Monday, October 03, 2005

COMMENT: Indonesian Islam Under Attack

Next January, I will be joining a delegation of young Australians on a leadership exchange program to Indonesia. The program is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) and organised by the University of Melbourne.

I am told by the organisers that a previous delegation’s visit had to be postponed due to the Australian embassy’s bombing. That terrorist attack left a number of Indonesians dead and wounded in downtown Jakarta.

This visit could be delayed by an outbreak of bird flu. Or perhaps by more terrorist bombings. I could look at it all from the perspective of a selfish Aussie looking forward to a working holiday. But I will try for a moment to interpret current events in Bali from an Indonesian perspective.

Bali is a symbol of what Indonesia is really about, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. More Muslims live in Indonesia than in any other country. And the majority of Bali’s population are Hindu.

Indonesian culture is a mixture of a number of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist influences. It is not uncommon to see Indonesian Muslims enjoying a performance of the Ramayana epic during the Hindu season of Deepavali. Just as many Indonesians enjoy celebrating Christmas as much as Eid al-Fitri.

Indonesian Muslims, Hindus and Christians could teach some of Australia’s allegedly conservative Christians a thing or two about tolerance. Don’t expect to hear hate-filled sermons in Indonesian mosques. Don’t expect to read hate-filled columns in Indonesian newspapers (even the ones written in Bahasa). It seems Rupert Murdoch hasn’t made any inroads into Indonesian media yet.

In 2002, I was fortunate enough to hear a prominent Indonesian lawyer from the largest Islamic organisation on the planet address the Centre for Independent Studies on the subject of Sharia law. The mainly Anglo-Australian audience was shocked to hear Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh tell them that Muslims in Indonesia associate Sharia with Islamic banking and financial products.

Yet anyone with knowledge of Indonesian history and culture will not be surprised by this claim. Indonesia has traditionally been a mercantile society. Hundreds of cultures are practised and hundreds of dialects are spoken in this huge archipelago.

When Yemeni merchants arrived in the region, they found Indonesian islanders at war with each other. Most battles were over trade disputes, the Indonesians having no shared numeracy system or alphabet. The Yemenis introduced the Arabic alphabet and commercial dispute resolution mechanisms based on Islamic sharia law.

Sharia provided solutions to Indonesians in their trade. Hence, entire tribes adopted Islam without the unarmed Yemeni traders needing a single soldier. Yet today, terrorists are trying to redefine how Indonesians view sharia. The terrorist vision of Islam is winning no friends in the world’s largest Islamic community.

The latest bombing has taken place in the final week of the sacred Islamic month of sha’ban. Orthodox Sunni Indonesians see this month as a time to prepare for the beginning of the sacred month of Ramadan, which commences on Wednesday or Thursday.

Traditionally, the shedding of blood during Ramadan and its two preceding months is strictly forbidden. The terrorists have flouted this taboo which finds its source in the Qur’an itself, the scriptures regarded by millions of Indonesians as the literal word of God.

Indonesian Islam is a mercantile culture with strong Hindu roots. The attack on Java is an attack on the Indonesian economy. Yet another Indonesian island will be spending this Ramadan mourning the death of its loved ones.

The wealth brought by Bali to the rest of the country directly benefited families across the nation. It also assisted the continuing indigenous Indonesian aid effort to rehabilitate Aceh following last year’s Boxing Day tsunami.

But apart from all this, perhaps the most hurtful feature of the bombings is that Indonesian Islam will be misrepresented and attacked. Fresh calls will be made to close down the network of pesentran and pondok religious schools. Indonesian Muslims living abroad will be victimised and treated as suspects.

The religious tradition of an entire nation will be the subject of slanderous attacks from so-called experts. On the world stage, Indonesia’s reputation will be sullied.

I can only imagine this to be what Indonesians are feeling right now. This largest of Islamic nations has made enormous strides toward democracy and freedom, despite pressures of ethnic violence, natural disasters and economic instability. Now terrorists are seeking to hijack the very spiritual values that keep the lives of millions of ordinary Indonesians focussed.

Indonesian Islam has its roots in Yemeni sufi orthodoxy brought to its islands by unarmed traders who were often direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. No army brought Islam to Indonesia. Yet the weapons and bombs of terrorists are now seeking to hijack the values of this peaceful tolerate society. Non-Indonesian Muslims should be at the forefront of condemning this violence that threatens to destabilise the world’s largest Muslim country.

Words © Irfan Yusuf 2005