December 2001/
January 2002

About Peacework

Subscribe Now

Current Index

December/January Index

Back Issues

2001   2000   1999

National AFSC

NERO Office

American Friends Service Committee

Peacework Magazine

Patrica Watson, Editor

Sara Burke, Assistant Editor

Pat Farren, Founding Editor

2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02140

Telephone number:
(617) 661-6130

Fax number:
(617) 354-2832

Email address:

Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

Indonesia and Islam: Before and After 9/11

Ehito Kimura is a graduate student studying comparative politics of Southeast Asia at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It has now been over a month since President George W. Bush declared war against terrorism and stated that other countries are either "with us or against us." As of this writing, Indonesia has responded to America's call with hesitation and ambiguity. This is serious because Indonesia is a fragile democracy, holds the world's largest population of Muslims (about 180 million), and has a record of social and political instability.

Whether Indonesia's leaders will decide eventually to support or to oppose US policy (or remain decidedly vague) is anybody's guess. More important is to analyze why this tension exists in the first place. What has taken place in Indonesia since September 11, how can we understand its historical context, and what implications does it hold for the future?

Demonstrations of Support-- and Opposition

Mixed messages have emerged from Jakarta's elites in the wake of September 11th. Newly elected president Megawati Sukarnoputri visited President Bush in Washington late in September and voiced support for America's new war. In exchange, the Bush administration offered a mixture of aid and trade concessions, and strengthened military ties. But by mid-October, when the threat of military retaliation for the September 11 attacks turned to reality, leaders such as vice president Hamzah Haz began calling for an end to US hostility in Afghanistan. Megawati also began to backpedal from her earlier show of support, declaring first that no country has the right to attack another, and later that Indonesia has yet to formulate an 'official position' on the US military actions in Afghanistan. A few weeks later, she declared that Indonesian peacekeepers would be part of a UN peackeeping mission, should this request come.

Trafalgar Square, London, where 30,000 joined an anti-war demonstration on November 18. Photo: Cathy Hoffman
Meanwhile many of Indonesia's citizens have opposed the US military campaign in the Middle East. Immediately following US bombing raids in Afghanistan, militant Islamic groups protested on the streets. Small demonstrations took place outside the US Embassy in Jakarta as well as in a half dozen other cities throughout the archipelago. Some groups threatened to sweep hotels in Indonesia to find and expel all Americans. In Yogyakarta, located in the heart of Java, students demonstrated and called for a boycott of American goods and proceeded to seal off the city's local McDonald's and KFC restaurants.

These initial events were limited in scale and seemed to represent only a minority of individuals on the fringes of the political and religious spectrum. However in mid-October, following the vice-president's lead, some 8000 Muslim middle-class citizens marched peacefully to the US embassy demanding an end to the attacks on Afghanistan. Calls for an economic and diplomatic break with the United States have since grown louder. And while 'mainstream' and 'militant' groups differ on their strategies, most are agreed that Indonesia should not support US action in Afghanistan.

To understand these developments, it is useful to examine the historical context of Islam in this part of the world.

Origins of Islam in Indonesia

Islam entered Southeast Asia at the tail end of the 13th century when Muslim traders from India came in search of the archipelago's prized spices and natural resources. Pepper, nutmeg, cloves, sandalwood, rubber, and teak would become sources of enormous wealth and deadly conflict. As trade between the two regions increased, so too did the gradual conversion of local peoples to Islam.

Ironically the arrival of the Portuguese in the early 16th century (and later of the Spanish, Dutch, and British) inadvertently helped to spread Islam. Recognizing the immense value of the local resources, the Portuguese secured strategic ports by force and closed them to create a market monopoly. Indian Muslims who had traded primarily at these central ports continued to trade by moving to smaller lesser-known ports throughout the islands, bringing with them their Islamic faith.

Islam may also have spread because it offered a common language to express political discontent under colonization. Along with other religions, Islam became a social form in which to mobilize against the enemy; religion became a symbol of resistance. Even in its early days in Southeast Asia, Islam held political undertones for many of its followers.

Post-Colonial Indonesia

Upon independence in 1945, one of the biggest questions to face Indonesia concerned the role of Islam in politics. Some believed that it should play a dominant role in the life of the nation since about 90% of the population professed to be Muslim. Others advocated a limited role, noting the immense cultural and religious diversity throughout the archipelago that included Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist religions not to mention a broad spectrum of Islamic practices. This caused enormous tension throughout the country. Ultimately, Indonesia adopted a civil code instead of an Islamic one.

Sukarno, the Republic of Indonesia's first president, despaired at these divisions and introduced Guided Democracy, an authoritarian form of rule couched in democratic language. Sukarno's successor, President Suharto, established what he coined the "New Order," which looked much like Sukarno's Guided Democracy. Under both presidents, political freedom was suppressed. Islam's voice was muffled in particular as both of these leaders betrayed their Javanese religious-cultural bias against Islam. While it was permitted to operate in the social and cultural realms, Islam's political influence was effectively curtailed by other political actors such as the military.

Suharto's Fall

This began to change in the mid-1990s towards the end of Suharto's presidency, for two inter-related reasons. First, mainstream Islamic organizations began to unite with nationalist parties to form a political coalition opposing Suharto's rule. The nationalist-Islam, or "red-green" alliance, became a central force after the onset of the East Asian Financial Crisis that hit Indonesia in 1998. Economic downturn led to a popular movement to bring down Suharto's dictatorship.

This political coalition has continued in the post-Suharto era. It first took the form of the Wahid-Megawati administration. Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, a large Islamic organization, became president in 1999 and Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of former President Sukarno, became vice president. Today, Megawati is president and her vice-president is Hamzah Haz. Despite its fragility, the "red-green" alliance remains in place.

The second and related change occurred when, sensing his political base weakening, Suharto turned from suppressing Islamic politics, to embracing a more militant and conservative faction of Muslims who were willing to trade political support for patronage. Suharto's turn toward militant Islam led to chaos. Suspicious acts of violence erupted throughout the archipelago. Churches were defaced and burned. Mobs lynched people accused of anti-Islamic tendencies. Christians and Muslims who had long lived side by side suddenly waged war.

These trends have persisted even since Suharto's fall. Churches in Indonesian cities have continued to be bombed. Ethnic conflict in Irian Jaya, Ambon, Aceh, and other areas has intensified. The reasons for the trends are varied but there is a sense that often they are being facilitated by external elements. Some believe that these elements promote destabilization in order to justify the role of the military and nationalistic forces.

The Rise of Two Islams

In sum, I would like to suggest that we are seeing the rise of two kinds of Islam in Indonesia; mainstream or what Robert Hefner has called "civil" Islam, and its more militant cousin.

The rise of mainstream Islam comes from Indonesia's democratic struggle after years of overt political suppression. The Sukarno and Suharto regimes both subordinated Islam to Javanese culture, a source of resentment among many Indonesians. In this light, we can think of "civil" Islam in Indonesia as flexing some muscle and testing the political waters.

The surge of "militant" Islam is rooted in Suharto's policy turn towards conservative Muslims late in his administration to shore up political power. Once in place, these forces have taken on a life of their own. And despite Suharto's downfall, their activities have often been supported implicitly or explicitly by conservative or loyalist factions in the military or ruling elite.

Both "civil" and "militant" Islam have also gained adherents because they offer alternatives to the West. Many Muslims have specific grievances with United States and its foreign policy towards both Iraq and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Others object to what they see as unjust global economic relations perpetuated by developed countries. And still others reject the materialism and modernity offered (or perhaps imposed) by the West. Islam is perceived as offering both a mode of resistance and a spiritual and cultural alternative to all of these.

Finally, Washington's rhetoric of war and the recent invasion of Afghanistan have fanned the flames of these trends. In particular, Bush's with-us-or-against-us rhetoric is harmful because it blurs the distinction between means and ends, between actions and goals. Most Indonesians probably believe in the goal of eliminating terrorism like that of September 11th. Fewer Indonesians support the US decision to achieve this goal through military retaliation. The with-us-or-against-us approach has already begun to alienate Indonesians of all stripes, and a widened war is likely only to exacerbate these tensions. Unless peaceful means are found to end the conflict, this trend is likely to continue.

Previous Article    Next Article

About   |   Subscribe   |   Current Index   |   December/January Index   |   Back Issues

Peacework Magazine on the web: