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Why Strict Indonesian Islamic Society Is Unpopular

Why A Strict Indonesian Islamic Society Is Unpopular

By Richard S. Ehrlich

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Washington has linked al Qaeda to the bomb attacks on Bali and the JW Marriott Hotel, but Muslim extremists' demands for a strict Islamic society are not popular in Indonesia.

Many Indonesian Muslims prefer to meld religious tradition with modern lifestyles and have overwhelmingly rejected fundamentalist candidates in local and national elections. Suicide Muslim bombers also do not enjoy much support.

"I hate the terrorists. The fanatics are crazy," said a Muslim office worker as he studied photographs published by police of two men wanted in connection with the car bomb blast on Aug. 5 in front of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.

The explosion killed 11 people including the bomb-packed van's alleged driver Asmar Latin Sani, 28, whose bloodied severed head was thrown by the blast onto the Marriott Hotel's fifth floor.

Police spent Tuesday (Aug. 12) searching for the two men who earlier bought the vehicle second-hand after it was advertised in a newspaper.

"Indonesia is 90 percent Muslim, but we have many styles, many different groups of Muslims and I think we should all live together, not just one fanatic style. We also want to live with the Christians and Buddhists and others," the office worker, in his 20s, said.

"Indonesia is not the same as Saudi Arabia," he added.

Proof of Indonesia's Islamic tolerance and forward-looking style are displayed in the strangest places.

Behind him, for example, a muted television beamed a local broadcast of MTV, highlighting an Indonesian teenage girl wearing a traditional Islamic head-cover, which cloaked her hair, ears and neck -- allowing only her oval face to appear.

She mischievously grinned and introduced to Indonesia's avid MTV audience the latest steamy video by Britney Spears' ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake.

On the street, meanwhile, a ramshackle bookshop offered tiny bumper stickers for sale, including several stating: "I Love Islam" and "Islam is the Best".

The shop, trying to be trendy, also sold stickers illustrated with a hip icon -- the yellow smiley face -- wearing a flat, college graduation cap and proudly captioned: "Muslim Intellectual."

Serious Islamic items also appear on sale throughout Indonesia, often liberally displayed near Christian, Buddhist and animist images and statues.

Such mixing of religions and respect is commonplace, and is being updated to a globalized, 21st century.

In a typical middle-class department store, one-third of an upper floor sells Islamic clothing, prayer carpets and embossed holy Koran books under a big wooden sign which says: "Muslim Corner."

The women's Islamic clothes are modest but label-conscious, separated on racks under the names of local dress designers. "On sale" signs try to tempt customers.

Each portable prayer carpet comes with a large, sewn-in plastic compass which tells the direction to Mecca when the rug is plunked on the ground, because Muslims must bow toward that holy Saudi Arabian city when praying.

While the devout ponder a purchase, they can hear saucy hip-hop songs by Missy Elliot and other American singers pumping through the department store's public sound system.

Outdoors, five times a day, countless Muslim mosques broadcast their muezzins' lilting, Arabic call to prayer through electric loudspeakers which echo throughout this muggy, urbanized capital above the din of traffic.

The mosques are crowded. Muslims are allowed to take a break from work each time the muezzins call, even while working in hospitals or other emergency services.

But many other Muslims attend only once a week, on Fridays.

Across Indonesia, however, thousands of Muslim men and women have openly demanded an Islamic regime with harsh sharia laws drawn from the Koran and rooted in their ideal of a society more than 1,300 years ago.

"We have made up our minds not to stray from our ultimate goal of establishing Islamic law in the country," Irfan S. Awwas, executive chairman of the influential Mujahideen Council of Indonesia, recently told reporters.

The council, also known as MMI, is led Abu Bakar Bashir, currently in prison while on trial for alleged involvement in a string of Christmas Eve church bombings in 2000 which killed 19 people and for attempting to assassinate President Megawati Sukarnoputri when she was vice president.

"I say do not be afraid of being labeled as trying to overthrow (the government), or as terrorists, when you are carrying out Islamic sharia in full," Mr. Bashir said in a speech relayed from prison and read out to 3,000 enthusiastic followers on Sunday (Aug. 10) at the start of a three-day MMI rally.

Washington insists Mr. Bashir is a leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a "foreign terrorist organization" in Southeast Asia linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and the Bali and JW Marriott Hotel bombings.

Mr. Bashir insists Jemaah Islamiyah does not exist and he claims to be innocent of all wrongdoing. He blames the CIA for creating Jemaah Islamiyah to stoke anti-Muslim propaganda and persecute the faithful.

Amid the rhetoric, violence, fear and confusion, many Indonesians have become leery and resentful of Mr. Bashir and other Islamic hardliners, especially after the bombings killed fellow Indonesians who lived and worked at the targeted sites.

For many Indonesians, the Marriott Hotel attack was especially galling because 10 Indonesians -- most of them taxi drivers -- and one foreigner died when the car bomb gutted the hotel's entrance.

In Bali, 202 people died in the October 2002 blast and while most of them were Australian and other foreign tourists, many of the dead included working-class Indonesians.

Meanwhile, the beat of goes on for moderate, modernizing Muslims.

Boosting people's spirits at a recent televised dance, broadcast nationwide, a popular singer named Zwesty mangled the lyrics to "Say A Little Prayer" -- but her song was not religious. It was made famous by American soul singer Aretha Franklin.

While Zwesty crooned, Indonesian adults in suits and other formal attire danced in cocktail lounge ambiance, including a few mature women wearing Islamic head-coverings who did their best to boogie.

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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