Why Indonesia Matters

February 22, 2007

Author: Hannah Beech

Source: TIME Magazine


The Vespa Girls used to be an institution at the University of Indonesia (UI). Back in the 1970s, these daughters of elite families would take breaks from their studies at Indonesia's best university by cruising on Italian two-wheelers, their miniskirts grazing their upper thighs. Sometimes, certain Vespa Girls wore no underwear. Today's UI, still the state-run breeding ground for the nation's future leaders, is a very different place. Half the female student body striding across the campus near Jakarta wear the jilbab, a Muslim scarf that covers the head and neck. Student politics is dominated by the Campus Propagation Institute, an Islamic group that offers religious mentoring and encourages students to adhere to Shari'a, or Islamic law. Female faculty in the Department of Medicine, irrespective of their religion, are barred from wearing short skirts, while those in Humanities must eschew tight pants and low necklines. "This university is supposed to be secular, but it has become an Islamic zone," says Gadis Arivia, a UI lecturer in philosophy. "It's no different from the rest of the country."

Indonesia is undergoing a spiritual revolution. Since the 1998 fall of strongman Suharto, who during his 32-year rule suppressed not only political freedom but any faith that could challenge his authority, the country has re-embraced its religiosity. In 2004, Indonesia held its first-ever direct presidential election, shattering the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Yet that same open system of politics has encouraged a flowering of conservative religious thought and allowed the rise of homegrown terrorists, threatening the country's reputation as a model of moderate Islam.

Indonesia matters. The battle for its soul is taking place within a wider war in the Islamic world pitting progressive Muslims, who believe their faith can coexist with modernity and liberal Western influences, against fundamentalists, who want the religion to return to its more austere Arab roots. What happens in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, could presage the direction other Islamic societies take. Over the past four years, dozens of regencies—provincial subdivisions—across Indonesia have used the more permissive political climate to implement Shari'a-based bylaws that include bans on alcohol and prohibitions on women going out alone at night. In 2003, only seven districts had such faith-based initiatives in place. Today, 53, more than 10% of all Indonesian regencies, are living life under some form of Islamic-inspired law. More places are expected to implement similar initiatives this year. "I don't want to contemplate the possibility of Indonesia becoming a Shari'a-based state, but I'm worried that it could happen," says Yenny Wahid, director of the moderate Muslim Wahid Institute in Jakarta. "Even though I believe the majority of people in Indonesia don't buy the idea of an Islamic state, the extremist groups have convinced people that to be a good Muslim, you must support an Islamic state."