Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ramadan again

At the beginning of February, I had my annual chat about Islam and politics with my former-neighbour Mr Samsu, the retired university teacher who reminded me of a friendly little polar bear. We sat on comfortable chairs in the shaded back garden of his bungalow. No drinks were on offer.

"Ramadan again," I said. "The mosques seem absolutely packed."

"As you know," said Samsu, "Ramadan teaches us what it's like to be poor and hungry. However, you'll have noticed it has an unfortunate effect on services by the Post Office and hospitals. It's not a good idea to get sick during Idul Fitri."

"You mean the good doctors are all away on holiday?"

"That's it."

"Do you think Islam is growing in influence?" I asked.

"What do you think?"

"I seem to see a few more women in the countryside who're wearing Islamic clothing. I also hear complaints that the president has too many Christians in his cabinet."

"There are various forces at work," said Samsu. "The president is worried about the loyalty of some sections of the army. Some in the army criticise the President's children and his rich Chinese business partners. So the president may be becoming more friendly with certain orthodox Moslem groups. He may be thinking of putting more Moslems in his cabinet."

"It's a question of alliances."

"Yes. And maybe the intelligence services have warned the president of the dangers of not keeping in with Islamic groups that are becoming more important. Look at how Moslem protesters forced the government to abandon the idea of a national lottery."

"Why is there more Islamic militancy?"

"Remember that the majority of Moslems here are moderate, and their Islam contains a touch of mysticism and a sprinkling of Hinduism and Buddhism. However, there is a minority of Moslems who have been influenced by conservative ideas from the Middle East; that means Saudi Arabia, which is allied to America. The Saudis, and the Pentagon, prefer governments that are fundamentalist and easy to control."

"Religious rather than secular."

"That's right. But then some people in India want a completely Hindu state and some Israelis want a state run by orthodox Jews."

"What would happen here if they had free elections?"

"The secularists and moderate Moslems would win," said Samsu, sounding confident of his words. "The president, and his American backers, don't want those two groups allying against the government."

"But Islam is becoming a bigger force in society?"

"Yes. Partly due to ideas from the Middle East and partly due to politics. Then there's another factor. There's the economic situation. This country has growing debts, too much red tape and too much corruption. You can't trust the police or the courts. Some people turn to Islam as an escape from the uncertainty. Then there are some Indonesians who simply don't want a world of computers and high-rise flats. They don't want to work in an office or factory all day like the Singaporeans. They would prefer a simple Moslem culture which is rural in character."

"Some of the protests in this country seem to be very well organised," I said. I had been reading my Jakarta Post.

"It's rumoured that certain Moslem sects are set up, financed and controlled by rich and powerful individuals."

"Is there a lot of that sort of thing?"

"It's possible that rich businessmen, even Chinese-Indonesian ones, could buy a militia, even soldiers. When soldiers dress up as civilian protesters, who knows who they're working for. Who owns the different units of the special forces, the strategic reserve command or the intelligence services?"

"The government and the people?"

"Not necessarily. This is in some ways a feudal society where the loyalty of barons is often in doubt."