The coming of the desert

About the author
Baladas Ghoshal is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and Visiting Professor, Department of Intercultural Studies, Nagoya City University, Japan.
The long-awaited fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 in Indonesia opened the door for more than democratic aspirations. Islamist violence in this, the largest Muslim nation in the world, has etched a bloody trail across the country, nowhere more so than on the island of Sulawesi. Between 1998 and 2002, the province was subject to an intense sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians, in which one thousand people died. That struggle fed into a larger war in the neighbouring Moluccas, where over 9,000 were killed in the same period.

The recent revival of violence in Poso in Sulawesi has further underlined the growing threat of Indonesia's Islamists. With radical organisations like Jemaah Islamiah (JI) linked to al-Qaida, the country is rapidly becoming another front in the "war on terror".

The radicalisation of Islam, however, in southeast Asia is not a new or, for that matter, organic development. More than any other factor, what has fuelled conflicts and divided Muslims and others in otherwise tolerant and harmonious plural societies like Malaysia and Indonesia, is the slow but steady process of the transformation of Islam in the region. Thanks to ideas, norms, practices and finances flowing from the Arab world, the "Islam of the desert" has made inroads across the Indian Ocean.

Diversity under stress

This process of homogenization and regimentation - the "Arabization" of Islam - puts greater emphasis on rituals and codes of conduct than on substance, through the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds, a rigidly puritanical branches of Islam exported from and subsidized by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What is so distinct about Wahhabism is its destructive nature when religion is used by the state for political ends. And, unlike other traditions within Islam that accommodate dissenting views, the Wahhabis claim to possess an undebatable vision of "true Islam."

Indonesia's immense diversity - in terms of ethnicity, culture and religious beliefs (including various forms of Islam) - has allowed the country to maintain a secular system amid pressures from more fundamentalist groups to adopt the stringent "shariah" Islamic law.

But even Indonesia society is slowly undergoing major transformation. The influence of Arabian Islam can be felt in even the most mundane aspects of Indonesian life. Indonesians have adopted Arab greetings in place of customary Malay greetings. One hears more of the Arab greeting "assalam aleikum" than the religiously neutral Malay greeting "selamat pagi" (or "good morning"). Many conservative Islamic leaders in Indonesia were outraged when a few years ago, former president and influential cleric Abdurrahman Wahid suggested that Indonesians should revert to their customary greetings instead of the Arabic way.

The traditional Javanese sloping roofs on mosques have given way to onion domes over the last three decades. Headscarves or "zilbab" are becoming a common sight in school, college campuses and in the city streets. Not so long ago, it was quite common for Indonesians of different faiths to participate in each other's religious ceremonies. Today, it is not so, as Muslim preachers are reported to have used "fatwas" against such inter-religious social mixing, even in offices. An Indonesian Christian businessman told me of his bitter shock when, in the mid-1990s, his Muslim employees suddenly broke with tradition and refused to appear with Christians and other colleagues for a photograph for the company's New Year greeting card. While in Malaysia one cannot marry a Muslim without conversion to Islam, in Indonesia it used to be quite common to do so. Today, however, it is increasingly difficult to have such marriages without incurring the wrath of conservative Muslim groups.

A syncretic history

The inroads of Arab Wahhabi and Salafi variants of Islam into Southeast Asia have fuelled the growing assertiveness of fundamentalists. For them, to know the Quran is to possess all necessary knowledge, be it in economic, politics, science and philosophy. Such a vision of Islam leads its believers to think of the religion as an absolute truth, and that all other religions are false, and that there cannot be a meeting ground between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. A Malay student of mine once told me she took to wearing the "tudung" (headscarf) not out of conviction but out of a fear that failing to do so might bring her a bad name as a woman of "loose character".

The fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is wholly at odds with its traditional practice in the region. The most appealing feature of Islam in Indonesia before the process of Arabization began was its ability to blend with local traditions, customs and practices. Its syncretic and inclusive character allowed greater tolerance and respect for other religions.

Such syncretism in Islam helped fashion a dynamic culture, home to folk theatre like the "wayang" or "shadow plays", drawing stories from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and turning them into uniquely indigenous cultural traditions. Islam came to southeast Asia through Sufism, the mystical brand of the faith that readily incorporated local traditions - like ancestor worship, which was practiced even by Wahid. The Kejawan culture of Java - its indigenous Buddhist-Hindu culture - survived and mingled freely for centuries after the arrival of Islam.

The coming of the desert

Over the past four decades, however, the nature and character of Islam have changed dramatically in Malaysia and in Indonesia. Under the influence of Arab ideas and finance, even in countries like, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, Islam, which had an indigenous flavour in terms of customs and practices, has now assumed a much more conservative character. Stories about growing violence and the appeal of radical Islamic ideology among the Muslims in these countries have become the stuff of daily news.

To be fair, the roots of such creeping transformation are not entirely Arabian. The first major challenge came in the 18th century, in the form of movement to purify Islam by going back to scriptural doctrine, and getting rid of the aberrations accrued through intermingling with local practices and customs. A manifestation of this clash within Islam could be found in the 20th century Indonesia, in the division between the two Islamic political organizations - Masyumi and Nahdatul Ulama - the former as the advocate of purifying Islam and the latter supporting the blending of Islam with local traditions. The intellectual influence of the Masyumi leaders in the 1950s and of their children through the student organization Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam sped the growing Islamization of the Indonesian society.

The internationalisation of Islam drew Indonesians to the desert and brought the desert to Indonesia. When education was liberalised in the 1960s, Indonesians began to study abroad to a greater degree. Religious students went to the middle east, where many learnt Wahhabi and Salafi doctrines. Pakistani preachers also arrived at the time, carrying with them strident Wahhabi interpretations of faith. The traditional, locally trained ulema - religious leaders - were in large part displaced or undermined by the puritanical foreigners and their beliefs. The spread of conservative religious boarding schools like the "madrasas" of Pakistan, throughout Southeast Asia has since confirmed the arrival of radical Islam. Even some "pondoks"(religious boarding schools) in Indonesia, which were generally under the control of traditional ulemas, have now come under the influence of more extremist and jihadi elements.

Secular faults

Secular dictatorship is also culpable. In his attempt to clip the political wings of Islam, then Indonesian president Suharto himself contributed to the process despite his "abangan" (syncretic Muslim) background. As he reduced space for democratic expression, mosques became important outlets for the expression of all Islamic feelings and activities. With many Christians occupying key positions in Soeharto's administrations, far outweighing their proportion to the total population of the country, Muslim resentment intensified.

The over-representation of Christians in government and in public positions under Suharto helped seal today's Muslim-Christian divide in Indonesia. As Muslims become more and more exclusivist and fundamentalist, other religious groups are rallying around firmer notions of identity. After the Bali bombing, one witnessed a tremendous rise in Hindu rituals and religious ceremonies. Similarly, evangelical Christianity has increased its appeal and following.

As religious identities become more rigid, violence grows ever more likely. Across Java, Christians complain of church burning and intimidation by local Muslim militias. The state of inter-faith relations in the allegedly pluralist country looked very bleak, indeed, when a large scale mobilization of police forces was necessary to protect churches all over the country during recent Christmas celebrations. Militant groups like Darul Islam - once firmly under the heel of the Indonesian army - are now reviving and gaining in strength along with JI, Laskar Jihad and the Committee of the Islamic Struggle in Poso.

In recent years, the demand that Indonesian Muslims follow shariah law has resurfaced, despite having been dismissed by the country's founding fathers at independence in 1945. In universities throughout the archipelago, the writings of the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb from whom the Muslim Brotherhood draws its inspiration have become very popular. Hizbut Tahrir, an organization banned in many countries for its calls to unite all Muslims in a single super-state harking back to the faded Caliphate, maintains a strong student following.

Only a tiny percentage of Indonesian Islamists espouse violence, but their influence has been enough to make the last seven years the bloodiest in Indonesian history since the pogroms of the 1960s. With recent terrorist attacks - Bali, the Marriott hotel bombing in 2003, and the 2004 attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta, and now the surge of violence in Poso, Islamic militancy in Indonesia is surely on the rise. If the diverse and syncretic faith of southeast Asia is further usurped by austere Wahhabi doctrines, it will be a victory for the desert, not Islam.