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Indonesia veering towards extremism


Abdurrahman WahidWhen President Bush announced the war on terror, he said that, as well as a physical war, there should be a war of ideas. The latter never eventuated, but in the long run, it's probably more important in defeating extremism.

The Illusion of an Islamic State: the Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesiai by former president and Muslim scholar, Abdurrahman Wahid (pictured), is a rare example of progressive Islam entering the battle for Muslim hearts and minds, making a compelling argument for urgent action.

The book, launched last Thursday in Jakarta, on the eve of elections that begin on 9 April, is a battle cry to Indonesians to stand and oppose Islamist extremists. Wahid argues that hardliners threaten his beloved country, and his religion.

The book is strategic and political, deeply spiritual and theological, and highly polemical. Wahid doesn't pull any punches, describing extremist elements as an insidious virus that has infiltrated the religion, civil society and government of his country.

I met Wahid in 2006 when I travelled to Indonesia with Geraldine Doogue to make a documentary on Islam in Indonesia for ABC TV's Compass. Confined to a wheelchair, and almost blind from a series of strokes, he didn't appear to be a fighter or a formidable intellect. But in the interview we experienced the wily and influential social commentator that Indonesians know so well.

Wahid comes from one of Java's foremost aristocratic Muslim families, and all his adult life he's been a revered teacher, writer and community activist. For 15 years prior to becoming president he was head of Nahdatul Ulama, the country's biggest Muslim organisation with a staggering 40 million members.

The pessimism in this recent book seems to mark a deterioration in the situation in Indonesia. In the 2006 Compass interview he was more sanguine. 'The moderates I see are so many,' he said then, 'and only a small coterie of fundamentalists, or hardliners exist in Indonesia.'

His diagnosis that Indonesia is now veering towards extremism is worrying for Australia. Roughly 85 per cent of Indonesia's population of 240 million is Muslim, making it the world's most populous Islamic nation. If Muslim radicals come to power or gain significant influence, it would mean a huge hostile neighbour just to our north.

Wahid's analysis draws on two years of research conducted by a number of foundations and institutes in Indonesia. This involved interviews with a wide range of key government, military, religious, education and media leaders, and 591 extremist figures from 58 different organisations.

Wahid identifies the dangerous elements as al-Qaeda, Wahhabists (from Saudi Arabia), the Muslim Brotherhood (originating in Egypt) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (whose goal is a pan-Islamic global Caliphate). All are generously funded, he contends, by 'huge amounts of petrodollars' from the Middle East.

He outlines how extremist groups have taken over many mosques and tertiary institutes, and infiltrated government and political parties. He explains how Indonesia's two largest Muslim organisations, NU and Muhammadiyah, have been targets for infiltration. Both have recently issued firm guidelines on membership in an effort to stave off takeovers.

He singles out the influential Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Islamic Scholars), the official body that issues fatwas, and the political party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as having been taken over. The timing of the book's publication aims to stem support for the PKS.

The first round of elections on 9 April will decide which of the 38 parties standing for election will be represented in parliament. The three largest parties are President Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, Golkar led by Yusuf Kalla, and Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P. Only parties or coalitions that win 20 per cent of the vote, or 25 per cent of the seats, can field candidates for the presidential election on 8 July.

In the 2004 election, the PKS won a sizeable 7.3 per cent of the vote. Wahid will be doing all in his power to minimise the vote for the PKS, and any party allied with it.

For inspiration, and a sense of hope, he looks to the past when Indonesia overcame similar challenges. He says this demonstrates that 'discontented souls will constantly shove our nation towards the brink of destruction until they succeed in acquiring power, or we stop them, as earlier generations of tranquil souls have done so many times before. Now it is we who must decide the fate of our nation.'

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. In 2005 his book, Tomorrow's Islam, co-authored with Geraldine Doogue, was published by ABC Books. It includes a chapter on Islam in Indonesia.


Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, extremism, Indonesia, election, The Illusion of an Islamic State, Abdurrahman Wahid



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Existing comments

Much as the prosperity Gospel of 'happy-clappy' Pentecostalism is foreign to Anglo-Celtic Australia, yet has taken root here, Wahabism has been brought to many developing nations with external, petrodollar, funding.
Like invasive weeds in so many newly-disturbed ecosystems, it thrives and replaces indigenous spiritualities that communities had previously developed while achieving harmony with their environs. Much as an entire landscape is replaced with a monoculture of Gamba grass, the richness of a culture adapting in myriad ways to its own environment is replaced with an obsession with One Great Injustice that can unite Muslims everywhere.

Until and unless a one-state solution is adopted in Israel, this process will continue.

David Arthur | 07 April 2009  

So who is the pks? Who infiltrated them? How was the infiltration carried out? Who exactly funded it? Is the military involved in it? What of the internal.battle inside pks? How likely is it really for the exteriats to gain real power? More info would help.

Peter | 07 April 2009  

I looked up various sites on the Internet but to no avail. Where can i get a copy of Wahid's book?

Carole Gan | 07 April 2009  

For another view: Tom Allard's SMH Saturday article Saturday;
"Yet, despite Gus Dur's alarm, all the polling - and all the internal machinations within parties like PKS - suggests that Islam as a potent political force is on the wane in Indonesia or, at best, treading water.

"There's no reason to be fearful of the rise of Islamism in Indonesia," says Greg Fealy, the Australian National University Indonesianist who monitors Islam closely.

"Overall the polling is showing that Indonesian people are overwhelmingly concerned with economic performance, who can help them put food on the table and help them improve their daily lives."

A recent survey in Kompas, the country's most widely read newspaper, found only 8 per cent of respondents said religion would have a significant influence over who they voted for; 60 per cent said it would have no impact whatsoever.

The most authoritative surveys find that, as a grouping, Islamic parties are polling about 25 per cent, compared with 38 per cent in 2004, when the Western world was at its peak in Indonesia as a consequence of the Iraq invasion."

David Arthur - there never was an 'Anglo-Celtic Australia'. As an Irish Catholic Australian I take offence!

chris gow | 07 April 2009  

There may be some extremists in Indonesia. But perhaps more worrying are "our own" extremists, i.e. the "false flag" attacks in Bali 2002, Spain, London. Many people think these were CIA operations.

richard | 07 April 2009  

For nuanced and less rhetorical accounts of the tensions within Indonesian Islam listen (or read the transcripts) of Encounter: Beyond Jemaah Islamiya - Update on Indonesia Parts 1 and 2.

Margaret Coffey | 07 April 2009  

Chris Gow's rejection of Anglo-Celtic Australia raises an issue of identity, and of needless offendedness (a popular posture in this age of entitlement). It's not relevant to this discussion, but here goes anyway.

My (Teralba-born) paternal grandfather was of Cornish Methodist origin. He was confirmed RC to marry my (Grenfell-born) Irish Catholic paternal grandmother.
My C of E maternal grandmother emigrated from Grimsby after her dad was killed in WWI. She was confirmed RC to marry my Irish Catholic maternal grandfather (whose Irish forebears served in the King's Constabulary). Their Antipodean children were raised to be, after Menzies perhaps, more English than the English.

Can I claim to be Irish Catholic? No.
Have I any loyalty to the British Crown? No more than my statutory obligation.

I use the label Anglo-Celtic to describe what I expect is a fairly common situation in Australia.

David Arthur | 08 April 2009  

I challenge Peter's description of Indonesia as an Islamic nation. This puts it in the same league as Saudi Arabia or Iran. It would be fairer to describe Indonesia as a pluralistic nation with a Muslim majority.

Andrew | 14 April 2009  

"... a rare example of progressive Islam entering the battle for Muslim hearts and minds, making a compelling argument for urgent action."

On what basis do you call this "rare"? How many languages commonly spoken in Muslim countries do you speak? How much media (TV, newspapers and radio) in Muslim-majority states are you exposed to? How many imams/ sheiks, kiais, maulanas etc have you interviewed?

Remember that you are talking about 1.2 billion people.

irfan | 20 April 2009  

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