Indonesia’s own blend of Islam

Indonesia’s own blend of Islam
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Indonesian Islam is completely unique to the country, and does not easily find comparisons in the Muslim world.

By Alexandra Di Stefano Pironti

JAKARTA: Scattered across 17,000 islands on the Indian and Pacific oceans, the world’s largest Muslim country has found its own blend of Islam: equal parts religion, secularism and contradictions.

Add to that an extract from the Quran that says, “To you your religion, and to me mine,” and you have Indonesian Islam in a nutshell.

Dr Abdul Mu’ti of the Central Board of Muhammadiyah – the second largest Islamic civil society organisation in the country, embracing 30 million people – told IPS that Indonesian Islam is completely unique to the country, and does not easily find comparisons in the Muslim world.

When the holy Ramadan fast began on July 21, it arrived almost unnoticed in the country. Loudspeakers that usually blast prayers starting at dawn have been turned down as a courtesy to believers of other faiths; there are no ostentatious displays of piety, and eating in the streets is not prohibited, as it is in most other Islamic countries.

In a nation of 240 million where 90 percent are Muslims and most observe the fast, many customers are still seen sipping cafe lattes at Starbucks outlets in Jakarta’s glitzy malls, or bustling around food courts at lunchtime.

This is a completely different scene than in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where officials have warned non-Muslim expatriates that eating, drinking or smoking in public during the holy month risks deportation.

The Indonesian government has, however, imposed some restrictions in an effort to ensure that Muslims comply with the principle of sexual abstention during Ramadan by blocking one million Internet porn sites.

“We’ll intensify (efforts to) block porn websites,” Communications and Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring told local media.

Still, “Indonesia has a maritime culture which is more democratic, open and very different from the Arab culture of the desert,” Dr Nasaruddin Umar, Indonesia’s Vice Minister of Religious Affairs, told IPS.

“(I believe) Indonesia has the right to interpret the Quran according to its own culture,” said Umar, who based his doctoral thesis on a study of gender equality in the holy books, and firmly believes that the Quran prescribes parity between men and women.

“The Arab cultural interpretation of the Quran has been very dominant. But, according to the Quran there is no need to use chador (a robe that covers women from head to toe) or jilbab (a headscarf many women wear in Indonesia),” he told IPS.

Indonesia’s public space has a distinct flavour that sets it apart from most other Muslim countries: Indonesian girls in miniskirts walk together with others wearing headscarves, men and women hold hands in public and concerts and television programmes often feature women in headscarves dancing in a very suggestive manner.

Contradictions abound

However, there are limitations to religious acceptance. On official identity cards, Indonesians are forced to choose between only six accepted religions in the country.

Also, atheism is illegal according to the country’s constitution and just last June an Indonesian man was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for propagating his atheism on the Internet.

Blasphemy, also considered a felony, earned a Shiite cleric a two-year prison term in July for causing “public anxiety” because his teachings deviated from the mainstream Sunni Islam practiced in Indonesia.

His arrest came amid anti-Shiite attacks that rights groups say were led by Sunni Muslims.

Members of the minority Ahmadiyah sect who, contrary to mainstream Muslims, do not regard Muhammad as the last prophet, are often attacked. The most recent incident took place last month when a mob attacked the homes of six members of the Ahmadiyah community while a group of journalists was attempting to shoot a documentary about them. Four people were injured in the brawl.

Some Christian churches have been forced to close under pressure and last May a group of radical Muslims in West Java prevented a Christian congregation from holding a service by hurling sewage and frogs at them, according to a parishioner quoted by a local newspaper.

“On paper, Indonesia respects and protects the religious and ethnic diversity of its citizens. But this beautiful ‘social contract’ between the state and its people unfortunately means almost nothing on the ground,” Bona Sigalingging, spokesman for the Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church (GKI), told IPS.

“It is a manufactured image being sold to the international community,” he added.

Umar insists the government is working very hard to prevent similar incidents of communal and religious strife.

“The Ministry of Religious Affairs has deployed a special task force to contain radicalism,” said Umar, author of a book on the radicalisation of Quranic interpretation.

He says radical Islam, which peaked with the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people, mostly Western tourists, has largely been brought under control following a police crackdown on perpetrators and a process of re-educating extremists.

“The government has 60,000 penyuluh, or religious advisers, distributed all over the country and their function is to (educate) on the moderate aspects of Islam. They use my books and programmes,” Umar noted.

And though Indonesia has introduced 79 Islamic laws since the beginning of its democratic process in 1999, many of them have never been enforced, Mu’ti told IPS.

“Syariah or Islamic laws are a product of political propaganda by local leaders who do not represent the aspirations of all Muslims (here). So, many laws passed by local administrations are not fully implemented,” he stressed.

Tensions boiling over

Only in the autonomous province of Aceh, which is believed to be the place where Islam was first established in Southeast Asia, is there mandatory implementation of Islamic laws such as caning for imbibers or flogging for adulterers.

But few officials want to see this practice repeated throughout the country.

“I disagree with attempts to establish a Muslim state in Indonesia because it will exclude other religions,” said Mu’ti, hinting at the fact that Christmas, the Chinese New Year and a host of other religious holidays are today celebrated throughout the country, particularly in the larger cities.

Despite optimism, tensions in some regions continue to boil over. This patterns of intolerance, if allowed to continue, could risk souring Indonesia’s unique blend of Islam.

A week after the start of Ramadan a bar in South Jakarta was ransacked by a mob of more than 100 people for serving alcoholic drinks, local media reported.

The local news website quoted the mob’s alleged leader, Habib Bahar (33), as saying, “It is usual for me and my followers to raid sinful places during Ramadan.”


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