Indonesia's restive majority

Battles raged yesterday in the Maluku islands in a growing Muslim-Christian rift.

As the conflict between Christians and Muslims continues in Indonesia's Maluku Islands, there are signs that sectarian divisions are sharpening in the nation as a whole.

Hilal Thalib, for example, echoes the sentiments of many fellow Muslims who feel they are victims of religious and economic persecution - in a country where Muslims make up 90 percent of the population.

A lawyer-turned-businessman, Mr. Thalib has joined a radical Muslim movement.

That Thalib and millions like him feel they are second-class citizens helps explain a recent and disturbing rise in radical Islamic politics here. The movement poses a challenge to President Abdurrahman Wahid, a moderate Muslim dedicated to keeping religion out of politics.

The sectarian violence in the Maluku islands, the former Spice Islands, has become a rallying point for the radical leaders, whose blend of hate and fear threatens to polarize Indonesian society and undermine its secular political traditions.

"This is a disease that we've always carried under the surface," says Aristides Katoppo, the Christian founder of a leading Jakarta newspaper and an ally of Wahid's. "At the moment we're allowing the national discussion to be driven by radicals. They're not strong yet, but the danger is there."

The warning signs include the strident calls for jihad, or holy war, that ring from a growing number of mosques and the machete-carrying "defenders of Islam" who roam freely in the capital.

The most alarming sign was the dispatch of 3,000 jihad warriors from Java to Maluku in May by the Laskar Jihad, a well-financed radical group with indirect links to politicians in Jakarta. The Maluku conflict has raged since January 1999 and has claimed more than 3,000 lives. Over the weekend seven Christians and 13 Muslims died in fierce street fighting in the Malukus, where a state of emergency was declared last month.

Hilal Thalib is an informal spokesman for the Laskar, which was founded by his younger brother Umar Thalib earlier this year. "This government ignores Muslims," he said. "Why are officers being prosecuted for human rights violations in East Timor, when so many Muslim victims have not had justice?"

The former Indonesian province of East Timor, which won its independence last year after a bloody conflict, is overwhelmingly Catholic.

Though it has a tradition of religious tolerance, Indonesia has always had its share of extremists. In the early years of the republic there were bitter national debates - and armed rebellions - over creating an Islamic state. In the 1980s, Islamic radicals bombed the Borobodur, a 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple. But most Indonesian Muslims have preferred a secular state.

There are signs, however, that the radical fringe is making headway. Religious leaders who would have once spoken out vigorously against extremism - Wahid first among them - have been silent, while politicians who feel Muslims are victims of the status quo have been louder than ever.

The radicals are able to exploit popular disaffection with the Wahid presidency. Indonesia's experiment in democracy has produced no tangible economic benefits yet for the nation's poor, and some measures show the economy is sliding backwards. Even the famously tolerant Wahid, the former leader of the Nadhlatul Ulama, with more than 30 million members the largest Muslim group in the world, has been silent in the face of intolerance. "He can't open his mouth or he'll be branded anti-Islam. When someone tells a poor man 'You're poor for a reason - because you're a Muslim,' that's very seductive," says a diplomat in Jakarta.

Legislator Ahmad Sumargono is an example of the type of politician thriving in the new environment. The Crescent Star Party he founded is at the center of a Muslim-bloc in parliament that helped elect Wahid, but now is considering trying to replace him. "We had high hopes for him, but then his first official act was to establish relations with Israel," he says. "This is not what we want." Sumargono says Indonesia's political elite suffer from "Islam-phobia" and often rails against Jews, Christians, and foreigners.

He sees the conflict in Maluku as part of an international conspiracy to carve out a Christian republic in the heart of Indonesia and "Christianize" the nation. He says international support for East Timor's independence drive, and the demands that soldiers be punished for killings there, proves his point.

Wahid's opponents seem to sense that his hands are tied. Laskar Jihad's soldiers were allowed to leave Java for Ambon, the main city in southern Maluku and Ternate, the key city in the north, in May, despite orders from Wahid to Armed Forces Chief Admiral Widodo to detain them.

The civilian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono has charged that Jakarta politicians and officers close to the fallen president Suharto are provoking violence in Maluku to further national political agendas.

To the Laskar Jihad's way of thinking, the Indonesian state has been rigged to the advantage of its substantial Christian minority, particularly the ethnic-Chinese Christians who are the nation's dominant merchant class.

Umar Thalib, who fought with the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, has made made clear his desire to drive Christians out of the Malukus.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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