Islam’s Many Youthful Voices

By Myo Zaw

JAKARTA – Wearing a short skirt that reveals her long legs, she walks onstage, her arms shaking to the Western music. Wide-eyed and brimming with confidence, she smiles at the waiting audience. It is show time at a small theatre in Jalan Utan Kayu here in the Indonesian capital, and Yani Handayani is ready to perform.

When asked after the show about her views on the fundamentalist Islamic groups in her country, Yani puts down her cigarette on the ashtray and says: “I am not interested in those things.”

“I think some people are taking care of those problems,” continues Yani, a sophomore fine-arts student who moonlights as an amateur stage performer. “Those are not the most important issues I hope. We young people have our own dreams and destiny.”

Indeed, even as Indonesia becomes better known as the home of Muslim fundamentalist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), many young Indonesian Muslims like Yani are more interested in living lives and spouting views that clash with the ideals of their more conservative counterparts. And while the extremist groups have not let up in their efforts to convince more Indonesian youths to see things their way, there are now also new Muslim youth organisations that have surfaced to espouse a more liberal version of their faith.

“In our opinion, this religion has a liberal thinking, liberal spirit, and is progressive in character,” says Hamid Basyaib, leader of the Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL or Liberal Islam Network), a group of intellectuals who are challenging the radicals’ narrow interpretation of Islam. He adds that most Islamic groups, “not only in Indonesia, but all over the world,” think that the faith has to “go hand in hand with modern civilisation.”

Islam has been in Indonesia for centuries and is the faith of majority of its people. But Islam’s meaning in Indonesia became globally significant after the October 2002 Bali bombing killed 202 people.  Political commentators have said that the tragic event marked the introduction of Middle Eastern terror techniques to Southeast Asia. (In 2005, another bombing in Bali killed some 19 people and left scores injured.)

The rise of extremism

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. But before the 1990s, the highly conservative version of Islam touted by some noisy groups in this country was hardly ever seen or heard.

Islam had arrived in Indonesia in the 11th century by way of Arab traders; by the 15th century, most of the archipelago had converted to the faith, albeit with local touches. Indonesia later came under Dutch rule, and was even briefly under Japanese domination during World War II, but the country remained predominantly Muslim.

When General Soeharto became president in 1968 (he had been acting president in 1967), he made sure that his Indonesia was tolerant of religious differences, and that there was a separation of faith and state. He turned out to be an iron-fisted ruler, however, and the three decades of his regime saw little religious political activity. That is, until the last few years of his reign, when he began wooing conservative Muslims as a countervailing force against his growing number of critics — even going to the extent of sponsoring some Islamic institutions.

He was finally forced to step down in 1998, and the new freewheeling political atmosphere after his exit encouraged Islamic extremists to assert their views. Among these is their objection against the young adopting “Western values.” In 2005, for example, radical Muslim groups and individuals condemned Miss Indonesia for participating in the Miss Universe contest and appearing in a swimsuit.

“After the long period of totalitarianism, people wanted to enjoy the spirit of freedom and wanted democracy,” says Hamid. “But in the case of Islamic extremists, in my opinion, they manipulated the democratic spirit to promote their ideas.”

The regional economic crisis in the late 1990s and the return of Indonesians who fought in the Afghanistan jihad also contributed to the emergence of religious extremism in the country, analysts say. According to U.S intelligence estimates, some 1,000 Indonesian jihadis returned from Afghanistan in the late ‘90s. All leaders of the Jemaah Islamiyah and other radical groups in Indonesia are former Afghanistan jihadi veterans.

A U.S. Air Force study, “The Muslim World after 9/11,” notes that the period of most rapid growth of Islamic militant groups in Indonesia was during B.J. Habibie’s presidency from May 1998 to October 1999. Habibie, who was Soeharto’s successor, tried to mobilise Muslim support to counter anti-government students demanding his government’s resignation.

Looking for recruits

Poorly educated rural people, unemployed workers, and members of former government youth organisations were recruited for this purpose, says the U.S Air Force report. It quotes Niko Adrian, a student leader of the 1998 democracy movement, as saying that fundamentalist groups were organised and encouraged by government intelligence agencies at that time.

Subsequently, radical Islamist groups took advantage of rising unemployment caused by the economic crisis to recruit members. Such groups are still exploiting the continuing economic discontent in the country for this purpose, say political observers.

“One of the factors is the lack of jobs,” says former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, who now leads the traditional Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) that has about 40 million members. “Make them more prosperous. The situation will then become better. The key is to give them economic prosperity. Give them a chance to pursue a new life. It’s very human.”

Jakarta Post newspaper editor Soeryo Winoto agrees. “If you are not an employee and you have no job, I can easily ask you to do something,” he says. “Unfortunately, we have many people of that kind in this country.”

Soeryo says extremist groups have the material resources to attract unemployed people. “Maybe they have links with foreign groups. Nobody knows where they get their money,” he says.

In recent years, however, some radical Islamist organisations have also become influential among university students and other institutions for young people. One of these is KAMMI, the Indonesian Muslim Students’ Action Union, which is supported by the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) or Prosperous Justice Party, an ultraconservative Islamist group.

KAMMI has been criticised for its belief in new Wahhabism, the Sunni fundamentalist Islamic movement founded by Muhammad Ibn Abd Al Wahhab. While KAMMI leaders deny this, they are encouraging young people to study Wahhabism, say observers here.

The group supports Indonesia’s controversial anti-pornography bill, which lays down a code of conduct for public dress and behaviour and has been widely scored for trying to impose Islamic social norms in a multi-religious country. (Although some 88 percent of the country’s 245 million people are Muslim, about eight percent of the population are either Protestant or Roman Catholic, while two percent are Hindu, and another two percent Buddhist or other faiths.)

Some of KAMMI’s about 15,000 members are based abroad in Japan, Germany, and Egypt. The group has also spoken out against economic globalisation, which, it says, denies a good life to the majority of the world’s people. Taufik Amrullah, KAMMI board member, is critical of Indonesian government labour regulations as well, saying these have lowered the status of workers in the country.

With its support base among Muslim students, KAMMI has grown rapidly in the past five years with its members elected to 37 Student Executive Boards in educational campuses and universities in the country.  Their “mission,” says a KAMMI leader, is to enable Indonesia’s young Muslims to become the country’s future leaders.

Wary observers

This has become a cause of concern among liberal Muslim groups in Indonesia, with JIL leader Hamid describing KAMMI as “fundamentalist” and “conservative.” He says he finds their influence “too scary,” although he later says, “maybe I am wrong.”

But Rumadi, an Islamic law lecturer at the Islamic State University and researcher in the Wahid Institute, confesses that he is worried about the spread of Wahhabism in Indonesia. He whispers, “They have potential to become terrorists.”

Hamid, meanwhile, offers this advice for those troubled by fundamentalist comments: “When you see a very weird or strange teaching of religion, just throw it out in the trash bin. It’s okay for us.”

Religious rituals are a matter of personal faith, he also says. “You can go to Mecca, it’s your business, nothing to do with me, nothing to do with the state,” says Hamid. “It’s your personal relationship with your God. I don’t care, about it…whatever you do, just do it, as long as it does not violate the law and order.”

He says his organisation is trying to define the original values of Islam and design beliefs to cope with the modern global environment. According to Hamid, Islam has “no problem with modernity” and aims to promote a corruption-free society and high respect for humanity. It is also a “very simple, very minimal religion” that is “adaptive,” he says.

But just like the Islamist groups, JIL has attracted suspicion and criticism as well. Some people say, for example, that it is “not an independent” institution. “They are funded by U.S.-based organisations,” says one Indonesian journalist. He adds that the 9/11 terror strikes in the United States led to huge sums of money being sent to Indonesia to support the fight against Islamic fundamentalism.

In the meantime, most of Indonesia’s young Muslims are still seeing little divide between modern life and Islam. Movie theatres in downtown Jakarta showing the latest Hollywood films, for example, remain crowded with young people dressed in T-shirts, jeans, and shorts –just like their favourite Western celebrities. They stand before film posters, discussing the blockbuster “Da Vinci Code” and the secrets of Jesus’ life.

Imam Muhadi, 21, a Muslim engineering student in Udayana University in Hindu-dominated Bali, also says he has no problem living among non-Muslims. His best friends are Hindu, he says, while his girlfriend, who lives in Australia, is Christian. “I am not involved in any Islamic institution or organisation,” he says.

As for Yani, her occasional performances in amateur theatre are in preparation for what she hopes to be her lifelong career. The Jakarta Institute of Arts student says she loves watching Hollywood films in her leisure time and admires Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. But she has a particular favourite among the Hollywood stars. Says Yani: “I just want to become an actress like Nicole Kidman.”

Myo Zaw is an editor at the Beauty Magazine in Rangoon.