Exorcising Radical Islamist Demons in Indonesia

In Tuesday’s Opinion Journal, Bret Stephens profiles an Indonesian who is attempting to preserve the traditions of religious tolerance and syncretism long characteristic of Indonesia.

SENDANG AYU, Indonesia–In the fall of 2005, Abdul Munir Mulkhan returned to his childhood village to exorcise a demon.

Belief in the spirit world persists in this corner of southern Sumatra, as it does throughout most of Indonesia. In this case, however, the demon took human form as an itinerant Islamic preacher named Mun Faasil. He had appeared as if from nowhere the year before and had promptly set about “purifying” the villagers’ religious practices. For instance, he objected to sacrificing water buffalo (a local practice) instead of sheep (an Arab one) for the annual feast of Eid ul-Adha. He also disapproved of the villagers’ custom of giving couples an envelope of cash on their wedding day, on the grounds that there was no Quranic basis for it.

What happened next is a portrait-in-miniature of the assault being waged against traditional Indonesian Islam by its totalitarian variant. “Mun Faasil’s speeches created a crisis of faith,” recalls a village elder. “One group started implying that the others were not true believers.” Things got worse when the preacher began extolling the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a radical Islamist party modeled on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, while attacking the Muhammadiyah, the century-old, 30 million-strong, apolitical Islamic social movement to which most of the villagers belong. Soon PKS cadres started arriving in the village.

It was at this point that some of the villagers called on Mr. Mulkhan, 60, to offer a “clarification” on the true teachings of Islam. They were fortunate in their native son. A leading scholar of Islamic theology and history, Mr. Mulkhan had only recently stepped down as vice secretary of the Muhammadiyah and continues to wield influence as a reformer within the organization. It did not take much to persuade his old neighbors that good Muslims do not use narrow theological pretexts to condemn fellow Muslims as infidels. Mun Faasil and his cadres were told to go.

For Mr. Mulkhan, however, what happened in Sendang Ayu was not the end of the matter but only the beginning. If the PKS could reach a remote rural community of 150 people, he reasoned, where had they not penetrated? The problem was compounded by the PKS’s use of clandestine cells to infiltrate the Muhammadiyah’s institutions–hospitals, universities, schools, mosques, charities, student associations–and recruit new members. “We had a situation where people in positions of trust were suddenly revealing themselves as PKS,” he says. “If we had allowed this to continue they would have consolidated their position with a purge of their opponents.”

The rise of the PKS nationally is itself a thing to marvel at. Barely eight years old, it won just 7% of the vote in the 2004 elections and has made itself conspicuous with its support of radical cleric Abu Bakir Bashir. Yet it has already managed to seize key institutions of prestige and patronage throughout Indonesia, including the speakership of the national Parliament, the ministry of agriculture and key municipal posts. As with Hamas in the Palestine Authority, it has burnished a reputation for incorruptibility.

But the Muhammadiyah, with its immense network of social services, is the organization the PKS must first seize if–in the spirit of Antonio Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions”–it is to achieve its longer-term political objectives. As a takeover target, it also helps the PKS that the Muhammadiyah has espoused a relatively strict form of Islam, making its members all the more susceptible to tarbiyeh, the form of Islamic indoctrination practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood and adopted by the PKS.

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