Radical vs. moderate Islam -- in Indonesia, a war rages

Indonesia needs to build a modern society. The recent report on U.S.-Indonesia relations by the U.S.-Indonesia Society, NBR, and the Asia-Pacific Research Center urged a significant effort to fund education.

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Even here in Indonesia, where there is a strong tradition of tolerance, there is a war going on between radicals and moderates for Muslim hearts and minds. You can see that war in the police armed with automatic rifles, manning anti-vehicle barriers in front of my hotel and every other large Western-linked building in Jakarta. In August, Islamist terrorists blew up a suicide bomb in front of the Marriott Hotel here and are threatening to hit a long list of targets that includes schools attended by Western children. These are the same bombers who killed more than 200 people in Bali last November. The war is being fought on Indonesia's campuses, particularly secular universities where students are intrigued by radical Islam. Activists from Indonesia's liberal Islamic movement disdainfully call them "born-again Muslims'' and hold provocative campus forums with titles like ``There is no such thing as an Islamic state.'' At a religious boarding school in Yogjakarta, one of tens of thousands of pesantran spread across this vast country, they teach that the Koran is to be understood, not just rotely chanted in Arabic. "We are not frozen in those Koranic verses,'' director Tabiq Ali said. ``Interpretation depends on our own thinking.'' You can even see the war in a steamy best-seller about a Muslim woman whose faith was shattered by the hypocrisy of Islamic radicals who preached righteousness while sleeping with her. The subject of the book, a Yogjakarta university student, now fears retribution. This is a war we cannot afford to see lost. Indonesia is not only the largest Muslim nation in the world, but it could also become a base for radical Islam to spread throughout Southeast Asia. Alternately, Indonesia's struggling democracy could set an example for others in the Muslim world. "You have all the ingredients that could make this place the first Muslim majority democracy that works,'' says Sidney Jones, a leading expert on Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia. ``And you have all the dark forces eager to push Indonesia in the opposite direction. The question is where does it come out.'' What can the United States do in this war? So far our efforts have focused almost entirely on aiding the pursuit of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. Initially, the government denied it had a home-grown problem and was wary of seeming to follow American dictates. But after the shock of the Bali and Marriott bombings, the authorities have captured many of the terrorists and successfully prosecuted them. Ultimately, however, Indonesia needs to build a modern society. While the rest of Asia, from India to Vietnam, vibrates with the energy brought by the information technology revolution, Indonesia feels like a stagnant backwater. Its economy limps along, plagued by poverty and corruption. The key is a woefully underfunded educational system. Unlike Pakistan's madrassah system, the religious schools are integrated into the state system, and many offer a secular curriculum along with religious teaching. But in the pesantran that I visited, one in a city center and the other in the countryside, I found classrooms that offered little more than whitewashed walls and wooden desks. Computers are few in number and science labs primitive, if even existing. State schools are better equipped but still backward. Why not wire every school to the Internet, build science labs and, most importantly, train teachers? A recent report on U.S.-Indonesia relations by the U.S.-Indonesia Society and Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center urged a significant effort to fund education. President Bush picked up on that idea, announcing a U.S. educational aid program during his October stopover here. But he alarmed Indonesians by tying the initiative to the war on terror. The U.S. ambassador had to make the rounds assuring Indonesians that the U.S. was not out to dictate curriculum in its religious schools. More troubling is the pathetic amount of money he offered -- most of it funds shifted from existing programs -- only $157 million over 6 years. Says former Ambassador Paul Cleveland, who heads the U.S.-Indonesia Society: "You would get more democracy out of $1 billion spent in Indonesia than $20 billion spent in Iraq.''