JAKARTA, Indonesia (Reuters) – Joining a group of young Indonesian intellectuals who hold liberal Islamic views was once just a ticket to controversy. Now, it could be life-threatening.
Since Indonesia”s top Muslim council issued religious edicts in late July that banned liberal interpretations of the faith, death threats against members of the 4-year-old Islamic Liberal Network, known as JIL, have poured in.
The fatwas that JIL says triggered the hate campaign coincide with the closure of numerous unauthorized Christian churches by hardline Muslim groups and the jailing this month of three Christian women for inviting Muslim children to church events.
The developments have hurt Indonesia”s image as a moderate Muslim nation and reflect a backlash against liberal opinion as well as a push by Muslim conservatives to reassert themselves after the failure of political Islam to gain traction during last year”s elections, experts say.
"The fatwas have had a snowball effect," said Nong Darol Mahmada, a co-founder of the Islamic Liberal Network who has received dozens of death threats via e-mail and text messages.
"People believe that JIL is banned and that it is now legally permitted (under Islamic law) to murder us."
Police guard the Jakarta office that houses JIL after one militant organization threatened to attack the group, which has never shied from controversy since its inception in 2001.
It has been quick to poke holes in the arguments of militant clerics and take the lead in debates about issues from marriage to the role of religion in politics, often using radio to reach a broad audience across the world”s most populous Muslim nation.
To some analysts, JIL was a key target when the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) issued its non-binding fatwas on July 29.
Apart from attacking liberalism, the council forbade pluralism and inter-religious marriage.
"We are seeing a conservative high tide which is a reaction to several things, but a common view that Muslim liberals have taken things too far," said Greg Fealy, an expert on Indonesian Islam at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Fealy said he did not believe such a backlash meant the end of progressive Islamic thought in Indonesia, where Muslims have embraced democracy and have more freedom to express their views than in just about any country in the Islamic world.
While it was clear Indonesians increasingly identified with Islam, last year”s elections showed voters did not care for Islamist parties that support strict Islamic Sharia law.
Those parties won 23 percent of parliamentary seats last year, up from 19 percent in 1999.
"People are more self-consciously Islamic but it doesn”t mean anyone is saying … we should make Indonesia an Islamic state," Fealy said.
Many Indonesian Muslims, especially on the main island of Java, infuse the practice of Islam with local tradition influenced by Hinduism and mysticism.
Indonesia is also officially secular and recognizes Christianity and several other religions in addition to Islam.
That has not stopped Islamic militants in the past two years from closing down some 25 unlicensed churches that operate from homes and shops.
Christians say the growth of such churches underscores the difficulty of getting a permit, which requires approval from local communities where they are usually a minority. Police have said they cannot act because the churches are illegal.
In another religious case, a court in West Java this month jailed three Christian women for three years each for inviting Muslim children to church events without parental consent.
JIL was not actually banned in the MUI fatwas, but the message was clear, said Mahmada, 31, an articulate graduate of Islamic studies from Indonesia”s most prestigious Islamic university, as she sipped a bottle of iced tea.
"I am pretty pessimistic about Islam in Indonesia," she added.
Down the road at the Al-Muslimun mosque, Imam Pambudi, 41, a local Islamic community leader, said JIL had to leave the area.
"At first we had no problems but after the MUI fatwa, the people here were shocked that something considered haram (forbidden) by the MUI was among us," said Pambudi.
Despite what appears to be a series of blows to Indonesia”s Muslim liberals and the country”s image in general, analysts like Fealy and Merle Ricklefs, another prominent Australian expert on Islam in Indonesia, remain generally optimistic.
"This is a story without an ending, but there are grounds for thinking that the progressive liberalism of Indonesia has withstood the attack," Ricklefs wrote in the Australian Financial Review on September 2.
"With its reactionary fatwas, MUI may indeed have sidelined itself within a rapidly changing society."