Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video Dispatch

Indonesia: The Next Generation

A new front in the battle for hearts and minds

BY David MonteroOctober 30, 2008


David Montero is a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. His most recent report is
Pakistan: State of Emergency He lives in Cambodia.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has long served as a bulwark against radicalism in Southeast Asia. With nearly 90 percent of the country's 235 million people adhering to the Islamic faith, the religion blends and borrows openly from the Hindu, Buddhist and Shamanist cultures prevalent throughout the region.

But today, as Americans prepare to go to the polls, Indonesia is being tested by a growing radicalism that should be of particular interest to the next U.S. administration. In the past, Indonesia has been seen as a moderate Islamic country and U.S. ally in fighting terrorism.

The country suffered its own devastating terrorist attack in Bali in 2002, when a suicide bomb attack ripped through a nightclub in the popular tourist spot of Kuta beach, killing more than 200 people. Members of the Islamic militant group, Jemaah Islamiyah, were later sentenced for the attack.

More recently, a group calling itself the Islamic Defenders Front has become particularly vocal, protesting on the streets for Sharia law. In one incident last month, the group attacked demonstrators who had gathered to promote religious harmony. The group's leader is now in jail awaiting trial. On a recent afternoon in Jakarta, I came across the members of the group protesting outside a court. I was surprised that many seemed to model themselves on militants I've met in Pakistan, wearing army vests and keffiyehs wrapped around their faces.

Radicals are still a slim minority in Indonesia, but these events underscore that the county's tradition of tolerance does not endure automatically. It's often challenged, and relies on dedicated people like Lily Munir to keep it going.

Munir is a teacher in the most basic sense, but her work in the classroom is effectively raising Indonesia's next generation of moderates.


A small but vocal group of Islamic radicals has begun demonstrating on the streets of Jakarta.

"Children are very important," Munir says. "That's where you begin to nurture the values of tolerance, of respecting differences."

She works throughout the country with traditional Islamic boarding schools, helping them to build the principles of tolerance into their instruction. There are 18,000 such schools across Indonesia, educating millions of children. The vast majority have always been moderate. But many are falling behind in English, while others could do better in teaching gender equality. A handful have become radicalized in recent years.

During overnight camping trips, Munir holds debates with young students about Indonesia's religious tolerance, and why Islam interprets that all faiths be respected. Among the female students, she openly discusses issues of domestic violence and sex. (She has been called the Dr. Ruth of Indonesia.) Through these interactive sessions, she reaches hundreds of students, teachers and parents.

"I tell my students, 'Don't be limited by all these restrictions, like religion. You are a Muslim, but does that mean you can never learn from another person? No. Let's go universal!" she says.

Munir's background has made her an ideal messenger of tolerance. She was born in Indonesia and attended an Islamic boarding school run by her parents. She later studied in Amsterdam and the United States and sees herself as a bridge between the Western and the Islamic world, the classical and the modern, and between rich and poor.

"My work has two edges," Munir says. "First it is educating the West." Second, it is "my endeavor to educate our own people about the West."

She's no apologist for the U.S. -- she finds the policies of the last administration lamentable. But she understands that her concept of Islam is not the one Western audiences are used to. And that is precisely her point. At the heart of Islam is an enlightened philosophy of equality and justice, she says. Unfortunately, it has been hijacked by bigots, patriarchs and radicals. She sees it has her role to re-educate both sides.