TOPICS : Turbulent Indonesia, moderate Islam

John Hughes

If Muslim but non-Arab countries such as Indonesia (216 million people) and Pakistan (130 million people) can resist extremism and chart a moderate Islamic course, they would provide a significant counterweight to the Islamic fundamentalism abroad in Arab lands.

If one could generalise about an entire nation, one would perceive Indonesians as a gentle, artistic, and moderate people. Having said that, they are capable of sudden outbursts of violence on grounds of religion, ethnicity and minorities and politics and ideology. The Malay word "amok" characterises a tendency among peoples of the region to erupt in violent rage. The most savage example of this in Indonesia’s history was the sikat (sweep), or military-ordered purge of communist supporters reported highly in 1965 and ‘66.

Although Sukarno was revered as the man who led Indonesia to independence from the Dutch, he badly mismanaged the country for 20 years. He was deposed in 1967. General Suharto, who played a key role in putting down the coup attempt, became president. His three decades of authoritarian rule were characterised in turn by widespread corruption and a disappointing failure to realise the country’s economic potential. He was succeeded briefly by two weak presidents and finally, in 2001, by Mega-wati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter.

Last week, Indonesians began an extraordinarily complicated election process, which will culminate midyear with the first direct presidential vote. Early returns in parliamentary elections suggest Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle fell behind Golkar, the party of former strongman Suharto, and recent opinion polls give her little chance of winning another term. But there was no great surge of support for the small minority Islamic political parties. Intriguingly, instead of pressing extremist religious views, they campaigned on workaday issues of government. This is significant. Indonesia has been beset by a surge of Islamist radicalism and terrorism from militant groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the October 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, among other attacks.

Though the sprouting of these extremist cells is troubling, it is not yet translating into support at the polls for the religious radicalism that would move Indonesia away from the world’s mainstream and ally it with the least-developed nations of Islam. There are several hopeful factors. First, while Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesians do not follow Islam with the hard-line fervour prevalent in some Arab countries. The practice of Islam varies widely in this archipelago, which is no stranger to Buddhism and Hinduism. Second, while there is much poverty in Indonesia, it is a lush tropical country favourable to agriculture and different from the arid des-erts of the Mideast. Finally, there is a desire for freedom manifested by an upcoming generation that hungers for it even though it has never really tasted the full flavour of democracy. Stability may elude Indonesia in the months ahead as it wallows in frustration and political turbulence. The long-term question is whether it will veer from the moderate to the radical. Hughes is former editor, The Christian Science Monitor