FaithWorld

Indonesian president woos Islamists, upsets minorities

jakarta-protestDriving home very late one night in Jakarta, I passed four men on motorbikes. The white tunics, trousers and skullcaps of the drivers and their pillion-riders, who carried furled green flags, stood out in the badly-lit street and marked them as vigilantes of the Islamic Defenders Front. The Front, or FPI, is a hardline Muslim group best known for smashing up bars and nightclubs. (Photo: Islamic Defenders Front motorcycle protest in Jakarta, 22 Aug 2004/Supri Supri)

The group is something of an oddity in an officially secular and predominantly Muslim country that is largely tolerant of other religions and ways of life. But a change in the political landscape could alter that.

Following a general election this month, Indonesia looks headed for a possible coalition between a centrist, secular party – President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party – and a conservative Islamist party called the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Sunanda Creagh and I have written an analysis on how this prospect has worried Indonesia’s religious and ethnic minorities — click here to read it.

Conservative Muslim politicians pushed Yudhoyono’s previous government into promoting a controversial anti-porn law last year that could make some forms of art, whether painting or dancing, illegal if they are considered too erotic. The largely Hindu Balinese were furious; would this mean they could now go to prison for their erotic art ? what about the skimpily clad tourists who make a big contribution to the local economy ? Bali’s governor defied Jakarta and decided the island would refuse to implement the law.

tifatul-sembiringThe PKS has supported the introduction of sharia by-laws in some parts of the country and recently caused a stir when a PKS official tried to ban a traditional form of dance in West Java because he considered it too sexy.

Can academia help Islam’s dialogue with the West?

Prince Alwaleed bin TalalSince 9/11, studying the relations between Islam and the West have become a growth field in academia. Among its leading proponents is Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars via his Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation creating study centres at leading universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. (Photo: Prince Alwaleed in Kabul, 18 March 2008/Ahmad Masood)

In the wake of the Islamist attacks in Mumbai last November, the foundation’s executive director, Muna AbuSulayman said recently, the organisation is keen to set up a centre in India and also to foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

A Mumbai Jewish community centre was seized and its rabbi and his wife killed during those attacks, in which 179 people were killed in a days-long rampage by members of a Pakistan-based militant group. “What has happened in India with the shooting was a wake up call,” she said. “India and Pakistan have a history, there’s a reason they separated. We want to help them minimise that.”

The more you look, the less you see in Swat sharia deal

Ten days have passed since Pakistan cut a deal with Islamists to enforce sharia in the turbulent Swat region in return for a ceasefire, and we still don’t know many details about what was agreed.  The deal made international headlines. It prompted political and security concerns in NATO and Washington and warnings about possible violations of human rights and religious freedom. (Photo: Supporters of Maulana Sufi Mohammad gather for prayers in Mingora, 21 Feb 2009/Adil Khan)

In the blogosphere, Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion has asked in two posts (here and here) why reporters there aren’t supplying more details about exactly how sharia will be implemented or what the  doctrinal differences between Muslims in the region are. Like other news organisations, Reuters has been reporting extensively on the political side of this so-called peace deal but not had much on the religion details. As Reuters religion editor and a former chief correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I’m very interested in this. I blogged about the deal when it was struck and wanted to revisit the issue now to see what more we know about it.

After consulting with our Islamabad bureau, reading other news organisations’ reports and scouring the web, I have the feeling — familiar to anyone who has reported from that part of the world — that the more you look at this deal, the less you see besides the fact of the deal itself. The devil isn’t hiding in the details because there aren’t many there. He’s playing a bigger political game.

Religion and politics behind sharia drive in Swat

Pakistan has agreed to restore Islamic law in the turbulent Swat valley and neighbouring areas of the North-West Frontier Province. What does that mean? Sharia is understood and applied in such varied ways across the Muslim world that it is difficult to say exactly what it is. Will we soon see Saudi or Taliban-style hand-chopping for thieves and stonings for adulterers? Would it be open to appeal and overturn harsh verdicts, as the Federal Sharia Court in Islamabad has sometimes done? Or could it be that these details are secondary because sharia is more a political than a religious strategy here? (Photo: Swat Islamic leaders in Peshawar to negotiate sharia accord/16 Feb 2009/Ali Imam)

As is often the case in Pakistan, this issue has two sides — theory and practice. In theory, this looks like it should be a strict but not Taliban-style legal regime. As Zeeshan Haider in our Islamabad bureau put in in a Question&Answer list on sharia in Swat:

WHAT KIND OF ISLAMIC JUDICIAL SYSTEM IS SWAT GETTING?

Under Nizam-e-Adl or Islamic system of justice, all judicial laws contrary to Islamic teachings stand cancelled and the courts will decide the cases in line with Islamic injunctions.

Indonesian ulema tell Muslims to vote or go to hell

Parliamentary and presidential elections in Indonesia this year may hinge on how the public reacts to a directive from the country’s top Islamic council –all Muslims must vote or risk going to hell.

The fatwa from the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) is not legally binding. But it does carry weight in the world’s most populous Muslim country, where Islamic conservatism has been growing since the fall of the country’s former autocratic president, Suharto, moe than a decade ago. Suharto kept a lid on politicised Islam with the same ruthless approach he took to eradicating leftist influences after coming to power following a 1965 coup blamed on communists. (Photo: Cigarette factory where orders dropped after MUI issued fatwa against smoking in public, 2 Feb 2009/Sigit Pamungkas)

The MUI has evolved from being a pliant arm of Suharto’s regime to becoming an independent body that aims to influence public policy.  The edict does not state which parties or candidates voters should choose. But it could encourage Muslims to choose Islamist candidates at the polls, pushing  the country away from secularism toward a more socially rigid government.

Militants killing laughter and music in Pakistan region

It’s hard to write about the Taliban on a religion blog without giving the impression that this militant movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is basically religious. It’s certainly Islamist, i.e. it uses Islam for political ends. But it’s hard to find much religion in what they’re doing, while there’s a lot of power politics, Pashtun nationalism and insurrection against the Kabul and Islamabad governments there. (Photo: Pakistani pro-Taliban militants in Swat Valley, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)

It’s often difficult to separate religion and politics in groups like this, but President Barack Obama gave a basic rule of thumb in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week:

“Far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another – as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness…

Lashkar-e-Taiba’s goals

In the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre, a lot of attention has been focused on the militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba that has been blamed for the bloodbath. Simon Cameron-Moore, our bureau chief in Islambad, has written an interesting piece on what they’ve done in recent years. As a religion editor watching this story unfold, I was also curious to know how they think. What kind of religious views do they have? My Google search has turned up an interesting answer.

An article entitled “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups” gives a very concise and complete run-down of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s thinking (hat tip:Times of India). In today’s context, the article’s author is just as interesting as its content. An academic at the time he wrote the article in 2005, Husain Haqqani is now Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. He’s been in the media quite often arguing that Islamabad did not support Lashkar-e-Taiba even if it was operating in Pakistan. Indian media arent’t buying it.

Sorting that out is not my job. I just wanted to note a list of the goals Lashkar-e-Taiba has set for itself. In a publication entitled Why Are We Waging Jihad? that Haqqani cites, the goals are listed as:

Mumbai Muslim clerics refuse to bury Islamist attackers

Have you seen this story in your local newspaper? Mumbai’s top Islamic clerics have refused to bury the nine Islamist militants killed during the three-day siege in the city. Declaring the rampage proved they could not have been true Muslims, they declared that no Muslim cemetery in India would accept them. A debate has broken out about what to do with the bodies, which according to Muslim custom should have been buried within a few hours of death. (Photo: Palestinian funeral for Hamas militant killed fighting Israeli troops in Gaza, 17 Oct 2007/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The reason I ask whether your local newspaper ran this story is that Muslims often say the media regularly link Islam and terrorism but rarely report when Muslims denounce acts of Islamist violence. There is some truth in this complaint, especially since Islam does not have central authorities, such as a pope, who can claim to speak in the name of all believers. Individual protests from small groups get lost in the flood of news. Some publications are also simply unwilling to print news that goes against their view of Islam as a violent religion, so it makes no difference there how many such protests are reported. They won’t believe them anyway.

This refusal to bury the Mumbai attackers is different. It is an original and bold protest against Islamist violence by religious authorities who would normally make sure any Muslim got a proper burial. “This is symbolically very important,” Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News in Istanbul and an active Muslim blogger. “I’ve heard of imams declining to lead a prayer for the deceased because he was an outright atheist, but never of people being denied burial.”

Tragic end to hostage drama at Mumbai Jewish centre

The two-day hostage drama at Mumbai’s Jewish centre ended tragically on Friday when Indian anti-terrorist forces stormed Chabad House, the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community center, only to find Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg and three other hostages had been killed by Islamist gunmen.

The Israeli-born rabbi, who grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York, arrived in Mumbai in 2003 with his Israeli wife to serve the small Jewish community there, running a synagogue and Torah classes, and assisting Jewish tourists in the seaside city. (Photo: Indian anti-terrorist commando lowered down to Mumbai’s Nariman House, where Chabad House was located, 28 Nov 2008/stringer)

We have been filing the story from Mumbai and New York, but inevitably the rest of the Mumbai drama — the clearing of the Trident-Oberoi hotel and the continued fighting at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel — has competed with space in our updates. If you’re looking for more information, the Holtzbergs’ Chabad Lubavitch communities in Crown Heights and in Mumbai have been posting extensive information on their websites:

Bali bombers: martyrs or monsters?

Did the “Bali bombers” end up as martyrs or monsters? That’s what many must be wondering after the three young men convicted of the Bali nighclub bombings in October 2002 were executed in the dead of the night last weekend in an orange grove on Java. (Photo: Funeral of bomber Imam Samudra, 11 Nov 2008/Supri)

The run-up to the executions turned into a media circus. The three men from the Jemaah Islamiah group – Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, and Amrozi — were interviewed extensively by domestic and foreign media before they faced a firing squad last Sunday. They were defiant to the end, calling for more attacks like the one they perpetrated that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists. They had, in fact, become media celebrities and the public was fascinated with them. But as monsters or martyrs?

Mainstream Indonesia was nervous and unhappy about the public spectacle that “infuriated relatives of the victims and prolonged their pain”, the Jakarta Post said.