Step Up the Fight Against Islamism

by Sadanand Dhume

Far Eastern Economic Review
July/August 2007

No Asian country has seen its fortunes decline as precipitously in recent times as Indonesia. Barely 10 years ago it was a poster child for the East Asian miracle, lauded by the World Bank for having pulled tens of millions out of poverty, and increasingly mentioned in the same breath as Korea and Taiwan. Today, to the degree that Indonesia occupies the world's attention at all, it is as a cesspool of corruption, buffeted in turn by natural disasters, medical emergencies and terrorism.

The tsunami and bird flu panic notwithstanding, it is radical Islam or Islamism—the ideology that seeks to run 21st-century societies according to the seventh century Arabian precepts of Shariah law—that poses the biggest danger to Indonesia's future. Islamism already threatens Indonesia's founding principle of nonsectarianism and its proud tradition of pluralism, and hobbles the country's efforts to modernize its economy. If radicals are left unchecked, the consequences won't fade at the country's borders. For Indonesia's non-Muslim neighbors—Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia—the security implications of a radicalized Indonesia are hard to exaggerate. As the largest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Indonesia also looms large over the grouping's efforts to compete with China and India.

On the face of it, there is little cause for optimism. Each passing month brings word of a mob sacking another Ahmadiyya mosque for "heresy," or of hapless Christians jailed for opening a kindergarten to Muslim children or insulting the prophet Mohammed. Islamists have exploited regional autonomy to introduce some form of Shariah—at times including public flogging and Taliban-inspired vice squads—to dozens of towns, cities and regencies across the archipelago.

Last year parliament hastily beat back an attempt by the puritanical Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS)—Indonesia's version of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood—to push through a law that demanded prison terms for women in miniskirts or couples caught kissing in public. A recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland revealed that more than half of Indonesians favor the strict application of Shariah. One in eight justifies attacks on civilians to achieve political goals.

Yet, for all its problems, Indonesia also presents a great opportunity. A culture both tolerant and outward-looking at its core, an elite imbued with a nonsectarian ethos, and the example of successful multi-ethnic neighbors make Indonesia the only major Muslim-majority country—apart from Turkey and possibly mullah-weary Iran—where modernity stands a fighting chance. A closer look at the PIPA poll that indicates majority support for Shariah shows that only 17% of Indonesians agree strongly with this goal, less than half as many as in Morocco, and about a third as many as in Egypt and Pakistan.

To put it starkly then, the options in Indonesia are between good and bad, not between bad and worse. For now at least, the goal of creating a beacon of moderation and prosperity on Islam's eastern flank, a twin for Kemalist Turkey in the west, remains achievable.

But for Indonesia to fulfill this promise, beleaguered secularists and foreigners who wish the country well must overhaul their approach to the Islamist movement. This means confronting not only the tactic of terrorism but the ideology that spawns it. It means learning to distinguish between genuine moderates and pragmatic extremists. It means recognizing that Islamism, like the other totalitarian dogmas it resembles, must be opposed for it cannot be appeased. It requires placing as much emphasis on fostering an open and tolerant society as on encouraging formal democracy. Above all, it means ending the patronizing attitude that holds Muslims to lower standards on women's rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of inquiry.

In practical terms, Indonesians need to craft a robust alternative to the vague but compelling utopia of life under Shariah. Countering the Islamist predilection for violence and intimidation demands that the international community step up cooperation with the Indonesian military and police. For their part, NGOs, embassies and multilateral institutions must stop inadvertently legitimizing Islamists.

More broadly, Islamism's opponents ought to rely less on a handful of liberal clerics and instead stitch together a broad anti-Islamist coalition of secularists, moderate Muslims, business elites, women's groups and the military. Taking a page out of the Islamist playbook, anti-Islamists must also stake a claim to the pulpit, the classroom and the op-ed page. The Internet, desktop publishing, and radio and television, used so deftly by Islamists world-wide, should be marshaled instead to undermine their message.

Pancasila Fades Away

The basic cleavage in Indonesian politics—between nationalists, who think of religion as a largely personal matter, and Islamists, who believe that it ought to regulate society—traces back to contending views of history. For the most part, nationalists see Indonesia as a successor to the great Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire (1293-circa 1500), the political and cultural acme of Javanese civilization. Islamists tend to take a narrower view, concentrating on the period after their faith's advent.

The nationalist past embraces Gajah Mada, a 14th century prime minister famous for vowing to eat only unspiced food until he had united the archipelago. It honors Joyoboyo, a 12th century east Javanese ruler who personified the ideal of Ratu Adil, the "Just King," and authored a book that reputedly foretold colonization by the Dutch, their brief displacement by the Japanese, and eventual independence. This conception of precolonial unity fuelled the independence struggle, strengthened subsequent claims to Dutch West New Guinea (Papua) and Portuguese-ruled East Timor, and gave a natural place in the country to Hindu Bali and the Christian fringe of eastern Indonesia.

For Islamists, the vast Buddhist complex of Borobudur and the finely carved Hindu temples of Prambanan are not symbols of a highly advanced civilization but relics of polytheistic barbarism. Christian-majority areas are the result of missionary encroachments to be erased with the passage of time. If Islamists look to a glorious past, it's to Baghdad and Moorish Spain. If they need heroes, they can find them in the Koran, or in Islam's conquest of Spain and the Byzantine Empire.

Not surprisingly, nationalists have no trouble with women and religious minorities rising as high as their talent will take them. A woman president or a Christian army chief are not seen as national calamities as they are by Islamists. In terms of foreign policy, nationalists privilege core Indonesian interests such as relations with Asean over emotive pan-Islamic causes such as Palestine. For nationalists, economic development comes before religious solidarity. A Japanese CEO carries more weight than an Egyptian cleric.

Though many nationalists are devout Muslims, their political legitimacy is grounded in the least pious sections of society. On the whole, the growth of Islamist ideology in politics has closely tracked an explosion of arid orthodoxy in society.

At independence in 1945, most Indonesians, especially the Javanese, practiced a famously easygoing form of Islam shot through with symbols and ideas from the country's long Hindu-Buddhist past. President Sukarno helped torpedo an early Islamist attempt to force Muslims to obey Shariah, the so-called Jakarta Charter. Instead, the new nation adopted the doctrine of Pancasila, which guarantees the equality of the country's six recognized religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Catholicism and Protestantism. Though nine out of 10 Indonesians identify as Muslim, the constitution offers their faith no special place.

This early rejection of Shariah sparked Jakarta's first violent showdown with Islamism. The Darul Islam rebellion, centered in west Java, south Sulawesi and Aceh, claimed 40,000 lives from 1948-62. It finally sputtered to a halt only after the army eliminated its principal leaders, the charismatic Sekarmadji Kartosuwiryo in west Java and the militia commander Kahar Muzakkar in south Sulawesi.

In 1966, amid claims of an attempted communist-backed coup, Sukarno was eased aside by General Suharto. The new ruler replaced socialism with market economics, and a tilt toward Beijing and Moscow with one toward Washington. But though he released several Islamists jailed by Sukarno, on the surface at least Gen. Suharto did little to tamper with Sukarno's secular nationalism.

If anything, for the Muslim devout the Suharto regime was profoundly un-Islamic. The general prided himself on his knowledge of Javanese philosophy and sometimes retreated to a remote cave in central Java's Dieng plateau to meditate. He banned religious symbols in campaigning for the sham national elections held every five years to legitimize his rule.

The Suharto government discouraged the wearing of the headscarf—correctly recognized as both a symbol of piety and a political statement—in government schools and offices. In the mid-1980s, Suharto picked a devout Catholic, Benny Moerdani, to head the army and decreed that all organizations, including Islamic ones, had to adopt Pancasila as their only ideology.

Beneath the surface, however, Indonesian society had begun a metamorphosis. An economic boom brought schools and clinics, factories and foreign investment. But it also spurred migration and urbanization, and with them came drugs and discotheques and massage parlors. Paranoid about a communist comeback, the Suharto regime followed a Dutch colonial blueprint that encouraged personal piety even as it discouraged formal Islamic politics. Uniform religious education in schools turned out the first generation of Indonesians fluent in the formalities of their faith. A mosque-building program ensured that the call to prayer was never far.

At the same time, mosques and schools bankrolled by oil-rich Arabs propagated what they considered a purer, more authentic, version of the faith, adding heft to a homegrown movement called Muhammadiyah that had long pursued similar goals. The post-1973 OPEC oil boom, the 1979 Iranian revolution and a transnational jihad to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan gave Islamists around the world resources, networks and, most crucially, a belief that their time had come.

By the mid-1980s, the piety became visible. In kindergartens, Arab names began to replace Sanskrit names. In offices, the greeting assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you) vied with the religiously neutral selamat pagi (good morning). More women donned the headscarf. Prayers five times a day, fasting during Ramadan and the hajj pilgrimage ceased to be oddities. A wave of piety washed over university campuses.

In the 1990s, perhaps in acknowledgment of these changes, perhaps seeking to balance the power of an army alarmed at his children's eye-popping greed, President Suharto reached out to political Islam. He backed the creation of a high-profile association of Muslim intellectuals, an Islamic bank and an Islamic newspaper. He allowed the editor of a popular tabloid to be jailed for daring to publish a readers' poll of most admired figures in which the prophet Muhammad placed a lowly 11th.

The headscarf slipped into the classroom and the government office. New mosques abandoned the traditional Javanese tiled and tapered roof for the Middle Eastern dome; older ones simply stuck a tinny dome on top. Pan-Islamism made its public debut as demonstrations for Palestine began to be sanctioned with alacrity, and the general's new fans struck up a collection to build a mosque in his name—in Bosnia.

But after President Suharto stepped down as a result of the Asian financial meltdown, his opponents who had long flogged the notion that Islamization was a form of democratization—especially fashionable in American academia—were in for a bit of a shock. A volunteer army called Laskar Jihad shipped hundreds of machete-wielding young men dressed in Arab robes to wage a holy war against Christians in the eastern province of Maluku. Another group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) trashed Jakarta bars and discos.

Radical clerics such as Abu Bakar Baasyir, who had fled overseas during the Suharto years, felt safe to return. Christmas Eve in 2000 saw bomb blasts at churches in nine cities. Then came the suicide bombings in Bali, Jakarta's J.W. Marriott hotel and the Australian embassy.

Terrorists and Islamists

Since the Bali bombings in 2002, Indonesia has upped its game in fighting terrorism. Densus 88, an elite police unit trained and equipped by the U.S. and Australia, has arrested scores, kept up the pressure on Jemaah Islamiyah, and ensured that the only significant terrorist bombing in the past three years was a second attack in Bali in 2005. In March police uncovered a vast cache of weapons and explosives in east Java, and in June they arrested a top Jemaah Islamiyah fugitive, Abu Dujana, in central Java. Even though Mr. Baasyir, the alleged spiritual head of the local al Qaeda franchise Jemaah Islamiyah, is free after a slap-on-the-wrist 26-month sentence, the group is clearly in disarray.

In the long term, however, even the most outstanding counterterrorism work is merely a palliative. The more people who share an Islamist worldview, the more likely it is that a minority of hotheads among them will take their chances with a car bomb or suicide vest. And though they might quibble over tactics, all Islamists share the belief that Islam ought to govern everything from hygiene to hedge funds, that the trouble with Indonesia is too much modernity rather than too little, that the ideal future lies in a return to an idealized past.

Moreover, even those Islamists who formally reject violence find it impossible to condemn the most senseless acts of brutality in the name of their faith—such as the beheading of three Christian schoolgirls in Sulawesi in 2005. Instead they respond with a barrage of justifications, qualifications and, most crucially, demands for political concessions.

In their quest to transform society, if necessary one person at a time, some Islamists adopt an avowedly apolitical stance. The missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, described by French intelligence as "the antechamber of fundamentalism," dedicates itself to minting "genuine" Muslims. The international pan-Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir, especially active on Indonesian university campuses, calls for uniting all Muslims in a caliphate and rejects democracy for placing man's law above Shariah. The missionary and pesantren (madrassa) network Hidayatullah, founded by an admirer of the Darul Islam leader Kahar Muzakkar, runs orphanages and publishes a magazine that extols jihad world-wide.

The Islamist flagship in formal politics, PKS, controls 45 seats in the 550 member parliament and is part of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's coalition government. Its former chairman, the Saudi-educated Hidayat Nur Wahid, wields enormous clout as the speaker of the MPR or People's Consultative Assembly. Born in 1998 from a secretive movement called Tarbiyah that first emerged on Indonesian university campuses about 30 years ago, PKS borrows its worldview, training materials and opaque cell structure from the Muslim Brotherhood. It espouses Koranic literalism and believes that a pious vanguard will pave the road to the ideal Islamic state. Though it does not actively participate in violence, PKS leaders such as Mr. Nur Wahid have been among Mr. Baasyir's stoutest supporters.

Indonesia's failure to recognize the nature of the threat it faces has already poisoned the country's fabled nonsectarian ethos. Just 20 years ago, a qualified non-Muslim could be army chief, finance minister or governor of the central bank. How things have changed was driven home in 1998 when a chorus of Muslim outrage forced Johny Lumintang, a Manadonese Christian, out of his position as head of the army's prestigious strategic command, Kostrad, after just 17 hours on the job. Similar stories abound in the higher reaches of the bureaucracy, in universities and in state-owned companies. The message, reinforced by bodies such as the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), is simple: In the new Indonesia non-Muslims must know their place.

Ordinary Indonesians bear the economic costs of this slide toward intolerance. Mob violence against Ahmadiyyas and Christians does little for the country's image as an investment destination. Anxiety about the future discourages both foreigners and Chinese-Indonesian businessmen from making the long-term, job-creating investments in footwear, textiles and electronics that the country needs most. The rise of China, India and Vietnam means that unlike Malaysia—where the Islamization of the 1970s and 1980s accompanied industrialization—Indonesia faces competition for mobile capital in an international environment increasingly attuned to the dangers of Islamism.

Neither can Indonesia's neighbors ignore these developments. Instead of worrying about impoverished boat people flooding its shores, Australia must now come to terms with the possibility that Indonesia might become to Australia what Pakistan is to Britain—a refuge and indoctrination center for would-be terrorists. For Singapore this threat is existential.

The Road Not Taken

Islamists usually project an aura of inevitability. But for all their momentum, the PIPA poll suggests that Indonesia is no Egypt or Pakistan, at least not yet. Indeed, the very strengths that made Indonesia an unlikely home to Islamism to begin with continue to provide a glimmer of hope that here, as almost nowhere else in the Muslim world, the movement can be diminished rather than merely slowed.

To begin with, the essence of the Javanese Muslim worldview that underpins the country's comfort with modernity—"many are the paths to God"—hasn't quite vanished. The same, despite Islamist efforts to link it with Suharto-era corruption and heavy-handedness, is partly true of Pancasila.

For the most part, Indonesia's elites—politicians, businessmen, journalists and intellectuals—remain naturally and unself-consciously nonsectarian and, unlike their counterparts in Iran or Pakistan, have not been banished behind high bungalow walls. They write in newspapers and appear on television. The masses, with their love of Manchester United, Korean pop and Bollywood blockbusters, show a cheerful openness to the rest of the world at odds with Islamism's monochrome fealty to the Middle East and its aversion to music and art.

In President Yudhoyono, himself a devout Muslim, Indonesians have elected a humane man above petty religious bigotry. The same is true of Juwono Sudarsono, the country's scholarly defense minister, and several other members of the cabinet. The former president and cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, of the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama, stands out as the world's pre-eminent Islamic humanist, a rare figure who is liberal by any standard, not merely by the lowered ones usually applied to Muslim clerics. Add to this a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian business community and the nearby examples of Australia and Singapore—successful multiethnic societies built on meritocracy and equality before the law.

Nonetheless, these strengths mean nothing without a more realistic assessment of the problem. The law and order approach to Islamism, narrowly focused on terrorism, will have to be widened to include the ideology that both feeds terrorism and retards efforts to curb it. This requires setting the agenda, rather than merely reacting to Islamist incursions as with hastily cobbled coalitions to beat back Islamist demands to revisit the Jakarta Charter, or to oppose last year's cleverly named antipornography bill outlawing miniskirts and public displays of affection.

To begin with, it is crucial to distinguish genuine moderates from pragmatic extremists. As laid out in a recent report by the Rand Corporation, common sense benchmarks to separate moderates from extremists include support for secular sources of law; support for a woman's right to aspire to high office and to dress as she pleases; an unambiguous denunciation of terrorism and mob violence; and support for universal concepts of human rights, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Given the Islamist tradition of doublespeak, proclamations in public and in Indonesian carry much more weight than assurances whispered in private.

Next comes the recognition that like Nazism and Stalinism, the ideologies it most resembles, Islamism can only be quelled by sustained, systematic and unflinching opposition. Like all totalitarians, Islamists see concessions as a sign of weakness and evidence, if any were needed, that their victory is preordained. Attempts to appease them—banning the state lottery here, ramming through a harsh apostasy law there, turning a blind eye to violence against minorities—have failed in Pakistan and Egypt, where, even though Islamists haven't captured political power, they have medievalized large chunks of society.

To avoid a similar fate, Indonesians will have to stop tiptoeing around the edges of the movement in perennial fear of backlash and instead accept that this is not only inevitable but a welcome sign of doing something right. Of course, the balance lies in not causing offense for its own sake, but at the same time not backing down from a point of principle such as freedom of worship in the case of the Ahmadiyyas, or freedom of the press from mob intimidation in the recent case of Playboy magazine's Indonesia edition.

Finally, acknowledging that this is a war of ideas brings with it an obligation to conjure up a positive and compelling vision of the future that goes beyond a mere rejection of Shariah. In Indonesia, the resurrection of nationalism yoked to a vision of modernity and equal opportunity for all is the natural option. The alternative: a robust regional subnationalism rooted in local cultures.

Several practical measures flow naturally from this reorientation. The most important is stepped up cooperation with the police and the military, the most organized force in society apart from the Islamists. They offer young men a sense of self-worth, moral purpose and esprit de corps, and young women, albeit in much smaller numbers, an unfettered sense of self.

Despite the occasional blemish, both institutions treasure an idea of Indonesia above religious or regional pettiness. Moreover, the armed forces are far from unpopular; Indonesians have a love affair with the uniform dating back to Sukarno. As for human-rights concerns, international training achieves the twin purposes of making army and police personnel both more sensitive to human rights and better able to neutralize the threat of mob violence and climate of fear that Islamists use to press their goals.

At the same time, embassies and NGOs have to be more careful not to inadvertently legitimize Islamists by giving them international exposure through grants, fellowships and invitations to international forums. Aid programs ought to lean toward women, secularists and moderates, with only the occasional nod given to a promising Islamist open to new ideas.

Similarly, in terms of public diplomacy, the accent must shift from kowtowing to Islamist sensibilities to challenging them. Instead of the State Department strategy of showcasing orthodox Muslims in the West, and hyping the spread of Islam—both of which reinforce triumphalist Islamist propaganda—Washington, London and Canberra ought to highlight their pluralism and the opportunities free societies offer to all people, believers and nonbelievers, the headscarfed and the bareheaded, orthodox Sunnis and Ahmadiyyas. A Muslim woman singing the blues in a jazz bar is just as legitimate a representative of her faith as a tightly headscarfed housewife surrounded by her suburban brood. American pluralism is defined not merely by mushrooming mosques, but equally by synagogues, Hindu temples and churches of every stripe.

One of the Islamist movement's greatest strengths is its ability to build networks, both political and social, based on a shared vision of life under Shariah. This can only be countered by linking together disparate groups opposed to Islamism for their own reasons. A loose coalition of the army, women's groups, writers and artists, businessmen and moderate religious leaders of all faiths, can be encouraged to swap ideas and come up with practical methods to challenge Islamist inroads in public life. Lacking the common glue of Koranic literalism, such an opposing network will have to be herded together by a shared perception of a common threat.

As in other parts of the world, Islamists have been most successful in pushing their ideas in the classroom and the pulpit. In the long term, Indonesians will have to compare their educational system with competitors such as Vietnam and China and ask if religion belongs in government schools, and if the pesantren and Islamic university systems, for all their moderation, turn out graduates even remotely competitive in the global economy.

The Internet, pop culture, organized sports and the revolution in desktop publishing can also dent the Islamist surge. Foundations can seed blogs and fund publications unafraid to extend investigative reporting and honest criticism to politics cloaked in religion. Football clubs and rock bands encourage loyalties that transcend religion. Awards for iconoclastic young writers and film makers will broaden the national debate. Cheap translations, including comic book versions, of Indonesian folk tales, classic Western novels and anti-Islamic polemics offer a world in grays to challenge the Islamist predilection for black and white.

After 20 years of neglect, turning Indonesia around will not be easy. But though success is by no means guaranteed, the country's unique set of strengths make this a war that can be won. The costs of its failure—an economically weak, culturally barren, diplomatically volatile land of more than 220 million people—are so high that it leaves us no option but to try.

Mr. Dhume was a Jakarta-based correspondent for the REVIEW from 2000-03, and is currently a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. My Friend the Fanatic, his book about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, will be published next year.