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Indonesia acts against radicals: analysts
8 June 2008
JAKARTA — A police crackdown dealt a blow to Islamist extremists in Indonesia last week but the government’s headaches with political Islam are only going to increase ahead of elections next year, analysts say.
Normally cautious President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono earned praise for a rare swoop on Muslim extremists after scores of stick-wielding radicals attacked a peaceful rally for religious tolerance in Jakarta last Sunday.
But analysts said moderate political Islam would pose an altogether more difficult challenge for the “secular” liberal reformers who share Yudhoyono’s vision for the country’s development.
“In the long term political Islam is on the rise,” said University of Indonesia political scientist Kusnanto Anggoro.
Anies Baswedan, a political scientist and rector of Paramadina University, said many Indonesians supported the Islamists’ fight to ban the minority Ahmadiyah sect which does not recognise Mohammad as the final prophet.
“There is growing sympathy,” he said.
The “silent majority” had the attitude of “’we like what you do but not the way you do it’,” he added, in reference to the hardliners’ violent campaign against the sect.
The push to ban Ahmadiyah has become an obsession for radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, whose militants have threatened “war” on Ahmadiyah and were the target of the police crackdown on Wednesday.
Some 60 Front members were detained but only eight, including leader Rizieq Shihab, remain in custody as official suspects.
The crackdown shows the government has lost patience with the violence of religious vigilantes, but it could not ignore the views of increasingly assertive conservative Muslims who want a greater say in national affairs, Baswedan said.
“Right now if the government decides not to ban Ahmadiyah it will face quite a political challenge from Islamic groups,” he said.
Muslim political parties have been watching the developments with interest, trying to gauge the public mood and spot any weaknesses in Yudhoyono’s support with a view to the general and presidential elections next year.
Yudhoyono, a reform-minded ex-general who is allied to the nationalist Golkar party, will be seeking a second term after he became the country’s first directly elected president in 2004.
One of his biggest election challenges is likely to come from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which has emerged as a political force in the past four years.
It is hoping to win 110 seats in the 550-seat parliament in the April general election, compared to the seven it held in 1999.
Although the PKS began as a zealous student movement inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, it owes much of its success to a softening of its Islamic edges and to its clean image.
But there are widespread suspicions that it has not fully abandoned its radical origins and many point to its support for the ban on Ahmadiyah as a sign that it is not committed to plurality and tolerance.
Nathan Franklin, an Australian academic and researcher in Indonesian political Islam, said that while Muslim conservatives occasionally flexed their muscles, the country’s political centre remained moderate and tolerant.
“Indonesia is a fragile country when it comes to sensitive religious issues but at the same time it’s unfair for the vast majority of moderate, tolerant Indonesians to be associated with the hardliners,” he said.
This was also the thrust of a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released in May, which described the fuss over Ahmadiyah as “worrisome” but not likely to threaten Indonesia’s standing as a pluralist and tolerant country.
“Indonesian voters have overwhelmingly shown that they care far more about health care, education, jobs, poverty and food prices than they do about sharia (Islamic law),” it said.