Monday, May 21, 2012

Indonesia's radical shift

Extremists have swapped bombs for martial arts in a brand of arrogant Islam that is asserting itself - not even Lady Gaga is safe.

WHEN I wrote a story in March about the Indonesian religious affairs minister wanting to ban mini-skirts because he believed them to be "pornographic", one comment on the Fairfax website stood out from the rest.

"What a beat up this story is! Xenophobia come on down!" wrote Wennicks. ''As someone who works regularly in Indonesia it is an extraordinarily laidback, friendly and welcoming place … [where only] one or three % … will have views which most people consider extreme.''
Wennicks was right. Indonesia is welcoming and safe, its variety of Islam is largely moderate and its vibrant public space provides much hope for the Arab spring countries as they try to reconcile religion and democracy.

The bombings by Islamic terrorists that racked Indonesia throughout the past decade have stopped, and Australia's diplomats were right recently to downgrade the travel advice from "Reconsider your need to travel" to "Exercise caution".

But many Indonesians are worried that a profound shift is happening in their culture. They are watching as a social movement of arrogant Islam grows more powerful, and moves virtually unopposed from victory to victory. One liberal described it as the "Talibanisation" of Indonesia. If authorities do prevent the "Mother Monster", Lady Gaga, from performing in Jakarta, it will be the new radicals' biggest triumph so far.

Lady Gaga may not see herself this way, but she is an expression of America's incredible ability to project soft power. Inviting and provocative, she promotes Western values of individual liberty and commerce using sex appeal and pop hooks. She's bisexual, beloved of the gay community and performs virtually nude.

Young Indonesians are as in thrall as the rest of us. She has won 44,000 Facebook "likes" here and sold 50,000 tickets for a Jakarta stadium show at a price that represents a month's salary for some.

It's little surprise, then, that for the stitched-up mini-tyrants who lead Indonesia's radical Islamist groups, her performance constitutes a threat of the most profound kind.
Irshad Manji, the Canadian intellectual and author, last week experienced the kind of violence that has been threatened against Lady Gaga when radical groups shut down discussions of her new book, Allah, Liberty and Love.

Unlike Gaga, Manji is a Muslim and performs fully clothed, but she's equally threatening to the doctrinally obsessed because she wants her co-religionists to think critically for themselves. (Manji is also a lesbian. She does not emphasise this but the radicals use it as the most convenient argument against her.)

Manji says the new radicals are the fully funded creatures of Saudi Arabia's own attempt to project power. They are spurred by a familiar anti-Western sentiment and the fantasy of creating an Islamic caliphate. This makes them the ideological progeny of the terrorists of the past decade, but they have swapped bombs and guns for metal bars and martial arts training.

The number of these groups appears to be proliferating. Among them are the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Majelis Mujahidin Council, which claimed responsibility for the violent attack on Manji in Yogyakarta. They attract disaffected young men from lower socio-economic groups and provide them with a sense of community.

The low-tech approach means mounting an attack is faster and cheaper than the terrorists could ever have managed. The FPI and others are in the news most weeks.

Reducing the fatality rate has also conveniently lessened the revulsion with which they are regarded by politicians and the public, and made it less likely that their leaders will be jailed for life or executed. Meanwhile, their rhetoric and actions are gradually reducing the "laid-back" atmosphere Wennicks depicts.

The most obvious effect is on the mainstream Muslim community, which is beginning to reflect aspects of the radicals' ideology. Even as Western-style consumerism explodes here, long-time Indonesia watchers say many more women are now wearing the Muslim head garb, here called the jilbab.

And this week it was the clerics of the ultra-mainstream Muslim Ulema Council, which receives public funding to provide advice at the very centre of national government, who were the most influential in speaking against Lady Gaga.

The mainstreaming of bigotry means that minority groups - from Shiite Muslims (the vast majority of Indonesians are Sunni) to Christians and members of the Islamic offshoot Ahmadiyah sect - are increasingly under threat of violence and exclusion.

Human rights groups say the attacks have increased markedly in recent years and the authorities in most cases fail to come to the aid of minorities, despite the protection offered under Indonesia's constitution for both freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

In fact, in the name of "security" and "community sentiment", the police often help the thugs achieve their aim of silencing alternative voices - precisely what happened to Manji, whom they frogmarched out of one event in Jakarta ''for her own safety''.

As they continue to enjoy impunity, the radicals simply push the boundaries further.

If they succeed in having the concert of a visiting American megastar such as Lady Gaga called off, they will have won their grandest victory so far. And the police and politicians, by parroting their lines, will have handed it to them.

Michael Bachelard is Indonesia correspondent.The Age, Melbourne
Cartoon by Spooner

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