Indonesia's president, key Islamic leaders, and some intellectuals are mobilizing to defuse calls for a jihad, or holy war, against Christians here in the world's most populous Muslim country.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Jakarta last Friday to vent their anger over clashes in Indonesia's Molucca Islands, where Muslims and Christians have been fighting for a year. Some speakers demanded a jihad, and smaller groups have echoed this call nearly every day since.
Yesterday, some 200 white-clad protesters from the Front for the Defense of Islam demonstrated at the parliament, saying they would go to the Moluccas to fight if the government does not halt the violence.
Indonesia is a nation under stress. The economy is still reeling from Asia's financial crisis of 1997, the political system is trying to emerge from dictatorship, and some groups in this diverse nation want to break away.
Thirty-five years ago, amid the pressures of the cold war, Indonesia's military and its supporters waged a de facto jihad against perceived communists, killing an estimated 500,000 people. No one wants to see a recurrence.
In recent days President Abdurrahman Wahid has seemed intent on making sure no one takes too literally those who are demanding a jihad. "I do not care whether they want a jihad or not, or anything else, but as soon as the safety of the state and people is endangered we will take action," Mr. Wahid said Tuesday. He promised to punish anyone fomenting violence.
Even Ahmad Sumargono, the leader of a sometimes militant Islamist group, attempted to downplay the fervor of the calls for jihad, telling the Jakarta Post that the term referred to "solidarity," not armed conflict.
"It's [nonsense]," says Mochtar Pabotinggi, a political scientist at the state-run Indonesian Institute of Sciences, about Mr. Sumargono's comment. "It's self defense." Mr. Pabotinggi attended early-morning prayers at his neighborhood mosque Friday, and says he stood up to challenge a young man who was encouraging others to join the Jakarta rally. "Who is going to guarantee that nothing is going to happen?" he asked them, thinking of the churches near the rally site.
Pabotinggi says the rumors circulating about the way Muslims have been mutilated and killed in the Moluccas remind him of the mid-1960s, when a propaganda campaign was directed against communists. In recent years Christians and Muslims have clashed in other parts of the country and Pabotinggi is worried about a flare-up in the capital. "If it happens in Jakarta it will happen throughout Indonesia at this time."
Intellectuals are not the only ones trying to discourage extremism. "The Muslim people in [the Moluccan island of] Ambon need the spirit of jihad to solve the problems in Ambon ... but not in the way of war," said Amidhan Shaberah, co-chairman of the Indonesian Ulemas Council, the country's top Islamic institution, in comments reported by Reuters. "It doesn't have to be supported by other Muslim people in other cities," he added. "This republic will be broken if all the Muslim people around Indonesia go to Ambon to have a holy war."
Approximately 90 percent of Indonesia's population of 210 million say they are Muslim, but it bears remembering that the Islam practiced here is low-key and extremely tolerant.
An electoral assembly chose Wahid - a popular Muslim cleric - as president last October. He vowed to bring peace to Indonesia's fractious regions to keep the country together, asking Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri to focus on the Moluccas. In December they traveled to Ambon to promote peace talks, but there has been no evident progress.
Shortly after their visit, violence flared anew on several Moluccan islands. Hundreds may have been killed in recent weeks; more than 1,000 people are thought to have died since open conflict broke out a year ago.
The battle lines are religious, with Christians attacking Muslims and vice versa in a spiral of killing. Some experts say the strife is caused by historical, political, and economic tensions, but many well-educated, sober analysts in Jakarta see dark forces at work.
"It's all been engineered as part of a bigger scenario," says Hadi Soesastro, executive director of the private Center for Strategic and International Studies here. Many people assert that elements of the military or the country's ailing, deposed dictator, Suharto, are behind the unrest, attempting to create conditions that would allow a return to authoritarianism.
In some ways, what is actually happening in the Moluccas is not as important in the capital as the spin. Wahid is a noted moderate and extremist Muslims may be using the issue to push him in their direction.
They may also be using the issue to get at his vice president. Mrs. Megawati is the leading reformist politician in Indonesia, but she is also unpopular with some Muslims because they oppose having a woman in power and because many of her supporters are Christian.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society