The fundamentalist cleric accused of masterminding violent jihad in Indonesia walked free from jail last week and once again raised fears about the future of Indonesia as a moderate Muslim nation.
Abu Bakar Bashir's first public comment on leaving prison after two years was that Muslims should struggle hard to implement Shariah, or Islamic law, in Indonesia; his second was that the United States is a terrorist state because it is waging war against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reason people pay attention to what Bashir says is that there are now almost two dozen districts in Indonesia that have implemented aspects of Shariah. And, after a brief surge in popularity following the massive US relief operation in post-tsunami Aceh, America's image is plummeting again.
Like it or not, Bashir, 68, who is returning to the Islamic boarding school where he taught several known and suspected terrorists, strikes a popular chord in Indonesia. That's why President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has started to act. Not just by keeping a tight watch on Bashir and the activities of his followers, but in a more concrete way by moving to underpin the foundations of tolerance and pluralism in Indonesia. Some Indonesians think there isn't a moment to lose.
In parts of West Sumatra and West Java, local governments have issued regulations obliging women to wear head scarves in public. In some areas local administrations have even passed bylaws requiring Koran literacy among schoolchildren. At a national level there have been moves to frame a conservative law against pornography that in its original form would make mini skirts illegal. And supermarkets have been pressured to stop selling hard alcohol. All this while Bashir was in jail.
To express concern about what they see as creeping Islamicisation, 56 national legislators have signed a petition urging Yudhoyono to abolish Shariah-based bylaws or risk Indonesia's disintegration.
The government's antidote to the apparent erosion of tolerance is to resort to an old and much maligned national ideology. Pancasila, or the Five Principles, were devised by Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno. The principles embrace belief in one God, humanity, unity, deliberation for political consensus and social justice for all.
During the Suharto era, students, officials and the military were force-fed Pancasila as a means of enforcing conformity and blocking out any other kind of ideology. So when Suharto fell, Pancasila was sidelined. But democracy has opened a Pandora's box of identities. Support for Pancasila's revival comes from Muslims and non-Muslims alike who worry that creeping Islamicisation is undermining the secular and pluralistic nature of Indonesian society.
Yudhoyono was at first reluctant to take a stand on Pancasila's comeback - perhaps because his fragile political coalition includes Muslim parties. But in early June the innately cautious president made what some observers are calling the most important speech of his tenure. "We should end the debate on alternatives to Pancasila as our ideology," he said. "We should keep on with efforts to increase the people's welfare and to uphold justice based on the ideology that we have. Let's make Indonesia a peaceful place where all citizens in their diversity meet to build consensus and march together in a life imbued with harmony and tolerance."
The trouble is that Islam remains a potent symbol in a democracy devoid of strong political parties with secular platforms.
Indonesia needs a flowering of the kind of centrist politics that has stabilised so much of Europe in the postwar era. Pancasila is centrist by definition. A Pancasila party could act as a powerful magnet for the moderate majority. So would a recasting of the modernist Muslim core as a Muslim Democrat party. To the left, Indonesia would benefit greatly if the energy expended on street protests for better wages were channelled into the launching of a sensible labor party.
To achieve all this, the government still needs to empty bureaucratic baggage left over from the authoritarian era and clear the way for new political parties to be established along sensible ideological lines. Only then will noisy hustings drown out the dangerous strains of Bashir's bigoted babble.
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