Tightening the Koran belt in Islam's biggest nation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 1996, 12:00am

The harsh cry of the muezzin calls the faithful in from the streets. Elderly men, shuffling women, and the odd teenager enter a dusty mosque squeezed among the homes, businesses and traffic that saturate the district.

This is central Jakarta, and the neighbourhood mosque is like so many others dotting the Indonesian archipelago. But surrounding the mosque are signs, products and people that would have the fundamentalists of the Arab Muslim world praying to Allah for a miracle.

Beer openly on sale, women in short skirts flaunting their womanhood and Western films playing to packed cinemas. All signs of Western decadence that barely raise an eyebrow in the biggest Muslim country in the world.

Welcome to Asia's Koran belt where this month thousands of pilgrims have piled into all forms of transport imaginable to make the journey of a lifetime: they are Mecca-bound on a mission all true believers hope to make at least once.

But even this kind of devotion is not enough, says Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim organisation in Indonesia.

Better known as Gus Dur, the religious leader told a rally earlier this month that the belt should effectively be tightened because the country's Muslims had a sense of being intimidated and so were too afraid to sponsor social change.

'They are so afraid that even religious leaders and students can only concentrate on ritual activities and don't try to make any social changes,' he said. His message is that while people are praying at the right times, visiting their mosque regularly and following the way of Islam, they are not using what it gives them to better the social structure of a country that cries out for all the solidarity it can muster.

He also spoke of a danger that religious fanaticism could lead to Indonesia's faithful becoming trapped in ritualism which was not conducive to social change and advancement. His words of warning unfortunately sound like even more religious fanaticism, but long-time Jakarta residents and worshippers spoken to by the South China Morning Post at Jakarta's largest mosque agreed with his summations.

The Koran belt of Asia it may be, but in secular terms, it could be time to pull the belt in a few notches.

A diplomat based in Jakarta said he had noticed a significant change in peoples' outlook to Islam compared to his last posting to Indonesia 10 years ago.

'The same staff I had 10 years ago were not praying five times a day and were fairly flexible in the way they observed the ways of Islam. Now, they are well and truly going through the motions and I suspect that in their hearts they were still true believers 10 years ago; they just didn't display it as much,' he said.

In Mecca this week, the Indonesians believers will have the enormity and depth of their religion driven firmly home as they are surrounded by two million religious brothers and sisters from around the world.

The non-Indonesians, particularly those from the more fundamentalist Muslim countries, will probably appear zealous in the extreme for their relatively harsh observations of an Islamic lifestyle - women covered head to toe, Western-style dress nowhere to be seen, and the word 'Inshallah'(God-willing) commonly starting sentences.

It is a far cry from the religion-tolerant Indonesia which has a not uneasy mix of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Animism. The main place of worship in Jakarta, the enormous Istiqlal Mosque, even stands directly opposite the city's main Catholic Cathedral.

Today, about 90 per cent of Indonesians are Muslim but despite the numbers, the religion is relatively new compared to the rest of the world. It was introduced some time in the 13th century by Muslim traders from India and has gradually gained a foothold through most of the country.

Gus Dur urged people to be independent and not rely on the 'authorities' too much. Instead, they should use their beliefs to nurture better lives to achieve a 'balanced relationship' with the Government.

Worshipper Djafar Sugama agreed, but said it was sometimes difficult to be faithful and at the same time extend his beliefs to improving the lifestyle of his family.

Speaking at the Istiqlal Mosque, Mr Sugama told the Post that the words of Gus Dur rang true for him and his friends. 'Years ago we would pray when we could but we would miss prayer times and not follow the true way; now we pray five times a day and visit the mosque every Friday but it does not seem enough still.

'I have never gone on the haj, but one day soon I hope I can go and maybe that is what will give me the help to live a life observing Islam that is more than just prayer.' The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and each Muslim who can afford it should perform it at least once.

An Arab pilgrim was quoted earlier this week as saying: 'There are different people from all parts of the world, with different cultures. But when they come, it's one Islamic world. Everybody is equal. Everybody dresses the same.' And dress the same they do; it is the thinking behind the dress and the ritual that has Gus Dur worried.

Arafat Day, the culmination of the haj, is to take place today.