Indonesian moderates outnumber Islamic militants

A 10,000 signature petition counters anti-US protests, seeks protection for foreign nationals.

After weeks of hearing radical Muslim protesters call for bloody revenge on US citizens here, Tamalia Alisjahbana decided that enough was enough.

It was time for Indonesia's silent majority to speak up.

Three months later, she has collected 10,000 signatures for a petition against religious extremism that she plans to present this month to President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The petition opposes severing diplomatic relations with the US and asks the government to protect foreign nationals in the country, after hundreds of US and other foreign workers fled in fear over the angry protests. The signers include factory workers, housewives, and lawyers.

Despite the wide support, there are extremists. A small number of protesters, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, flocked daily to the US Embassy in Jakarta to burn American flags and praise Osama bin Laden.

While some protests attracted only a few hundred people and have since fizzled, the burst of anti-US rhetoric created a strong impression of militancy in a nation known for its moderate brand of Islam. It also kept tourists away, as many Western embassies advised nationals to take a rain check on Indonesia.

"I think most Indonesians were looking at these groups in horror," says Ms. Alisjahbana, a former lawyer. "They have no seats in the parliament, but these people became spokespeople for Indonesia."

Even before the flag-burners hit the headlines, Indonesia's reputation as a country founded on tolerance between ethnic and religious groups had taken a pounding.

• In November, fighting flared again in central Sulawesi island between armed gangs of Christians and Muslims. This conflict has sputtered on since 1998, leaving an estimated 1,000 dead and dividing formerly mixed areas on religious lines. Government-brokered peace talks between the two sides last month yielded a pledge to disarm militiamen and resolve amicably intercommunity squabbles.

• In the Maluku islands, known in colonial times as the Spice Islands, a conflict has killed around 9,000 Christians and Muslims since 1999.

• Tribal Dayaks on Borneo have killed and expelled hundreds of Muslim migrants from Madura island in recent years.

"It's difficult to resolve these problems once you begin to use violence," says Azyumardi Azra, rector of the State Institute for Islamic Studies.

Dr. Azra and other observers say competition for jobs during a deep recession helped ignite the violence. Decades of government-sponsored migration of mainly Muslims from Java and Bali to less populated islands such as Sulawesi have changed their religious makeup and upset the balance of power among communities.

For a country whose inhabitants are spread across thousands of islands and speak hundreds of different languages, these bloody conflicts have exposed deep fault lines that may prove hard to bridge. Some pessimists fear that Indonesia could unravel along religious and ethnic lines unless a strong central government can reassert control.

Under the iron-fisted rule of President Suharto, who resigned in 1998, dissent was rudely stifled. Many analysts blame the chaotic transition to democracy for unleashing religious dogma in the service of politics.

"Religion should provide a positive role to give hope of a peaceful way of dealing with social and economic problems," says Theodore Sumartana, a Protestant theologian who heads an institute for interfaith dialogue in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. His institute holds workshops for police and religious leaders to promote reconciliation.

Dr. Sumartana says he tries to encourage dialogue between the Muslim and Christian communities in the hope of tempering militant zeal. "We try very hard to meet Laskar Jihad and other radical fundamentalists," says Dr. Sumartana. "It's very difficult."

Still, despite the recent turmoil, analysts say religious fanaticism has yet to take root in most parts of Indonesia. Mainstream Muslim groups have distanced themselves from the hardliners. While expressing sympathy with Afghan Muslims, they firmly reject calls for jihad.

Ms. Alisjahbana, whose father joined the nationalist movement that won independence from Dutch rule in 1949, says she has the numbers. "The biggest demo held by the extremists had 2,000 people. This [petition] is five times as many."

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