Indonesia: Gambling That Tolerance Will Trump Fear

April 15, 2007

Author: Calvin Sims

Source: The New York Times

SEVEN years ago, in the pre-9/11 fall of 2000, I was retrieving my luggage at the airport in Jakarta when a tall Indonesian man in a flowing white robe and green scarf accidentally bumped me off my feet.

In Jakarta, flowers are given out, pre-Islamic-style, after singing to Allah. He apologized and helped me up. Then I noticed he was part of a gang of grim young men stalking the airport with wooden rods.

He said they were from the Islamic Defenders Front and were searching for Israelis to kill. I doubt they found any, but I was shocked. Such bullying and militancy contrasted sharply with the Indonesia I had come to know on previous reporting trips: a model of Islam as a tolerant, compassionate, inclusive and peaceful religion.

The many varieties of culture and styles of life in this enormous archipelago had bred a unique form of Islam — or, more precisely, many such forms, thriving side by side and often drawing on a rich pre-Islamic history replete with magic, Buddhism and South Seas gods. I had thought the prospects for retaining this style had only been enhanced by the coming of democracy in 1998.

It has not quite worked out that way, and now the big questions facing Indonesia are: Can Islam and democracy co-exist? And what would such a democracy look like?