Turbulent Indonesia, moderate Islam

If Muslim but non-Arab countries such as Indonesia (216 million people) and Pakistan (130 million people) can resist extremism and chart a moderate Islamic course, they would provide a significant counterweight to the Islamic fundamentalism abroad in Arab lands.

While my previous column discussed Pakistan, this one considers the threat of extremism to Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world.

If one could generalize about an entire nation, one would perceive Indonesians as a gentle, artistic, and moderate people. Having said that, they are capable of sudden outbursts of violence on grounds of religion (sometimes against Christians), ethnicity and minorities (against Chinese who control trade, for example) and politics and ideology.

The Malay word "amok" characterizes a tendency among peoples of the region to erupt in violent rage. The most savage example of this in Indonesia's history was the sikat (sweep), or military-ordered purge of communist supporters on which I reported in 1965 and '66. After an abortive communist coup and the midnight murder of the Army's high command, the Army swept across the country initiating and encouraging the elimination of PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) members. Many old scores were settled in the name of anticommunism. Victims included Chinese traders and peasants who were nominal PKI members with little understanding of ideology.

Reports of the death toll ranged as high as 1 million, but my own estimate was about 200,000 killed in the last three months of 1965, with perhaps another 50,000 killed in early 1966. The official figure was 78,000, but then-President Sukarno transposed the figures in announcing them, and 87,000 was what went 'round the world. (When I later protested to one of the investigating commissioners that the 78,000 figure was woefully unrealistic, he cheerfully agreed, but pointed out that Sukarno was still in power at the time and they gave him the figure he wanted).

Although Sukarno was revered as the man who led Indonesia to independence from the Dutch, he badly mismanaged the country for 20 years. His time had come, and he was deposed in 1967.

General Suharto, who played a key role in putting down the coup attempt, became president. His three decades of authoritarian rule were characterized in turn by widespread corruption and a disappointing failure to realize the country's economic potential. He was succeeded briefly by two weak presidents and finally, in 2001, by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter.

Last week, Indonesians began an extraordinarily complicated election process, which will culminate midyear with the first direct presidential vote. Early returns in parliamentary elections suggest Mrs. Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle fell behind Golkar, the party of former strongman Suharto, and recent opinion polls give her little chance of winning another term.

But there was no great surge of support for the small minority Islamic political parties. Intriguingly, instead of pressing extremist religious views, they campaigned on workaday issues of government.

This is significant. Indonesia has been beset by a surge of Islamist radicalism and terrorism from militant groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the October 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, among other attacks. Though the sprouting of these extremist cells is troubling, it is not yet translating into support at the polls for the religious radicalism that would move Indonesia away from the world's mainstream and ally it with the least-developed nations of Islam.

There are several hopeful factors.

First, while Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesians do not follow Islam with the hard-line fervor prevalent in some Arab countries. The practice of Islam varies widely in this sprawling archipelago, which is no stranger to Buddhism and Hinduism.

Second, while there is much poverty in Indonesia, it is a lush tropical country favorable to agriculture and quite different from the arid deserts of the Middle East. "Poke a stick in the ground, and something will grow," say Javanese on Indonesia's main island. For many, it may be a subsistence economy, but it is not starvation.

Finally, there is a desire for freedom manifested by an upcoming generation that hungers for it even though that generation has never really tasted the full flavor of democracy.

Stability may elude Indonesia in the months ahead as it wallows in frustration and political turbulence. The long-term question is whether it will veer from the moderate to the radical.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Indonesia.

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