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Indonesian Democracy vs. Islamist Fundamentalism By: Daniel Mandel
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, August 10, 2004


Is Indonesia safe from the ravages of Islamism and on the road to democratic stability? It is hard to tell.

The country has just held its first direct presidential election since the close of the long, authoritarian Suharto era in 1998. The vote, completed last week, gave no candidate a clear majority and a run-off vote between the leading contenders - former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono(Democrat Party) and incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesian Democracy Party) - beckons in September.

The vote follows parliamentary elections last April, pointing to democratic consolidation in a previously authoritarian Muslim polity. The separation of state and mosque remains intact, underscored by the fact that the three leading presidential candidates - the third being former armed forces chief General Wiranto (Golkar) - are all secular figures.

Yet Indonesia remains challenged by militant Islam and ambivalent over the transnational war waged by jihadists, in particular, its own indigenous Islamist terror group, the Jemaah Islamiya (JI). That ambivalence extends to Megawati, who last year blamed the West for the "climate of violence" that fosters terrorism.

Megawati's stance highlights how anti-Western resentment, discouraged by her predecessor, Abdulrrahman Wahid, straddles the religious-secular divide. Moreover, even without a chance at the presidency, Islamic parties could well prove necessary coalition partners in a fractious parliament and Islamists have sway among them.

The leaders of two such parties, the fourth and fifth presidential candidates, Amien Rais (National Mandate Party) and Hamzah Haz (United Development Party) have a history of illiberal statements and associations behind them. Assorted ethnic hatreds, anti-American sentiment and denial about the very existence of indigenous terrorism hangs heavy over Indonesia's political landscape.

Amien Rais has uttered anti-Jewish, anti-Chinese and anti-Western sentiments in the past. He has even strayed into Holocaust denial, stating in May 1998 concerning stories of 170,000 Chinese fleeing Indonesia during riots, "It is a crazy, blown-up figure, just like when the Israelis said that six million Jews had been killed in World War II."

The same month, he told the Asian Wall Street Journal that, as a doctoral student in at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s, he was "struck by the fact" that America's Anglo-Saxon majority had come under the control of its tiny Jewish minority. A few months later, he referred to a handful of Jews in Surabaya as "Yahudi tengik" (Smelly Jews). He has railed against Chinese "over-representation" in the state bureaucracy.

Rais has sought to unite Islamic parties in a "National Salvation Alliance." His candidacy had the backing also of the Islamist supported Prosperous Justice Party. It is currently led by Dr Hidayat Nurwahid, who studied Wahabi Islam in Saudi Arabia before returning to teach in Islamic institutions in 1992. The two parties together command 14 per cent of the parliamentary seats.

Hamzah Haz, on the other hand, famously stated in 1999 that no woman was fit to rule the country - though he later accepted a posting in Megawati's cabinet. He is closely associated with JI's Bashir. In August 2002, Haz visited Bashir's Islamic boarding school at Ngruki, Central Java, where he declared after conferring with Bashir that there was no such thing as an international terrorist network in Indonesia.

Haz makes no secret of the fact that his views converge with those of the Islamists. In September 2003, addressing a meeting Muslim clerics, Haz asked rhetorically, "Who is the real terrorist? It is the United States, for they have attacked Iraq. In fact, they are the king of terrorists."

The rot does not stop there. Even Haysim Muzadi, the chairman of moderate Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim organization, is in denial about local terror groups.

Thus, in September last year, Muzadi claimed categorically, "I meet with Islamic mass organizations every day from all over Indonesia but I've never heard of JI and the people I meet have never heard of JI either."

Although Muzadi, who happens to be Megawati's running mate and could therefore be vice-president, described Haz's "king of terrorists" utterance as "too much", he also repudiated his own words, offering the qualifier "It is just possible the U.S. commits terrorism, but not the whole country."

Add to this disaffection for America a lack of seriousness in judicial proceedings against terrorists.

Bashir, for example, was convicted and sentenced to four years on charges of subversion, but escaped conviction on treason charges. His defense, that he is the victim of a U.S. conspiracy and that JI does not exist, was accepted at face value by the court.

All of which suggests an easy receptivity to such views among the Indonesian public. Undeniably secular and displaying an array of Muslim opinion, Indonesia nonetheless cannot entirely escape the pan-Islamic resentments that plague other Muslim societies. This means considerable heartache for
American efforts to cultivate Muslim friends and allies. It ought to alert Washington to the inroads of militant Islam in even democratic Muslim polities and thus to the dangers to the long-term prospects of democracy in the world's most populous Muslim majority state.

Daniel Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum.

Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy, and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, 2004).


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