Return to Indonesia

A reporter chronicles the revival of the world’s most populous Muslim nation a decade after its disintegration

Despite ongoing problems, Indonesia boasts one of Asia's strongest economies. (Ed Wray)
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“There was great euphoria when Suharto stepped down, but it opened a Pandora’s box,” said Julia Suryakusuma, a Jakarta newspaper columnist. “Yes, we’ve got a real democracy. The world’s third largest after India and the United States. That’s pretty amazing. But what people worry about now is Islamization, the hard-liners who want an Islamic state.”

A soft rain was falling the night Fanny Hananto came to pick me up at my hotel. I jumped on the back of his motorcycle, and we slipped through lines of idling, bumper-to-bumper cars, headed for the mosque he attends. We passed a large group of women with small children, collectively called traffic jockeys, on a sidewalk. Hananto said solo motorists would pay a mother and child 25,000 rupiah (about $2.50 U.S.) to be passengers so the driver could use the lane reserved for cars occupied by three or more people.

I had met the 37-year-old Hananto through a friend. With his scraggly beard and a wife who dressed in black, everything covered but her eyes, and a daughter named for one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Hananto seemed the very personification of Islamic purity. Had he always been religious?

“Not exactly,” he said. As a younger man, he had worked on a cruise ship, spent nights partying with drugs and alcohol and, referring to the crowd that hung out at the Stadium nightclub, said, “I was one of them.” But about a dozen years ago he grew to fear the wrath of Allah and did a 180-degree turn, embracing Islam through the Kebon Jeruk Mosque, to which he was now taking me. He so deeply trusted the imam who mentored him that when the cleric said he had found a good woman for Hananto, and showed him her picture, Hananto said, “OK, I will marry her.” He did so a short time later, never mentioning his past life to her.

I removed my shoes as we entered the mosque, fearing I might lose them amid the piles of footwear strewn about. Thursday evening prayers had attracted so many men, perhaps 2,000, that I could not even see the visiting Pakistani cleric preaching at the front. The men were members of an apolitical Islamic movement, Tablighi Jamaat, that strives to make Muslims better practitioners of their faith. I squatted on the floor, and men in long, loose-fitting white shirts and turbans nodded in welcome or reached out to shake my hand. Hananto introduced me to his friend, Aminudia Noon, a university professor of civil engineering. I asked him where the women were.

“They’re home praying,” he said. “If they were to come here, it would be like an arrow to the heart from Satan.”

Islam was brought to Indonesia not by conquest but by 12th-century Muslim traders who took cloves, nutmeg and other spices to the West. Its spread was gradual and peaceful. Rather than smothering local culture and religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, mysticism—it absorbed them. The Islam that took root was less doctrinaire and less intolerant than some forms practiced in the Middle East, and no one found it particularly unusual that Suharto meditated in caves and consulted astrologers and clairvoyants.

Both Sukarno and Suharto were leery of fervent Islam. Sukarno feared it could threaten the stability of his diverse, fragile country and at independence rejected the idea of making Indonesia an Islamic republic. Suharto kept his distance from the Arab Muslim world and for years kept Islamists at home on a short leash. Some went underground or left for more comfortable lives in neighboring Malaysia, which is also Islamic.

I told Professor Noon I didn’t understand how Muslim terrorists who had killed countless innocents in Indonesia and other countries could be considered martyrs. “Those who believe that have misinterpreted Islam,” he said. “The basic theme of Islam is love and affection. How can you put people who make bombs in paradise? Suicide bombers are not martyrs. They have lost the blessing of Allah, and they will receive His greatest punishment in the hereafter.”

Indonesia after Suharto’s fall was buffeted by drift, strife and communal conflict. Islamic extremists emerged from the shadows—and with them the country’s first suicide bombers. In Java, the island where Jakarta is located, mysterious assassins brutally killed scores of suspected black-magic sorcerers.


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