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Push for Moderate Islam in South-East Asia

Analysis – By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 22 (IPS) – Indonesia’s new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, steps into the political limelight just as South-east Asia’s identity as a symbol of moderate Islam gets increasingly bruised by the region’s own Muslims.


The revelations this week from a courtroom in Jakarta will be hard for Yudhoyono to ignore. A Malaysian Muslim witness disclosed details that for the first time linked Abu Bakar Bashir, an elderly Indonesian cleric under trial, with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a shadowy group of Muslim radicals that intelligence officials accuse of unleashing terror in the region.

Mohammad Nasir Abbas, the Malaysian, told the court that the 66-year-old Bashir was the leader of JI. Both Bashir and JI have been accused of being linked to the 2002 bomb attacks in the Indonesian resort island of Bali, which killed 202 people, and the bombs that exploded in a leading Jakarta hotel in 2003, which left 12 dead.

Yudhoyono will also have difficulty turning away from the violence that has left over 500 people dead this year in another corner of the region — southern Thailand’s predominantly Muslim provinces. Here again, the government of Buddhist Thailand accuses separatist Muslim rebels for the bloodshed, some of which has been brutal, like beheading Buddhist monks.

But as he has revealed after his September election as the leader of the world’s most populous Muslim country, Yudhoyono is determined to stall this onward march of religious extremism. And his performance through 2005 will, inevitably, serve as a significant cue to the region, given Indonesia’s political weight in South-east Asia and in the Islamic world.

Fortunately for Yudhoyono, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has begun to set the foundations to propagate a liberal and accommodating Islamic culture by advancing the idea of ‘Islam Hadhari,’ or moderate Islam.

”Islam Hadari is very crucial to this region,” Norani Othman, a sociologist and co- founder of Sisters in Islam, a progressive women’s group in Malaysia, told IPS. ”It stands for an Islam that accepts differences, respects religious pluralism and that is open to modernism and democratic rights.”

That the citizens of South-east Asia’s second largest Muslim country have embraced this Islamic vision was underscored in March this year, when the moderate coalition that Abdullah heads soundly defeated the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia or PAS, which propagated an archly conservative form of the faith.

For Noraini, the edge enjoyed by Abdullah’s view in the continuing struggle for the soul of Islam in Malaysia is a welcome relief to women, following the pressure that emerged in the 1980s to limit the role of Muslim women in public space.

”Back then, the religious authorities began to curtail the freedom enjoyed by women,” she said. ”We have to persuade them to do otherwise; for the religion to be in touch with the 21st century and not be stuck in the past.”

The parliamentary and presidential elections that followed in Indonesia mirrored the trend set in Malaysia – that the candidates from the Islamic-based parties failed to dislodge politicians who stood for a blend of religious moderation and nationalism.

And even the staunchly religious candidates who won a seat during the April parliamentary elections, such as the cleric Hidayat Nur Wahid of the Prosperous Justice Party, wear the badge of reformers. Shortly after he was endorsed as the leader of the powerful legislative body, the People’s Consultative Assembly, Hidayat dismissed speculation that he would push to impose Islamic shariah law.

But elsewhere too, voices of moderation have been on the march in an attempt to reclaim the ideological ground they have partially lost to the extremists. The work this year by groups such as the Liberal Islam Network, Centre for Moderate Muslims and the Centre for Islam and Pluralism in Indonesia convey this trend.

They are complemented by the heft of two large religious organisations – Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which claims a membership of over 30 million Indonesians, and Muhammadiya, which has 20 million members. Both groups have consistently echoed moderate views and stood up against extremism.

An international conference of Islamic scholars hosted by the NU in Jakarta this February conveyed this. The Jakarta declaration that was endorsed by the Islamic scholars was aimed to advocate a faith ”not associated with violence, terrorism, ignorance (and) intolerance,” Nico Harjanto, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told IPS.

The religious and secular leaders have recognised the problems coursing through the Muslim community, and they are working on many fronts – such as law to politics – to ”counter radical teachings,” he said.

”For leaders in the region, it seems that combating (the) JI terrorist group (has) become the main priority, as the success of that campaign can have psychological effects to those who wish to join terrorist groups,” added the CSIS researcher.

But as intelligence reports have revealed, Indonesia, where nearly 90 percent of its 238 million people are Muslim, and Malaysia, where 60 percent of its 25 million population are of a similar faith, are not the only nations troubled by Islamic extremists.

Muslims form a minority of 3.3 million in Buddhist Thailand, 3.9 million in predominately Catholic Philippines and 500,000 in Chinese Singapore. And all these countries have raised the alarm about a JI presence.

Since the Sept. 11 acts of terror in the United States, intelligence officials have warned the region’s governments about a plan by JI to create a pan-Islamic state, which would include Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Philippines, southern Thailand and the Muslim kingdom of Brunei.

Such a vision to fight for a transnational political entity contrasts sharply with the local, separatist violence that South-east Asian governments had to deal with in past years. The conflict in southern Thailand, southern Philippines and Indonesia’s Aceh province are among them.

”The use of terrorism as a method of struggle has changed the course of Islamic armed resistance against secular governments in the region,” says Harjanto. ”This of course scares many moderate Muslims.”

The election results this year conveyed the consequence of such fear in the two leading Muslim countries of the region. And at an inter-faith conference in the Indonesian province of Yogyakarta this month, Yudhoyono helped to reduce the fears further by delivering a call to arms to defend South-east Asia’s identity as a home to a moderate and accommodating form Islam.

”Terrorism is the enemy of all religions,” he said. ”Pluralism is a fact of life in Indonesia.”

(END/2004)

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