- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

JAKARTA, Indonesia In mid-May, Jafar Umar Thalib, 40, the leader of Indonesia's most-talked-about Islamic extremist group, Laskar Jihad, stepped quietly into a Jakarta prison cell on charges of inciting hatred. His followers barely managed a protest.

Western media attention was scant. The response was shockingly mild for a group that since September 11 has time and again been accused of having links to al Qaeda and a networking system capable of turning Indonesia's fledgling democracy on its head: from a moderate Muslim nation into an extremist one.

To leading Indonesian observers, though, it comes as no surprise. For months now they've been sitting on a well-kept secret, they say: Islamic radicalism here is not what it appears to the Western world.

Few would deny these groups' violent tendencies, and that the Indonesian government has been slow to crack down on them. Several weeks ago, for example, Islamic Defenders Front, notorious for its "sweeps" of some upscale hotels in search of American guests, ransacked bars and restaurants along a popular backpacker strip in central Jakarta. No arrests were made.

Still, Doug Ramage, a specialist on Islam in Indonesia, said government indifference has distorted perceptions of the groups themselves.

"The threat's been greatly exaggerated," Mr. Ramage said. "Their agendas tend to be political and economic rather than religious, and local rather than international in scope."

Some observers suspect that Islamic Defenders Front's militia-style sweeps are little more than a guise to gain control of local racketeering rings, which were decentralized when Suharto's 32-year dictatorship ended in 1998.

"Now you have the military vying with the police and radicals for these rings, when during the Suharto years it was all under one umbrella [the military]," said Kevin O'Rourke, author of "Reformasi," a book about reform in Indonesia in the post-Suharto era.

"If there were still a monopoly, it's unlikely you would hear stories about them clearing out nightclubs."

So far no hard evidence has surfaced linking Indonesian radical groups with international terrorism. But Washington and many Western news outlets have been quick to draw conclusions, Mr. Ramage said.

"In a way," said a Western human rights activist, "that's exactly what these groups want. Their goals are political, so any attention they can get gives them exposure and momentum. Without attention, you're voiceless. Thanks largely to the media and Washington these groups have a voice."

The group has had an impact. Laskar Jihad has had a major role in a bloody three-year battle with Christians in the region of Ambon. After September 11, Laskar Jihad rallied crowds in front of the U.S. Embassy where Thalib ranted against Americans. And since January 2001 in the Jakarta area alone there have been 20 anonymous bombings, raising speculation about the prevalence of extremism in Indonesia.

But specialists say the role of extremists in Indonesia should not be confused with their role in international terrorism.

"Radical groups [in Indonesia] are not so much anti-American as they are feeding on anti-American sentiment elsewhere," said Jerome Cheng of the National Democratic Institute.

"Al Qaeda they have clear anti-American goals: get out of Saudi Arabia, for example. Here the groups don't hold onto their hatred. Here they'll give it up and cooperate when they get political power or when the state becomes stable."

One reason many longtime observers are loath to panic about radical Islam here is because Indonesia has a long history of Islamic extremism. And it has never amounted to much.

In 1948, another time of transition for the archipelago it was then a fledgling state; as today it is a fledgling democracy a Javanese mystic named Kartosuwirjo declared an independent Islamic state in West Java. It was the first rebellion against the republic and lives on today as the Darul Islam movement.

The 1950s were marked by more Islamic uprisings. According to Azyumardi Azra, president of State Islamic University in Jakarta, in some provinces the Indonesian flag was lowered and the Islamic flag raised.

During the autocratic Suharto years, extremist voices, although not close to resonating with mainstream society, were squelched, sometimes brutally, by the military.

"The difference was, [founding president] Sukarno was more open to talking to radicals he would let them speak," said Bahtiar Effendy, a business analyst and longtime observer of Islam.

"Suharto couldn't handle the bickering. He felt it hurt his ability to control the state. So in that sense Islam was a threat, and he handled it as efficiently and thoroughly as he could."

Mr. Effendy added, "I'm not going to say [the attention] modern extremists have gotten has been blown out of proportion. It is partly a reflection of our weak state."

They need to be confronted, he said; but what Indonesia is experiencing is also the natural process of democracy.

"I don't think many people outside Indonesia understand that. Now that Islam is free to be used as a political resource, people will use it to their advantage. This is part of democracy: political players trying to appeal to peoples' emotions."

He drew comparisons to U.S. President Kennedy reaching out to Catholics during his presidential bid or Pat Robertson and President Bush reaching out to conservative Christians during theirs. "You appeal to people however you can."

More than a dozen Islamic parties ran in the 1999 presidential elections, Indonesia's first democratic elections in four decades. Those with clear Islamic agendas amassed only 14 percent of the vote.

Yet it would be foolish to underestimate Islam's potential as a political force in the post-Suharto democratic era: 87 percent of Indonesians call themselves Muslims.

"I have never seen so many jilbalbs [head scarves] on women before," said a former U.S. ambassador, who has been observing Indonesia for more than 30 years. Or Islamic merchandise in shopping malls, or literature espousing the virtues of Islam, he added.

Yet, while most Indonesian Muslims claim no allegiance to radical Islam, some observers fear something radical is brewing.

They see the renewed interest in Islam as a result of the political, social and economic unrest that has not abated since Suharto's fall. By some estimates unemployment is edging past 25 percent with 40 million jobless.

And there are strong indications that poverty, on the mend slightly last year, is again headed in the wrong direction, with stagnant real wages and minimal market growth. Fifty-five percent of the population makes less than $2 a day.

Indeed, in times of crisis, religion is the first thing many people turn to for moral authority.

"You have to be careful, though," said R. William Liddle, professor of political science at Ohio State University. "You can't assume what lies beneath the jilbalb."

Women who wear jilbalbs, the theory goes, are as diverse as men who wear baseball caps. There are even feminists under the head scarves, said Mr. Liddle.

"This is not the Middle East. There is very little tendency toward fanaticism and it's especially true of the Javanese, who are more polytheistic than Muslim."

Should social instability persist, though, won't the masses be more inclined to seek out radical solutions?

Mr. Ramage said Muslims have been working as hard as anyone to denounce terrorism. And like their Western counterparts, they are concerned by the Indonesian government's soft approach to dealing with radical elements.

Last month, at a political function of PKB, the Muslim political party of former President Abdurrahman Wahid, Chairman Alwi Sihab said, "We cannot allow radicals to hijack PK. we have to launch a war against extremism and terrorism." Loud applause followed.

The next day the largest Muslim organization, also linked to Wahid, joined other religious leaders to say anything other than a secular state would threaten the country's unity.

The real danger in Indonesia, many experts believe, is not Islam, but Western misconception of Islam in Indonesia. Mr. Ramage said Islamic groups' efforts to promote democracy through equality and education, and to alleviate poverty have been ignored. There is, particularly in the post-September 11 world, a tendency to equate Islam with extremism, and to view centrists as on the brink of radical conversion.

Such simplifications, Mr. Azra said, will only give the radical groups credence in mainstream society. As will heavy-handed pressure from the U.S. government, he said.

"I told [Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz that it is better to handle extremist elements here in a Javanese way," Mr. Azra said. "Openly criticizing the Indonesian government on CNN is not the best approach here. It can destabilize [President Megawati Sukarnoputri's] government."

And extremist groups thrive on destabilization.

Mr. Azra suggested the U.S. government adopt a "silent diplomacy approach" while supporting efforts to improve law enforcement.

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