Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but are its local Islamic traditions in danger of being overtaken by fundamentalism?
As I thread my way through crowds of worshippers at central Jakarta’s grand Istiqlal Mosque, traditionally dressed religious students grab my arms and pull me towards them.
“Take your photo with me!” shouts one. “No, first with me!” shouts another. Several small cameras appear as I am propelled to the centre of their smiling, boisterous group. All raise their thumbs in the air as the cameras start clicking.
I have visited many mosques around the world and I cannot remember ever getting such a warm and friendly reception. Though when I relate this experience to Yenny Wahid, founder of a Jakarta-based research centre on religion and daughter of the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, she is not surprised.
This, she says, is an example of a particularly Indonesian approach to Islam, known as Archipelago Islam.
“It really puts an emphasis on moderation, on tolerance, on protecting minority rights and basically has a big emphasis on a life of harmony,” she says. “So, it’s not strange when you see a woman in a headscarf walking hand in hand with a nun here.”
Archipelago Islam, or Islam Nusantara as it’s known locally, was built over the centuries on Islam that arrived from several other parts of the world and was initially intertwined with Hinduism and ancient Japanese religions. In a large and diverse country stretching over 3,000 miles from east to west and composed of more than 17,000 islands, a less tolerant and inclusive interpretation of the Muslim faith may have struggled to survive. It came to be based on five principles – social justice; a just and civilised humanity; belief in one God; Indonesian unity; government by the will and consent of the people.
Such values evidently weren’t shared by those behind the Bali bombings of 2002 which killed more than 200 people, many of them foreign tourists. But since then the country has been relatively successful in curbing extremism.