10 Years After Suharto

As radical Muslims begin to gain prominence in religious discourse, there has been a tendency to use religious doctrines to undermine religious freedoms in the name of security.

Indonesia's religious life in the post-Suharto era has been marked by the emergence of extreme religious radicalism. The conflict between Muslims and Christians in Poso, in the province of Sulawesi Tenggara, and in the Maluku province exemplifies this phenomenon, as do the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings. The rise of radical organizations such as Defenders Front for Islam (F.P.I.), Jihadist Paramiliter (L.J.), and Indonesian Mujahidin Council (M.M.I.), confirms the new power of the conservatives in Indonesian politics.

Ten years ago in May, the late Indonesian President Suharto resigned. He had been the country's president for 32 years and stepped down in response to massive protests by university students who were frustrated by the economic crisis that Indonesia had been mired in since the previous year.

Suharto's resignation led to political change—from an authoritarian government to a democratic one—without much political and social strife.

This shift toward democracy has had many positive impacts. For example, freedoms of association and expression have manifested themselves in the emergence of new political parties and social organizations. Even the Indonesian press benefited from the shift and is currently regarded as the most independent in Southeast Asia.

But religious radicalism has concurrently gained a strong foothold among the country's Muslims, and can be gauged from the types of books that have become popular in Indonesia. In the 1980's and 1990's, Indonesian Muslims were reading philosophical and liberal religious discourses by distinguished intellectuals such as Pakistani Fazlur Rahman, Egyptian Hassan Hanafi, and Algerian Muhammad Arkoun. Their humanist ideas complemented and enriched the modernist philosophies of such Indonesian intellectuals as Nurcholish Majdid, Harun Nasution, Munawwir Sadzali, Ahmad Wahib, and others.

Now, however, there is a demand for Islamic texts that tout religious radicalism. Bookstores provide translations of extremist texts by popular intellectuals such as Palestinian Abdullah Azam. Also popular are books and essays from Indonesians who have fought in Afghanistan, mostly denouncing concepts like democracy and secularism, and demonstrating nontolerant attitudes toward non-Muslims.

As radical Muslims begin to gain prominence in religious discourse, there has been a tendency to use religious doctrines to undermine religious freedoms in the name of security.

As a consequence of a decentralization policy introduced by the central government in 2001, the regional administrations have issued several controversial rules that enforce certain practices, including an obligation for Muslim women to wear the hijab, or headscarf, and the prohibition of women from leaving their houses at night without being accompanied by a male relative. In general, their policies were inspired by the leaders of the Aceh province in western Indonesia, who were given authority to fully implement a strict version of Shariah law, based on Islamic principles, under a special autonomy law.

So why has radicalism increased in the Indonesian reformation era?

Australian political observer, Greg Fealy, blames the confrontational methods employed by certain liberal intellectuals in introducing religious discourse. For example, religious jurisprudential codes introduced by individuals who are associated with Paramadina—a foundation established by late Nurcholish Madjid—have permitted, among other things, inter-religious marriage, a sensitive issue in Islam. In response, radical Muslim groups denounced the groups as providing a distortion of Islamic teachings and encouraging apostasy.

Factors cited by radical Muslim activists to justify their violent methods include poverty, rampant corruption in the domestic bureaucracy and the legal system, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Others look to historical roots to explain this trend, including separatist movements, such as Darul Islam in West Java and Permesta in South Sulawesi, that aimed to create an Islamic state in Indonesia.

With such complex and easily misunderstood root causes, it is difficult to identify straightforward solutions for reducing radicalism among Muslims.

However, certain steps would go a long way to ensure that the Indonesian public is not vulnerable to the anarchic activities adopted by radical groups. The current Indonesian government must focus on law enforcement to protect citizens from the consequences of violent actions by nongovernmental factions.

In addition, involving respected Islamic organizations, such as Nahdhatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, in the active mediation of conflicts can help to rectify religious concerns with the broader public's rights and interests, build a nonviolent forum for resolving disputes, and dispel the myth that violent radical organizations are operating in the name of all Indonesian Muslims. These changes would go a long way in ensuring that the post-Suharto advances extend to all areas of life in the coming decade.

Ali Noer Zaman lives in Jakarta and is a writer for socio-religious issues. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.