June 30, 2007


Indonesian Islam's softer hard line (Seth Mydans, June 28, 2007, International Herald Tribune)

"There is a view that Islam is on the march," said Greg Fealy, an expert on Indonesia at the Australian National University. "I don't see any evidence for that. Yes, there is a religious and cultural Islamization, in private and public. But in the political realm, there is hardly any evidence to support the view that Islam is rising."

Some analysts said the Shariah ordinances are largely a response to the social dislocations that have accompanied the economic downturn of the past decade, colored by a rise in religiosity that has little to do with radicalism.

More broadly, they said, this Islamic ferment is a product of the democratic clamor that was unleashed in 1998 when the longtime strongman Suharto was driven from power.

The lifting of restrictions on organizations of all kinds, coupled with political decentralization, has permitted local communities to formulate many of their own laws.

The changes in mood can be seen on campuses, where students who might have demonstrated for democracy a decade ago are forming Islamic associations and turning toward religion. The short skirts of the past have been replaced by head scarves.

"Democracy is like a gate that is opened to let people say what they want," said Budi, a student at the secular University of Indonesia who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. "Having the door open wider, it was easier for us to promote Islamic values and teaching."

Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia's 235 million people call themselves Muslims. But Indonesian Islam has a history of accommodation of other beliefs and tolerance for differences.

After Muslim traders brought their religion in the 12th century, it embraced elements of the Hinduism, Buddhism and animism that flourished here. It is still characterized more by the mysticism of these roots than by the orthodoxy of Islamists.

"I don't think they're going to be liberal, but I'm vaguely optimistic that they'll be pluralist in some fashion," said Robert Hefner, an expert at Boston University on Indonesian Islam. "Indonesia has these awful political crises. But one thing that has consistently survived is this kind of sweet nationalism, not a racist nationalism - it's a multiethnic thing."

As America demonstrates, and Britain and Europe used to, a universalist religion is the only effective counter to nationalism. To precisely the degree that Indonesia becomes secular in the future it will unleash centrifugal forces.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 30, 2007 12:13 AM
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