Tolerance central to nation of diversity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 12:00am

After the September 11 attacks in the United States by the al-Qaeda terror network, new attention was focused on places where radical Muslims might translate their ideas into violent action.

One of those countries newly under the spotlight is Indonesia - the country with the greatest number of Muslims in the world.

Some policy-makers in Washington and even closer to home in Southeast Asia expressed fears that Indonesia was a 'hotbed' of 'Muslim terrorism' where certain figures should be immediately detained and new anti-terror laws drawn up.

Even some long-standing foreign residents of Indonesia started to wonder if the age-old idea of Indonesian Islam as a tolerant, inclusive and moderate faith now had to be changed in the light of world events.

Almost a year later, it is now possible to clarify some of the unnecessary paranoia and make popular definitions of Islam, terror or free speech more precise.

One key point to remember about Indonesia is that it is not an Islamic state and, according to analysts, academics and politicians, is unlikely ever to become one.

National ideology requires every Indonesian to 'believe in one God', but the definition of which God is left to the individual.

Another key point to remember is that Indonesia remains a profoundly diverse state, including hundreds of different ethnic groups, languages and cultures.

News headlines inevitably highlight the conflicts which do arise between these groups, but it is important to remember that most people, most of the time, get along with their neighbours in Indonesia just as they do anywhere else in the world.

Thirdly, the history of Indonesia, from well before the time it declared independence in 1945, shows a continuing debate about what the nature of this state should be.

There have always been small groups agitating for Islamic rule in Indonesia, just as there have always been other groups actively propounding the idea of a democratic and open society in which a confident state need fear no threat from the free expression of different ideas.

Naturally, since the fall of Suharto's centralised and heavily controlled state, a wide range of new voices are now heard every day in Indonesia, expressing views across a wide spectrum ranging from extreme militancy to compassionate liberalism.

Since September 11, many more of the extremist voices have been given greater prominence by groups eager to highlight the dangers of radical Islam.

The freer political environment has spurred the growth of avowedly Islamist political parties, just as it has prompted debate about the role of Muslim belief in restoring a much-needed sense of morality to national leadership.

Even though it took a few months after the US terror attacks, Indonesia's two leading Muslim organisations have tried to bring the debate about Islam to a more realistic level.

The Nahdlatul Ulama organisation, which claims a membership of about 30 million people, and Muhammadiyah with its membership of about 15 million, have both issued statements repeatedly to stress that mainstream Muslim belief in Indonesia remains moderate, non-violent and tolerant.

Conversations with ordinary Indonesians support this view.

'What happened on September 11 is not Islamic, no matter what those al-Qaeda people say. My faith prohibits me from resorting to violence,' said a Muslim grandmother from a middle class Jakarta neighbourhood.

Her concern is that non-Indonesians and non-Muslims who know only the negative stereotypes will call for repression of Islamic views and leaders, which would then provoke more radical behaviour in response.

Her fear was reinforced by a briefing paper just released by the respected International Crisis Group describing in fascinating detail a long line of Islamic activism in Indonesia, dating from the 1950s. It traces the close ties between some of its leaders, based at the Pondok Ngruki boarding school in Central Java, and some figures targeted by foreign intelligence officials as 'terrorists'.

But it calls for more care in collecting evidence of actual criminal activity, and concludes that Indonesia is clearly not the next nexus of global terror.

'Many Indonesians have expressed concern that pressure from the United States and Southeast Asian governments on Indonesian authorities to carry out preventive arrests of suspects without hard evidence could be seriously counter-productive,' the ICG warns.

Law-drafters working on an anti-terrorism law in Jakarta are so far withstanding outside pressures and refuse to institute the repressive internal security acts used to detain suspects without trial in neighbouring countries.

'Proponents of radical Islam remain a small minority, and most of these are devout practitioners who would never dream of using violence. But even a tiny group of people can cause an immense amount of damage,' the ICG notes.

'The dilemma is what to do now. Association with the Ngruki network is not equivalent to terrorism, and yet the possibility remains that some members of the exile group who have since returned to Indonesia may be sources of support for criminal activities. But repression helped give birth to the network, and it would be a major mistake to encourage the Indonesian government . . . to reinstitute the kind of arbitrary practices that Suharto's resignation was supposed to bring to an end.'