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Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia

April 19, 2007, New York Times, Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia, By Mark Bowden.

In Indonesian Tug of War, Radical Islam Thrives on Democracy and Despair

America was introduced to radical Islam on Sept. 11, 2001, but it was nothing new to much of the rest of the world.

Those most feeling the pain and pressure of militant Islam’s rise have been moderate Muslims, many of them horrified by the tactics and goals of their fundamentalist brethren. It is these moderates who are potentially the Western world’s strongest allies in the struggle to contain the radicals.

One of the great stages for this struggle is Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and home to about 210 million Muslims, more than any other nation’s. This is the fascinating subject of “Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia,” part of the “America at a Crossroads” series being shown this week on PBS.

This sweeping documentary has gathered the views of an amazing assortment of Indonesians, from the defiant members of the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, who were convicted of the 2002 terrorist bombing on Bali that killed 202 people and now sit on death row prison cells, to political and military leaders, journalists, religious scholars, students and even the winner of a recent Miss Indonesia Transvestite pageant. The show is a production of New York Times Television and was produced by Calvin Sims, a reporter and producer for The New York Times, and Ken Levis, an independent producer.

Indonesia is an ancient nation but a fledgling democracy, one that was born after the country’s longtime dictator, Suharto, was ousted in 1998. The demonstrations that drove out Mr. Suharto established freedom and the rule of law, but it was “a double-edged sword,” says Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, an Indonesian Islamic scholar and leader of the Liberal Islam Network. It unleashed many political forces that had long been suppressed. “This freedom is not only for the good guys, but also for the bad guys,” Mr. Abshar-Abdalla says.

The “bad guys,” in his view, are fundamentalist Muslims who want to establish an Islamic state, or, as it is expressed on “Struggle for the Soul of Islam” by Abu Bakar Bashir, one of the movement’s leaders, “an Allah-ocracy, not a democracy.” Mr. Bashir, who is described as one of the spiritual mentors of the Bali bombers, is a beatific figure with a white beard and a big bucktoothed smile. “Islam and democracy,” he calmly explains, “can never coexist.”

Radicals like Mr. Bashir, the program explains, have turned themselves into a national force by establishing control over rural villages on many of the nation’s more than 17,000 islands, in part through the acquiescence of much larger mainstream Muslim organizations.

Squads of pious youths armed with long sticks launch attacks on “immorality,” sometimes with the tacit cooperation of local government officials. The dynamic is easy to understand. Traditionalists who would never support the establishment of sharia, or Islamic law, are content to let these freelance enforcers, operating under the label of the Islamic Defenders Front, crack down on anything they find uncomfortable or risqué.

One of the most moving interviews in the program is with Inul Daratista, a popular singer and performance artist, whose suggestive dancing — which would hardly raise an eyebrow in the West — has provoked the ire of these unofficial moral guardians. Her shows have been attacked and shut down, and there is a tone of despair in her remarks. “I think some of the authorities are afraid of these radical organizations,” she says. “Soon the people won’t have respect for the authorities. They will respect these groups. Then what will become of Indonesia after that?”

The Daratista controversy prompted a bill in the national legislature to ban “pornography,” a term that was defined broadly enough to force all Indonesian women to adopt strict Islamist garb; those opposing it were labeled “pro-pornography.” Among other things the bill prohibited kissing in public for more than three minutes.

Against these signs of rising radical strength “The Struggle” also shows many hopeful signs that Indonesia’s mainstream has begun to rouse itself to fight back. For example popular outrage against the pornography bill caused it to be withdrawn. (It is now being redrafted.)

Then there is the popular rock band whose songs attack fundamentalism head on, and the group of schoolgirls who, having been forced to wear head scarves and robes, are happy to speak on camera about how much they hate them. “I can’t stand these things,” one girl says, tugging with disgust at the fabric draped over her head and neck.

Perhaps the strongest ally in the fight against fundamentalism, the program suggests, is Indonesian traditional culture. Mainstream Islam long ago adapted to the indigenous island culture, and most Indonesians see the radical movement as an effort to impose Arab customs and beliefs. So national pride resists this “foreign” intrusion.

But warring against this resistance is rampant anti-Americanism. Sidney Jones, an expert on Indonesian terrorism with the International Crisis Group, sees post 9/11 American military policy as a major boon to the Islamists, who have successfully characterized the invasion of Iraq, in particular, as part of a global war against Islam.

“American policy is worsening the situation,” Ms. Jones says.

All this makes a compelling hour of television — an informed examination of a complex problem and a complex culture, and one that delves deep into a world that most Americans know little about.

Without directly making the point, “Struggle for the Soul of Islam” argues that cultural awareness and a better-informed America might be far more effective at combatting terrorism and the threat of militant Islam than military power. The many millions of people whose lives are being affected by this violent and intolerant movement are our natural allies against it, the program suggests. That is, if we understand them.


Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia

On most PBS stations tonight(check local listings).

Ann Derry for New York Times Television, executive producer; Ken Levis and Calvin Sims, producers.

Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of “Guests of the Ayatollah” and “Black Hawk Down.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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