making the country an Islamic state ruled by religious law, choosing instead a path that promoted national unity and social justice alongside a commitment to freedom of religion. By the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution that gave new life to political Islam worldwide, many Indonesians went to study in the Middle East and returned with more conservative ideas about their religion. But a lack of democracy hindered the development of this form of Islam. The Suharto regime tightly controlled information and deeply depoliticized religion in a bid to undermine possible resistance to its rule.

After Suharto's fall, in 1998, new ideas burst forth. Dozens of Muslim-based political parties began competing, and in the mayhem created by the fall of the dictatorship, combined with the Asian economic crisis of the late '90s, many predicted a turn toward fundamentalist Islam. Even secular politicians started to jump on the religion bandwagon. In the 2000s, about 50 of the 450 districts and municipalities in Indonesia passed a string of Sharia-inspired regulations. …

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