JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Here in the world's largest Muslim country a war of ideas within Islam is playing out on an unlikely stage: a bohemian arts community in a crowded Jakarta side street. The patrons of the Utan Kayu Theater, including some of Indonesia's leading novelists and writers, normally gather to discuss such topics as avant-garde art or prewar Russian cinema.
But in recent weeks, a fierce debate over how Muslims should be allowed to worship, marry, and even think has caught the theater in its crossfire. Hard-line Muslim groups have been threatening to evict the Liberal Islam Network, a small group of intellectuals known as JIL, from their offices in the theater complex by the beginning of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan - Wednesday.
The struggle, observers say, is not only over how to interpret Islam's 1,400-year-old holy book, the Koran, but what role it will play in Indonesia's future. The tensions are driving a rising confrontation between liberals and an alliance of conservative and radical groups.
JIL's crime, according to the white-robed vigilante group the Islamic Defenders Front, is spreading liberal ideas about Islam. "The intellectual fight has turned physical," says Nong Darol Mahmada, a female JIL member, telling of death threats by telephone. "The hard-line conservatives are getting more powerful."
The Islamic Defenders, famous for attacking cafes with samurai swords, have also tried to recruit nearby poor residents to help evict JIL and its supporters, including a radio station and media think tank. JIL is preparing lawyers, and plans to seek protection from the courts.
The threats from the Islamic Defenders follow a series of fatwas, or religious edicts, from Indonesia's powerful Islamic scholar's council, the MUI. On July 29, the council issued fatwas condemning "liberalism, secularism, and pluralism." The 11 fatwas, read to a meeting of 400 Islamic scholars from across the country, also condemn inter-faith prayers and marriages between religions.
JIL activists say that fatwas mark the growing power of ultra-conservative Islam, a movement that unites both elected politicians and street vigilantes. Supporters of the fatwas say they are following their duty to protect Islam from the threat of globalization and Western ideas.
"The liberals think everything is open to interpretation," said Ma'ruf Amin, head of the MUI's fatwa commission, "and that clashes with Islamic teachings."
Syafi'i Ma'arif, former chairman of Indonesia's second largest Muslim organization, the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah, warned reporters that: "the fatwas will embolden hard-line, power-hungry groups." Since July 29 an alliance of Muslim vigilante groups, the Anti-Apostasy Movement, has stepped up a campaign to get rid of informal prayer groups and churches, causing a total of 23 to close within a year.
Mobs have also attacked the houses and mosques of the 200-member Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect, declared by the fatwas to be "deviant," because they recognize their founder to be Islam's last prophet instead of Muhammad. In an interview, the MUI's Mr. Ma'ruf tut-tuts over the closures, condemning violence, but noting that "the churches didn't have permits."
Since its arrival from the Middle East in the 11th century, Islam has nestled alongside older Hindu, Buddhist, and animist practices. Only a tiny, violent fringe openly supports terrorist attacks such as last weekend's suicide attack in Bali that left at least 26 dead and 100 hundred injured.
Most of Indonesia's 193 million Muslims - 88 percent of the population - practice a moderate form of Islam. Muslim Indonesians often give their children Hindu names, and religious minorities such as Christians are protected under the constitution.
JIL's founders say the group was formed in 2001 to protect this spirit of tolerance through its activism, radio broadcasts, and newspaper articles. "We just want to be able to discuss religion in the same way you can discuss art or politics," says JIL coordinator Hamid Basyaib.
JIL's mission statement says the group believes in ijtihad, or the application of reason to interpreting Islamic texts. The use of ijtihad, Mr. Hamid says, has led its members away from a literal interpretation of the Koran and toward support for the separation of mosque and state.
The group has also offended conservatives by arguing that truth is relative and that other religious faiths are equal to Islam. Even worse, say hardliners, is JIL's support for the "freedom of belief," including the right not to be religious.
Mr. Hamid also rejects criticism that liberal Islam is an American import, claiming the group draws on an ancient tradition of Islamic scholarship stretching to thinkers in the 14th century.
Mr. Ma'ruf says that JIL is just part of a much wider network that includes several major state universities. He also warns liberalism has gained ground in the world's two largest Muslim organizations, the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah. "Some things, some passages, [in the Koran], are beyond question," he says from NU's headquarters. "It is heretical to question the literal word of God," he says.
But JIL activist Abdul Moqsith Ghazali claims the NU and the Muhammadiyah are showing signs of shifting in a conservative direction, pointing to the influx of students who graduated from Middle Eastern universities in the 1980s.
Senior members of both organizations supported the July 28 fatwas. "There's a rising tide of Islamic conservatism [in Indonesia]" says Greg Barton, an associate professor at Australia's Deakin University and scholar of Indonesian Islam.
"These people have been working for over a decade and only now are beginning to see the fruits of their labors," says Mr. Barton.
Back at the Utan Kayu Theater, Ms. Nong breathes a sigh of relief, after promises from nearby community leaders to support JIL. The group, along with the radio station, is safe for the time being. "We've won in this neighborhood," she says. "But the war of ideas will continue."