Battle of (missing) ideas in Indonesia

If you are interested in the future of Islam, which means you are interested in the future of world affairs, then you are interested in Indonesia. I have been interested in the religious trends in that stunningly complex part of the world, ever since reading pages of gripping testimony from human-rights hearings in the British House of Lords. A sample from my Scripps Howard column on that:

One wave of warriors came out of the mountains while another came in boats from the sea, crushing the harbor villages on the island of Haruku.

"I heard a grenade and the house went up in an explosion at about 5:30 a.m.," said an Indonesian pastor, in testimony read in the British House of Lords. "Nine people died at the football pitch. ... Some were injured, but still alive, when the military came with bayonets and stabbed them in the neck."

Similar attacks have destroyed hundreds of churches and mosques during the past two years in the Maluku Islands, which were once known as the romantic "Spice Islands."

"Those who died were beheaded," he said. "We have not been able to find their heads, because the soldiers take them."

You see, if you steal the heads that makes it harder for the authorities to identify the victims. It also makes it harder to prove that the raiders in white jihad robes are killing Muslims who stand in their way, as well as Christians.

Did you note that mosques are being destroyed as well as churches? There have been testimonies about Muslims dying at the doors of churches while trying to help their Christian neighbors defend their homes and sanctuaries. That's important.

When you read coverage of events in the 17,670 islands of Indonesia, once the home of Barack Obama, you will often see references to that fact that the practice of Islam there is more broadminded, tolerant and, yes, "moderate." What you will rarely, if ever, read are practical examples of the faith, doctrine and practice that would lead radical raiders in white -- literally invaders from more radicalized Muslim cultures -- to slaughter Muslims in Indonesia as well as infidels (in other word, Christians and the faithful in other religious minorities).

Nevertheless, I had my hopes up as I waded into an A1 news feature this week in the Washington Post that ran under the headline, "Indonesia steps up pressure on Islamist militants." My assumption was that reporter Andrew Higgins and his editors were going to tell us some practical details that separated the faith and practice of the al-Qaeda-trained Islamists from the mainstream Muslims of Indonesia. Here is some summary material from the top of the report:

Over the past six months, Indonesian security forces have killed or arrested a host of key figures in an Islamist network that once looked as if it might tip the world's most populous Muslim nation into chaos. Unlike Pakistan, where extremists have steadily expanded their reach, Indonesia has hammered its main militant outfit, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the organization's even more violent splinter groups.

Whether Indonesia secures long-term calm depends on its capacity to combat extremism with more than guns and prison cells.

"Radical movements cannot be dealt with by only force," said Ansyaad Mbai, Idonesia's counterterrorism chief. More important, he said, is uprooting an ideology of Islamist militancy that turns believers into bombers.

Alas, note that we are talking about an "ideology," not a "theology" or a school of doctrine.

You see, the story sees this bloody conflict as a matter of politics -- not religion. Thus we read about "moderate" clerics fighting the radicals in a war of ideas, but we learn nothing about the content of the ideas (let alone doctrines) themselves. A case in point:

Which side prevails will be decided in local battles such as the one unfolding here in Pamulang at the al-Munawwarah Mosque, just down the road from the Multiplus business center where Dulmatin, the Bali bomber, was cornered and killed.

The mosque, in a leafy housing estate, has been controlled since 2004 by Muhammad Iqbal, a Saudi-educated cleric and veteran of anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Iqbal, also known as Abu Jibril, figures on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of "specially designated nationals," a catalogue of terrorism suspects, drug traffickers and others the United States regards as dangerous.

"Trouble started as soon as he got here," said Abdurrahman Assegaff, a rival Pamulang cleric who is leading a campaign to oust Iqbal and purge his mosque of jihadi thinking.

When Iqbal arrived in Pamulang, hard-line ideas like those he promoted looked as if they might eclipse Indonesia's traditionally laid-back take on Islam.

I want to know more, how about you? What is the content of "jihadi thinking" in a mosque of this kind? What are these "hard-line ideas," or dare we say, "doctrines"? What separates these clashing approaches to Islam in worship, in education, in daily life?

Instead, we mostly read about "anti-Western rhetoric." There is a reference to "Salafism, a purist strain of Islam that underpins extremist ideology," but we learn nothing about its teachings and how they lead to -- yes -- an ideology.

Later, the controversial preacher himself speaks:

Flanked by two of the mosque's trustees -- a retired Indonesian diplomat and a former oil executive who used to work with Obama's Indonesian stepfather -- Iqbal mocked moderate Islam as a travesty. "True faith is hard-line," he said. "In this mosque, we teach jihad. That is what makes this mosque special."

And what are the practical implications of that "true faith," in comparison to the false moderate version? Is there more to this struggle than debates about having an "Islamic state"? Is there more to it than a few lifestyle changes for women (they are supposed to stop riding motorbike taxis) and Muslim families avoiding parties in Christian homes?

Sigh. What an incredible missed opportunity for some crucial content. Once again we see the crucial question: What doctrinal innovations are necessary for Muslims to believe that it is acceptable, or even required, to kill infidels -- including other Muslims? This is a story about a life-and-death struggle about ideas and, yes, doctrines. Why not write about the details of the real story?

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