Foreigners Purifying Islam in Indonesia

On Tuesday, Bret Stephens had another column in Opinion Journal on Islam in Indonesia, this time highlighting Arab influences.

JAKARTA, Indonesia–The headquarters of the Front for the Defense of Islam is reached by a narrow alley just off a one-lane street in a residential neighborhood near downtown Jakarta. But step inside the carpeted reception area, decorated by a mural of a desert mosque and partially open to the sky, and it’s as if you’ve arrived in a bedouin kingdom.Your host is Habib Mohammad Rizieq Shihab, 41. He is dressed entirely in white, a religious conceit far from typical of most Indonesian ulama, or experts in Islamic theology. To the question, “Where are you from?” Mr. Rizieq is quick to explain that he is descended from the Quraishi tribe, from what is now Yemen. Just how he knows this isn’t clear, but it’s the symbolism that counts: The Prophet Mohammad was a Quraishi, and the tribe is entrusted with the responsibility for protecting God’s House, the Qe’eba, in Mecca. Mr. Rizieq, in fact, is a native of Jakarta.

For the better part of the past decade, Mr. Rizieq and his Front–known by its Indonesian initials FPI–have played a prominent role in Indonesian political life, although the FPI is not a political party. It is an Islamist vigilante group, with the self-appointed mission of policing and, if necessary, violently suppressing “un-Islamic” behavior. Squads of FPI militants have forcibly shut down hundreds of brothels, small-time gambling operations, discos, nightclubs and bars serving alcoholic beverages. They have also stormed “unauthorized” Christian houses of worship, attacked peaceful demonstrators from Indonesia’s renascent Communist party, trashed the office of the National Commission on Human Rights and rampaged through airports looking for Israelis to kill.

“Non-Muslims from Dar el-Harb [countries at war with Muslims], if they are in Indonesia, then it is the duty of Muslims to oppose them to the last drop of blood,” he says. “George Bush can be killed, too.” As for the legitimacy of attacks on American diplomats and civilians, “this is a dilemma,” though after a moment’s reflection he concludes that they “cannot be disturbed” since they are here with the consent of a Muslim government….

Then there is the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies, or LIPIA, a Saudi-funded university in Jakarta, which offers full scholarships to top students. “LIPIA was designed to create cadres,” says Mr. Rahmat. Its graduates include Jafar Umar Thalib, the founder of Laskar Jihad, a terrorist group responsible for the death of thousands of Indonesian Christians in the Moluccas.

For his part, Mr. Rizieq tries to distance himself from that kind of violence–although not by much. “If I wanted to I could always bomb these places,” he says. “I’d rather have a physical confrontation.” He adds that he is in contact with Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing, but only in order to persuade it to change its ways. Why would he set his troops upon mere gamblers or prostitutes while conversing with murderers? “When there is universal agreement among Muslims on [the immorality of] adultery or fornication then we will act violently. When there is no agreement [on issues like terrorism] then the approach is dialogue.”

It’s a curious form of tolerance, conceived by a man who arrogates to himself the right to define what is and is not Islamic. Is it a harbinger for Indonesia? That will depend on whether his country seeks to remain a part of Asia, or become a satellite of the Middle East.

Robert MacNeill’s series on PBS, America at a Crossroads, just concluded a segment about the rich diversity of Islam in Indonesia.

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Filed under Indonesia, religion

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