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Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia - Photo by Adam Ellick

Can Islam and Democracy coexist?

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Two Indonesian children, on their way to school. - Photo credit: Adam Ellick

Two Indonesian children, on their way to school.

In the Muslim world, Indonesia is unique. 

The majority practice their religion with a devotion deeply felt.  But compared to the stereotypes carried in the minds of most Westerners, Islam in Indonesia is very different.

  • Muslim shamans pray five times a day, and then commune with mystical spirits while performing rites on other Muslims to cast or remove spells. 

  • Provincial kings and sultans, also Muslim, place offerings to the Four Guardians of the Earth on their palace grounds, and preside over ancient rituals, like the elaborate annual pageant of sacred objects in the city of Solo, where albino water buffalos, believed to possess supernatural powers, lead the procession.

  • Muslim cross-dressers compete to be crowned Miss Indonesian Transvestite of the year, and also pray in the women’s section of the mosque while wearing the traditional headscarf.

These practices would be considered blasphemy by many Middle Eastern Muslims. 

Islam in Indonesia has a centuries old tradition of being a tolerant, compassionate, and inclusive religion, where the difference between what is Islam and what is Arab is keenly felt. 

Indonesia is home to more Muslims than the entire Middle East combined – more than 210 million.  Almost all are Sunni Muslims

More news on the struggle in Indonesia can be found at the New York Times website Off-site link

Despite this history of pluralism and moderation, however,  in recent years Indonesia has become both a target and breeding ground for Islamic militants.  The bombing of two night clubs in Bali, in October of 2002, was a stunning wake-up call that Al Qaeda-style terrorism had spread to Southeast Asia. It was second only to 9/11 as the most deadly terrorist attack in modern history. 

Paradoxically, the coming of democracy to Indonesia in 1998, with the collapse of the corrupt and oppressive military dictatorship of General Suharto, was a factor in the rise of Islamist violence and terrorism.  The new democratic freedoms allowed for Muslim militants who had fled the country to avoid prosecution (like the notorious Abu Bakar Bashir) to return and rekindle their movement.  As Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, an Indonesian Islamic scholar and leader of the Liberal Islam Network says, “This freedom is not [only] for the good guys, but also for the bad guys.” 

This conflict between Indonesia’s long tradition of tolerance, and the dramatic rise of fundamentalist forces, makes Indonesia a unique battleground in the war of ideas over how Islam should be understood – the frontline in what is becoming the most critical conflict of our age.

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