A recent full-page article in the Financial Times highlights “fears that the world’s largest Muslim country is taking an extremist turn,” occasioned by the recent passage of strict Islamic laws in several provinces. Indonesia, which is home to millions of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists who in aggregate make up about 13% of the population, has long practiced a tolerant brand of Islam that owes more to the mystical Sufi tradition and to syncretic practices that mix Islamic and traditional animistic beliefs than it does to the harsh and uncompromising versions of the religion that prevail in places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
As I wrote in a blog post a couple of years ago, the central government has allowed different provinces to go their own way in religious matters, but even the full Sharia regime in Aceh Province in Northern Sumatra seems fairly mellow. The head of sharia affairs in Aceh has stated emphatically that both he and the governor guarantee that sharia will not be applied to non-Muslims, and Al Jazeera has reported that even though sharia law officially applies to everyone in Aceh, its impact on non-Muslims has been minimal.
Aceh is the only province to have been granted leave by the central government to apply sharia in full, but a half dozen other provinces have introduced more than 400 sharia-inspired bylaws, and the hijab head scarf, mandatory for women only in Aceh, has become a popular fashion accessory in Jakarta and other parts of the country. But for all that, there are few signs of growing militancy. Only 60 Indonesians, out of a population of over 250 million, have gone off to join the Islamic State, far fewer than the U.K. or France, which have less than a quarter the population. Even allowing for some under-counting, this is not a crisis. Politicians in provinces that have introduced sharia-based bylaws seem more to be pandering to people’s desire to crack down on crime and public nuisances than seeking to impose theocratic rule.
Saudi Arabia, which over the past few decades has spent an estimated $100 billion to spread its austere brand of Islam to other countries, no doubt bears some responsibility for the uptick in conservative religious practices in Indonesia. But Indonesia for the most part has not been especially fertile ground for fundamentalist Islam, and the growth in adherence to Salafist or Wahhabi strains of the faith should not occasion the florid panic seen in much of the mainstream international press. Indonesia, in order to limit the Saudi impact, in 1978 instituted a requirement that all external aid come through the Jakarta government, allowing it to channel funds to relatively safe religious institutions. The government also has not hesitated to shut down or defund organizations it suspects of supporting excessive militancy.
The largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia – the modernist Muhammadiyah, with 29 million members, and the more traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama, with 40 million members – have shunned militancy even though they have received Saudi funds. Abdurrahman Wahid (more widely known as Gus Dur), the longtime head of Nahdlatul Ulama who became Indonesia’s first elected President after the fall of Suharto in 1999, was ineffectual as President and was sidelined after two years, but he was a strong advocate of interfaith dialogue who also urged Indonesia to recognize Israel. This is not the comportment or language of a radical jihadist.
Radical Islam is a genuine danger. But if we fail in our policies and actions to distinguish between those disposed towards violence and those who, however uncompromising their faith, do not seek to impose it on others by force of arms or money, we risk pushing the latter group towards greater militancy. Indonesia is not, and is not likely to become, fertile ground for breeding jihadists. We should not assume or behave otherwise.