Indonesian leader woos Islamists, upsets minorities

Jakarta, Indonesia - As Indonesia's president courts Islamic parties to form a new coalition, religious and ethnic minorities fear this may undermine a tradition of tolerance in the mainly Muslim but officially secular Southeast Asian nation.

Such a shift could have far-reaching social and economic consequences, potentially stoking tensions between the majority Muslims and the minority Christians and Hindus, as well as prompting the mainly Christian, ethnic Chinese who dominate the business sector to park more of their assets offshore.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's reliance on a large, unwieldy coalition of Islamic and secular parties in his first term, including the Golkar Party which dominated politics during the Suharto era, made it much harder for him to tackle reform.

But in parliamentary polls this month, Yudhoyono's Democrat Party tripled its share of the votes to about one fifth, putting him in a stronger position to form a more manageable coalition of parties with a common platform.

Already, Yudhoyono, or SBY as he's often known, has said he may ally with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamist party which lifted its share of the vote slightly to 8 percent, causing alarm among some Indonesians.

"The possibility that SBY will join with PKS makes us nervous," said Sofjan Wanandi, Chairman of the Employers' Association of Indonesia, citing concerns that the PKS might push to create an Islamic state once they had power.

"There is a lot of uncertainty around this. We don't know if we can believe them," he said.

"I don't mind if we have a few ministers from PKS, but if they start to implement really nationalist policies then it could lead to something negative. Political stability is the most important thing to have to avoid capital flight."


The PKS's push for reform and a crackdown on graft fits with Yudhoyono's platform, but in other areas there is less of a fit.

Its network of cadres hold weekly study sessions to discuss Islam and while the party has tried to play down its Islamist reputation to widen its appeal, many Indonesians are skeptical, fearing it will push for more sharia-type laws.

Its economic policies veer towards the nationalist, and it has said it would push for the renegotiation of contracts in the energy and mining sector, which could deter foreign investors.

"PKS have a conservative ideology but are portraying themselves as open and moderate because they are also pragmatic," said Mohamad Guntur Romli, a religious freedom activist.

"Right now, because the Democrat Party is winning, they will adapt because they want to get into the coalition. They will be careful about what they say.

Tifatul Sembiring, PKS chairman, told Reuters earlier this month that his party supported sharia principles, rather than sharia law, and wants all Indonesians to obey their respective religious teachings.

A close alliance between the Democrats and PKS would give the latter much greater influence and perhaps more cabinet posts, at a time when support for most other Islam-based parties -- as well as for the two more established secular parties, Golkar and Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P -- has declined.

Indonesia's minorities -- Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, as well as the ethnic Chinese who dominate the business sector -- have already had a taste of what this conservative Muslim influence could mean in terms of policies.

As Yudhoyono's relations with Golkar, his main coalition partner, soured last year, he backed policies favoured by the Islamist parties, passing an anti-porn law that upset Christians, Hindus, and liberal Muslims, and issuing restrictions on the Ahmadiyah, a minority sect that some Muslims consider heretical.


Earlier this month, a report backed by former President Abdurrahman Wahid warned that extremists and hardliners including the PKS were infiltrating moderate Muslim groups and institutions to press a more radical agenda.

The PKS denied having a secret agenda.

Even so, some moderate Muslims feel that Indonesia's centuries-old form of Islam, influenced by mysticism, is under threat from a more conservative form of Islam, noting that polygamy is on the rise, more women and even small children wear the jilbab, and conversions to Islam have increased.

About 85 percent of Indonesia's population of 226 million profess Islam, and the vast majority are considered moderate.

"Religious consciousness has been rising for the last five years. But that is (true) for other religions too," Nasaruddin Umar, Director General of the Office of Islamic Guidance in the Department of Religion.

At the same time, an economic migration from predominantly Muslim areas to minority areas is sowing the seeds for religious and cultural conflict.

Thousands of Indonesians from the poorer parts of Java and Sulawesi islands have been lured by the prospect of jobs in the resource-rich areas of Papua and Kalimantan, which have large Christian and animist populations, and in the resort island of Bali, which is mainly Hindu.

In Papua, where a secessionist conflict has brewed for decades, analysts warn of the potential for religious-based clashes following an influx of Muslims to the mainly Christian, tribal areas at the easternmost extreme of Indonesia.

"The potential for communal conflict is high in Papua," International Crisis Group warned in a report last year.

"Many indigenous Christians feel they are being slowly but surely swamped by Muslim migrants at a time when the central government seems to be supportive of more conservative Islamic orthodoxy, while some migrants believe that they face discrimination if not expulsion in a democratic system where Christians can exercise "tyranny of the majority"."