Who’s Afraid? Indonesian Radicalism, unifinished

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“Siapa Takut?”

Imagine you’re playing a game of checkers. Better yet, go find your neighbor or roommate, ask him or her to join you for a round; it’s fun and you should be more social anyway. Your pieces are black. Your opponent’s pieces, however, begin to change colors, morphing from a homogenous team of red circles to a variety of shades. There are some blue, some brown, some green, some seem to waiver in between. The color of some of your pieces seems to change a little bit as well, until the end of your team and the beginning of your enemy’s is unclear.

Living and studying here in Indonesia, the world often feels like a game in which the rules, playing field and teams are blurred and constantly shifting. The causes of and solutions to the challenges facing me and my generation, including global terrorism, environmental degradation, massive inequalities, and the real cause of yesterday’s diarrhea leave me in a state of constant awe as I navigate this foreign land. My faith in humanity strong, I am convinced that we all truly desire and will aspire toward universal social justice, if only given the chance. Each evening I find myself still clinging to this formerly irrepressible optimism, but somewhat desperately as another day of dirty Jakarta air and depressing news reports about the rise of militant Islam threaten to drain me of hope and happiness.

It is the fasting month for a majority of Indonesians, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan for a global community of believers, and with its observance the contradictions and ambiguities run rampant in Jakarta. Families make merry, taking advantage of the holiday super-sales at the grocery stores, preparing for the week-long Idul Fitri celebration – everyone who can will “balik kampung,” return to their home towns. Stores will close for a week, and families will gather and make up for the fasting of the past month. The night air is filled with the long prayers from the mosque and the early mornings are filled with more of the same. The day begins at 3 A.M. with Sahur, the meal and prayers before beginning the day’s fasting; people prepare for the inner struggle against the temptation of excess and seek a spiritual peace within the world’s chaos. Meanwhile the newspaper headlines blare out their reminders of the bombings that have occurred during this time each year, starting with Bali in 2002, reminding all of a boiling hatred that contradicts the spirit of the holiday.

Coming from the perspective of an American in Indonesia, my participation in this public discourse on terrorism both builds solidarity with my local friends and strengthens the obvious divisions between us. The common wisdom, of course, is that the “terrorists” are people that share a radical form of Islam and have become militant against what they see as a threat to their religion. In a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, a shared identity through religion makes the situation all the more complex; that is one of the strengths of the terrorists, that they can claim to be representing the 90 percent Islamic majority. However, the vast majority of Indonesian Muslims disagrees with the interpretation of these radicals and strongly condemns the use of violence. Even Muslims that are seen as extremely pious, leaders who preach the fundamentals of the faith and are highly respected in society certainly do not advocate violence or radicalism.

The Islamic organization Mohamadia and the Jakarta-based Center for Moderate Muslims (http://www.cmm.or.id/index-eng.php), for example, are led by some of the most respected religious leaders in Indonesia. They actively promote a progressive, tolerant and peaceful Islam, in Indonesia and around the world. One of CMM’s activities is to work with the many Islamic primary schools in Indonesia to promote modern curriculums as well as tolerance in terms of religion. Especially in poverty stricken areas, these Islamic religious schools, or pesantren, can be the only formal education available, and are vulnerable to influence from radicals that take advantage of the opportunity to spread their ideology.

This radical ideology is one that is challenging Indonesian tradition, however; Mohamadia and NU or Nahdlatul Ulama claim a joint membership comprises a majority of Indonesia’s population. This majority, in fact, practices a very moderate form of Islam, and the country and culture prides itself on its pluralism, its commitment to democracy, and its tolerance. In a recent poll, a vast majority said that they were not in favor of the implementation of Islamic Sharia law in Indonesia, for example. The implementation of this Islamic law is seen as one of the main goals of those willing to use violence in the promotion of their religion. Indonesia’s constitution today recognizes religion, but does not allow for religious law to become part of national law.

Being a strong Muslim in Indonesia is far from being a radical and does not mean a person has any sympathy for Islamic terrorists. Among Indonesians that I have spoken with, most are as afraid as the foreigners of these radicals and the bombs that they have used; they see them as a threat to their way of life and the unity of their country and its shaky democracy, as well as an affront to their religion. “Siapa Takut,” Who’s Afraid, is the slogan that you can see posted around the capital city, on billboards and in newspapers and magazines.

Terrorism in Indonesia is both a domestic problem and part of a global phenomenon. The country suffers from massive social and economic disenfranchisement, with a ruling elite and oppressed poor; these lines of disparity and conflict can often be drawn along religious and ethnic lines. Generally low levels of education and widespread government corruption exacerbate and reinforce the problem. All of these conditions can lend themselves to extremism if left unchecked and allowed to ferment. Stopping terrorism, at least in a reactive way, is a mainstay in the government’s rhetoric; officials and national police spokespeople frequent the news media on the subject. However, more needs to be done to combat the basic social problems of poverty and education.

Terrorism and its roots are hardly simply domestic, however, although the domestic conditions increase its volatility. Islamic movements here in Indonesia did not become violent before the 1980s brought contact with outsiders from places like Afghanistan and Egypt, when an international ideology focusing on combating a Western influence began to bloom. Religion becomes an effective, border-crossing solidarity-builder and commitment-holder, especially when a common enemy can be constructed. This solidarity is strengthened with the fractious issue of Palestine, and even more so since the invasions of the predominantly Muslim countries of Afghanistan, Iraq and recently Lebanon.

A strategic and security research group in Jakarta, CSIS, says that bombings in Indonesia have been related to anti-Western, or more specifically anti-American, sentiment. Even as a majority rejects extremism and violence, even centrists are still put off by a negative perception of American greed, arrogance and carelessness.

It’s difficult for me to accept that a place becomes a terrorist target simply because it is frequented by “bule,” Caucasian foreigners, or even because it has restaurants or stores identified as Western – in fact, one analysis defined a terror target as “anywhere that provides a space for American or Western interests.” I feel that a certain naivety on my part, one that has made my life and travels so successful and fun, is no longer possible, and it pisses me off.

Many of the people I am meeting and the events that I am seeing offer a great deal of hope, revitalizing that goodness of humanity that I want so much to embrace. Many here recognize the delicate nature of Indonesia’s young democracy and our diverse world, and believe their religion has a peaceful place within it. A constant dialogue goes on in the press and at the universities regarding Islam, Indonesia’s pluralist society, and the challenges to making it all work within a peaceful and just democracy. Invited into homes for dinner, perhaps to break the fast, I have never experienced anything but smiles and hospitality. There may be a lively discussion around America’s foreign policy, and Western-based multi-national corporations may be demonized, but I am recognized as an individual.

And so, faced with so many ambiguities and insecurities, we find ourselves squatting under a mango tree, sweating in the shade, playing a game of checkers with the neighbor who is cracking jokes in Indonesian that laugh at, pretending we understand – or at least that’s where I find myself. Either way, we’re both staring at the board, trying to figure out the teams, looking for the next perfect move.

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