from Blood and Silk

At some point in the mid-1980s, male students in the central Java city of Jogjakarta who used to wear ragged jeans and their hair long began sprouting wispy beards and wearing white skullcaps; the girls started covering their heads with the tudong, as the hijab is known in Indonesian. By 2004 supporters of a local football club, Slemaniyya, were wearing T-shirts that sported pictures of Osama bin Laden.

‘It’s nothing to do with the Taliban or Al Qaeda. We just want to support our football club,’ one of the supporters told me with a broad marzipan smile. It was like visiting a film studio and wandering off a Southeast Asia set onto another recreating the deserts of Arabia. Over coffee in a restaurant overlooking Malioboro Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, a soft-spoken Muslim scholar, Muhammad Fajrul Fallah, tried to explain these puzzling changes to me. Like most observers of Indonesia, I assumed that moderate manifestations of Islam were the norm – especially here in central Java, where the refined culture embodies a fine balance between its Hindu-Buddhist roots and the more recent Islamic overlay. But a lot was changing in Indonesia. I was speaking to Fajrul on the eve of the landmark 2004 election campaign, the first direct election for the presidency since the end of the authoritarian era in 1998.

‘Young people just took to adopting Islamic symbols,’ he said, so softly it was a struggle to hear him over the chaotic cacophony of cars, motorcycles and the clanging of bells belonging to the city’s ubiquitous three-wheeled pedicabs. ‘They never turned violent or anything; they just all went to the same lectures and prayer meetings and, because of the more open environment, they thought it was OK to change the way they’d done things before.’

I was struck by an apparent paradox: a more open political environment that leads to a closing of the mind to other views; a strict adherence to orthodoxy in a more liberal setting, which in turn breeds intolerance and hatred. Was all this numbing Islamic orthodoxy the tragic by-product of Indonesia’s transition to democracy? Understanding the changing shape and role of Islam in the world’s largest Muslim country is of vital importance to understanding a key driver of conflict in Southeast Asia. In the wider global context, we live in an era of violence associated with Islam – in the name of Islam towards non-Muslims, and by angry non-Muslims towards believers in a faith that, although forged with the sword, professes peace. The Islamic holy scriptures contain mixed messages, what Din Syamsuddin, a former chairman of one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations, terms ‘ambivalent tendencies’. There are messages of peace and accommodation, but also calls to arms and exhortations to attack non-believers. This has opened the way for the manipulation of gullible minds by reckless political and radical forces. On a more mundane level, as with all Abrahamic religions, there is a tension between traditional paths to piety and modern forms of civic life. ‘Being a Muslim in the modern context creates a quandary,’ argues jailed Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim. ‘How can we reconcile modern governance with traditional teachings?’ Anwar and fellow liberals would argue that democracy is a moral imperative for all Muslims, as their faith urges engagement with society. The trouble is that this more enlightened, modernist view has been eclipsed by a much darker vision of exclusive identity that rejects democracy on the basis that only God speaks for the people – Vox populi, vox Dei.



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