Our Muslim Neighbours

Indonesian Muslims don’t necessarily support the opinions and actions of Middle Eastern Muslims.


Listener: 8 June, 2013


Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Literature and Culture; Political Economy & History;


I once flew from Dublin to Vienna – both Catholic but with very different atmospheres. The distance from Mecca to Jakarta is much further. Indonesia has more Muslims than anywhere else: over 200 million, or one in eight of the world’s total. It was not conquered by Muslims. More than 800 years ago, Muslim traders arrived and missionaries followed. Which means Indonesia has been Muslim longer than the Pope’s Latin America has been Christian.


Traders have to engage with the locals, and so the culture they and their missionaries bring adapts to local conditions. The previous dominant religions had been Hinduism, which is still strong in Bali, Buddhism and folk religions. Although today 88% of Indonesia’s population say they are Muslims, the state guarantees all the freedom of worship. However, not all localities are as tolerant of diversity. Malaysia, for example, is officially a Muslim state.


So although many Muslims reject the depiction of human figures – the Koran only forbids idolatry – Indonesian Islam uses shadow puppetry, probably introduced by Hindus, to tell stories about the earliest Muslim missionaries. Despite the Koran saying sons should inherit more than daughters, a Pew Research survey reports most Indonesian Muslims think sons and daughters should be treated equally. This may be a consequence of colonisation by the Dutch, who were stronger on women’s rights than the Brits – women’s rights were reduced in New York when Manhattan became British.


Yet surveys show Indonesian Muslims are devout by Muslim standards, and as devout as many Christian fundamentalists. Muslim attitudes are held by a majority of the society. Most want sharia (Islamic) law to be the country’s official law, although only a third want it also to be applied to non-Muslims. The foundations of our law are also religious.


Very few disagree with the proposition that a wife must obey her husband. But when Muhammad set out the principles in the Koran, the situation of women in Arabia was terrible. In instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, marriage, education and divorce, he gave women certain basic safeguards. The colonial arrival of British law often reduced Muslim women’s property rights.


On a study tour sponsored by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, I spoke to deeply committed Muslim women who wanted to adapt Islamic traditions to modern circumstances. There is the notion of mahram, a male relative who ensures women are safe. They wanted to extend the notion of mahram responsibility to the whole of society. They said they were not “feminists”, perhaps because they saw that movement’s Christian foundations, but Indonesian women’s immediate concerns are not so dissimilar to those of New Zealand women 50 years ago. Who knows where they will be in 50 years’ time?


A good majority of Indonesian Muslims reject terrorism; not only are they likely to suffer from it but they also think it is not Islamic. I met Indonesians who were actively promoting educational programmes to discourage the violence a diminishing minority still supports.


However, following the Arab wealth from the oil price hike of the 1970s, a number of Indonesian men were trained into a more rigid form of Islam in the Middle East. A consequence is that women no longer show the fringe of their hair under their hijab.


The headscarf is not a fundamentalist symbol but a statement of belief and community, just as wearing a Christian cross is for some. Many women wear them only in certain circumstances; they are also a fashion statement. I saw no veils in Jakarta.


I was in Britain at the height of the IRA terrorism but I did not regard all Irish to be terrorists. It is to be regretted that so many of our views about Muslims come from the Middle East via London and New York.