- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

JAKARTA A wave of attacks by Muslim mobs on discos, bars and night spots has prompted fears that politicians and the military are manipulating the masses to undermine the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid.

In one attack, dozens of men clad in white and armed with clubs descended on the pool hall shortly after the holy month of Ramadan began in late November. "Allahu Akbar [God is Great]," they shouted before they smashed the lights and tore up the green felt on the pool tables.

"They said it's in the name of God," said Sjahril, who owns the simple pool room tucked away behind his Jakarta house. A Muslim himself, Mr. Sjahril said he'd already closed the business out of respect for Ramadan, when Muslims fast and avoid entertainment.

Hanging his head as he stood amid the broken glass, he said he can't understand what kind of Muslims would do this.

It's a question many people are asking here amid increasing violence by groups claiming to defend Islam.

The tactics have drawn criticism from mainstream Islamic organizations in this, the world's largest Muslim nation, and have raised suspicions the militants could be little more than street thugs open to manipulation by politicians and the military.

Some see it as an attempt to undermine the democratically elected government of Mr. Wahid.

"You have to be very careful in terms of how this gets painted. Though it has the outward manifestation of the militant rise of Islam there are other social, economic and political phenomena behind it, and to some degree just criminality," said Arian Ardie, a political consultant with Van Zorge Heffernan and Associates, a Jakarta risk assessment firm.

Muslim traders brought Islam to the Indonesian archipelago about 500 years ago.

Today, close to 90 percent of the country's 210 million people follow the generally moderate Indonesian brand of Islam.

Most Indonesian women, for example, leave their heads uncovered.

Despite Islam's predominance, Indonesian leaders and the military have historically resisted any attempt by Islamic extremists to gain political dominance, which they see as a threat to national unity.

During the 32-year rule of former Gen. Suharto, Muslim political parties were forced to merge into one group, the United Development Party, and were forbidden from advocating an Islamic state.

Since the birth of Indonesian democracy after the fall of Suharto in May 1998, Muslim political parties are again free but so are Islamic militias which under Suharto would have been suppressed.

The two most prominent militias, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Front Hezbollah, together claim to have damaged hundreds of entertainment businesses in the Jakarta area.

Their thousands of followers are mostly young. They are widely believed to come from the poor and unemployed whose ranks swelled during the Indonesian economic crisis which is only now showing signs of easing.

FPI demonstrated has demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta during the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli crisis. Earlier this year, the group charged that Muslims were being discriminated against by the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights.

JJ Duit, a disco popular with foreigners in Jakarta, has been damaged twice since September by Front Hezbollah members wearing black masks.

"I spoke with them and said, 'Why not somewhere else?' Maybe because other places give them money," said Firdaus Al Hadi, 30, the club's general manager.

Mr. Ardie said that although religion plays a role, the attacks could be linked to a struggle for the control of club protection rackets, which have traditionally been split between police and the military.

"There's a fair amount of friction between the police and elements of the military for control of relatively lucrative protection rackets," Mr. Ardie said.

Munir, a local human rights campaigner who like many Indonesians uses just one name, said a commercial connection is difficult to prove but he believes political and military interests are manipulating groups like FPI.

"They're just interested to use the religious groups, Islamic groups, to protect their political position. The generals aren't so Islamic," said Munir, who heads the board of directors of the non-governmental Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence.

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