San Jose Mercury News, Sunday, February 17, 2002

Indonesia cool to militant Islam: Despite some zealots, country embraces religious moderation


PADANG, Indonesia - Painting a picture that is seemingly at odds with the placid scene in West Sumatra, CIA Director George Tenet earlier this month told a Senate committee that Indonesia should be placed high on the list of new hot spots in the war against terrorism. Tenet described the sprawling Southeast Asian nation as a place where ``political instability, separatist and ethnic tensions, and protracted violence are hampering economic recovery and fueling Islamic extremism.'' 

But to Indonesians themselves, and to many experts who have studied this land, that assessment distorts the country's history and ignores its strong traditions of religious moderation. 

Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, certainly has religious dissidents who would like to impose Islamic law on its stubbornly secular society. And it's true that local separatist insurgencies and sectarian clashes bear the fingerprints of militant Islamic movements. In conversation, many Indonesians express revulsion over the deaths of innocent Muslim civilians in Afghanistan. Hawkers sell Osama bin Laden T-shirts on the streets of Jakarta without raising too many eyebrows. 

Zealots head abroad 

But Indonesia's most notorious Islamist zealots, including several individuals accused by Singapore and Malaysia of having links to the Al-Qaida terror network, have found more fertile ground for activities outside their own country. 

The mix of cultures that has shaped Islamic life in Indonesia has created a ``reservoir of moderation and tolerance that even now acts as a buffer to the radical Islamic groups who want to rouse the rabble,'' said Donald Emmerson, a Southeast Asia expert at Stanford University. 

Nowhere is that more evident than on the volcanic highlands and coastal towns in the western part of Sumatra, one of Indonesia's main islands. West Sumatra is home to the Minangkabau, an ethnic group estimated to be at least 8 million strong who regard themselves as devout Muslims but also proudly practice traditions that are alien to the beliefs of the Koran. 

The Minangkabau have a matrilineal culture in which ancestral property -- from rice paddies to homes -- passes exclusively to women. Despite the contrary teachings of Islam, they trace their lineage through their mothers. 

Compromises typical 

This compromise with Islam, while unique in certain regards, is typical of the way Islamic belief is practiced in Indonesia. Islam came to Indonesia by peaceful means, layering itself gently over a hodgepodge of different cultures along the vast archipelago. Puritanical strains of Wahhabi Islam, the kind enforced by the Taliban, and jihad-preaching demagogues haven't established deep roots, even as the country has gone through political and economic convulsions. 

Even the dramatic rise in poverty after the crash of Indonesia's currency during the 1997 regional economic crisis has shown few signs of making Indonesia significantly more susceptible to the social injustice rhetoric of radical Islam, said Emil Salim, a prominent international economist at Jakarta's Indonesia University. 

Consider Saprizal, a 40-year-old Minangkabau fisherman who lives in a seaside slum in Padang. He's out of work and destitute because rising fuel prices and recent bad weather have combined to make it unprofitable for him to ply the coastal waters. But this dilemma hasn't changed his mind about religion. 

``I don't like the Islamic extremists. They're just making cults, and nobody's going to follow them around here,'' said the gaunt-faced Saprizal, the father of four children who has never earned more than $2.50 a day. Like many Indonesians, Saprizal goes by only one name. 

``The general consensus is that the Islamic state does not suit our country,'' said Salim, a former Cabinet minister. He noted that radical Islamic parties fared poorly in the 1999 elections, the first free elections in three decades. The majority of the Indonesian people support ``nationalism-democratic principles and moderate Islam,'' he said. 

Brutal suppression of militant Islamic leaders by Suharto, the long-reigning dictator who was deposed amid violent street protests in 1998, has had lasting influence on mainstream religious attitudes. That could change in the confusion of fledgling democracy, some analysts warn, as radicals are free to speak out in the newly unfettered media. 

``The message is out there, whether people accept it now or not,'' said Abdul Aziz Saleh, a sociologist at Padang's Andalas University. ``There's a lot of frustration under the surface in the lower end of society. They're getting poorer while their access to information is increasing.'' 

Islam was imported to Indonesia by merchants in the 14th century, after first stewing in the cultural kaleidoscope of the Indian subcontinent. It won converts through accommodation as much as persuasion, tolerating entrenched pantheistic Hinduism and other beliefs. 

The Minang, as the Sumatran tribe is also known, illustrate this flexible brand of Islam. More than a 100 years ago, after much heated discourse, they came to terms with the clash between traditional culture and their new religion. The compact decreed that ``you cannot be a Minangkabau without being a Muslim,'' said Mansur Malik, 66, an Islamic scholar who heads the local branch of the Indonesian Ulamas Council. 

Female inheritance 

The structure of society would remain organized along female lines of descent. Ancestral assets -- village homes and farmland -- would continue to be passed on as communal property to daughters. But Koranic law would be applied to the earned income of the fathers and any newly acquired assets: Sons inherited a larger share than their sisters. 

Obeisance to Islamic strictures didn't stop Minang women from playing a strong role in society. Zikra, 42, the head of a conservative Islamic boarding school for girls in the highland town of Padangpanjang, said her gutsy great-aunt founded the school 75 years ago in defiance of her elder brother, who refused to enroll girls in his school. She had no problem getting start-up funds from their wealthy family, since she was the heir. 

The Diniyyah Puteri school broke ground as Indonesia's first Islamic school for girls. Today, students from as far away as Malaysia attend, all piously dressed in head scarves and simple tunics. The girls don't have televisions or radios in their austere dormitory rooms, but have little trouble naming their favorite Western pop stars. ``I want to go to college in Jakarta to study psychology,'' said Fauza Nofira, 18, a senior who shrugged when asked if she would continue to veil her head. 

Family business 

Haji Sanuar is a successful businesswoman in a nearby village who sells traditional hand-woven Minang fabric made by women in her network of home workshops in the area. Her business has thrived despite years of recession, she explained, because the large numbers of migrant Minang from outside West Sumatra hold weddings in their ancestral homeland and buy her gold-laced material for ceremonial robes. 

Her two sons are traditional craftsmen and help their elderly mother run the business, but they won't inherit the business when Sanuar, 76, dies. 

The legacy will go to their younger sister, who lives in Jakarta and has shown little interest in business. Her brothers probably will run the enterprise. 

``In Minang country, the woman is king, but she is the king without any formal power,'' said Sanuar, who lives alone in a spacious house with a traditional peaked gable roof. 

The moderate Islam of the Minang remains the dominant strain in this country of 228 million. But Indonesia's potential role in international terrorism remains an open question. ``If you're talking about conspirators planning to bomb the U.S. Embassy who work underground, that's another matter,'' Stanford's Emmerson said. ``But that doesn't mean it's happening.''