Sunday, October 10, 2010

Split Personalities: There’s a Space for Fundamentalists and for the Rest of Us

Indonesia is increasingly becoming a polarized society. On one hand there is the cosmopolitan, modern side of it, while there is also one face of the society where people believe their lives should be lived according to the precepts of “original” Islam. This latter group can be called the fundamentalists.

It is difficult for me, as a member of the modern community, to avoid the use of language which has negative connotations in describing this second group.

Truly, the essential challenge facing everyone in Indonesia now, and for Indonesia as a nation state, is devising a way in which both groups can live together in mutual respect and harmony.

The problem is complicated by the reality that these two communities are not defined by a clear set of parameters or a strict set of standards. There are, as in most other factors in life, many shades of gray.

There are even those who suggest that individuals choose to inhabit both communities as it suits them. Women, for instance, may sometimes wear some form of head covering, but on other occasions they dress as modernists.

This suggests there is no fixed boundary at which we can state that the modernists are on one side and the fundamentalists on the other.

I hold no arguments against people who choose to adopt fundamentalist lifestyles.

In the past, I adopted a fairly strict view of life, choosing not to eat meat and drink alcohol for a period of seven years.

Eventually I succumbed to the gastric appeal of red wine and non-vegetarian diet, but I certainly do not regret my “fundamentalist” episode and, in retrospect, it may have been better to maintain it.

My reason for ending this lifestyle was not the allure of good wine and red meat but also because it was socially divisive.

I did not live in a community that easily tolerated abstention and my children faced a degree of discrimination from their peers because they were seen as “different.”

This is not a problem for Indonesians who prefer to adhere to a fundamentalist lifestyle.

There is a large and supportive community of like-minded people with whom they can communicate, and which reinforces behavior patterns that conform to a strict interpretation of the tenets of Islam.

It is quite possible for fundamentalists to have minimum contact with the modern community.

Dressing like a 7th century Arab will not attract much attention.

Going to the market is about the only time — apart from occasional emergencies such as going to the hospital — when it is necessary to mingle with others who do not share this world view.

If this community can tolerate, accept and indeed respect the reality that not everyone wants to live this way, there should be no problem. In my fundamentalist period, I did not expect other people to choose to live the way I did, even though their preference for “modernist” lifestyles inevitably weakened my resolve.

Experience in other nations as well as in Indonesia suggests, however, that fundamentalist communities are often intolerant, unprepared to accept what they consider to be immoral lifestyles.

They believe everybody should think and act like them.

Iran, for instance, continues to reject the right of its citizens to follow any religion other than Islam, and adherents of minority faiths such as Bahai continue to be repressed.

Like in Indonesia, there is dogmatic insistence there that people should live in a certain way, creating longer-term problems.

A State Within a State

The concept of a state within a state is not a new one.

The Catholic Church pioneered the idea, as medieval popes were often more powerful than princes and even kings.

Ironically, as the political power of Catholicism recedes and looks likely to disappear entirely, countries with Islamic populations are seeing a resurgence of the idea.

In Indonesia, fundamentalists have historically caused problems for the state by rejecting freedom of choice.

The Darul Islam movement that was particularly strong in West Java in the 1950s marked the beginnings of the problematic relationship between fundamentalists and the state in independent Indonesia.

While Darul Islam as an active movement was relatively short-lived, its legacy has been long-lasting.

According to Quinton Temby’s article in the April edition of Cornell University’s Indonesia series, Darul Islam “represents a community of radical Muslims, sustained by subsequent generations, which has spawned and may continue to spawn a variety of radical movements.

"It is, in a sense, a nation. Nations, however unlikely, can be remarkably persistent.”

Temby goes on to argue that since it proved impossible to sustain a physical state within a state, Darul Islam gradually concentrated more on its existence as a community, hence the name Jemaah Islamiyah.

In Egypt, where many of the ideas that have contributed to the modern form of Islamic political struggle originated, the “brotherhood” was a more favored description, incidentally providing an admission of the essentially chauvinist nature of the cause.

JI has not abandoned the concept of the Islamic state.

In conjunction with its allies, who include those from another historic grouping, Negara Islam Indonesia, and many more, it continues to strive to create an Islamic state in Indonesia in which the behavior of modernists cannot be tolerated.

There has been an endeavor to create enclaves in which Shariah law reigns in the radical campaigns in Maluku, Central Sulawesi’s Poso district and most recently at the Aceh terrorist training camp destroyed by police in February.

Peaceful Shariah

Problems emerge, of course, when the interpretation of Shariah is in conflict with the law, such as with the marriage of underage children.

Tension worsens when those who subscribe to Shariah attempt to impose their views on the modernist community, even though the modernists are acting within the law.

The problem, clearly, is the intolerance of the fundamentalist group.

Is it feasible to suggest a program of localization?

In the past, prostitution was pushed into specific areas, or localized.

While this solution is losing support, perhaps it offers an alternative to the conflict that occurs between fundamentalists and modernists.

The current regional administration in Aceh is a model, albeit deeply flawed, for what could become a wider patchwork of Shariah communities.

It has to be said that the Shariah Police in the province have done little to enhance the reputation of sanctity that one would imagine would come from a “clean” community.

In Malaysia, Genting Highlands is an enclave of gambling, surrounded by a wider community protected from a practice that Shariah regards as sinful.

Other communities across Indonesia are striving to introduce Shariah principles through regional by-laws.

Let them do so.

What should not be allowed is for those who follow Shariah to insist that the whole country conform also to what many think is an alien, outdated belief system.

Let the fundamentalists have their Shariah, but make sure it is carefully fenced in, allowing other citizens to get on with being cosmopolitan and modern in their thinking.

After a decade or so of such an experiment, it should be easy to see which was more attractive and more successful as a development model.

Just as with my own experience with fundamentalists, it could just be that those who elected to shut themselves off from the world and deny change might think that something is missing in their lives.

By accepting that which is different, we grow as individuals, and as societies.

By Keith Loveard security analyst at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.

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