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Speaking in Islamic tongues in Indonesia LAWANG - For those recently heaping praise on Indonesia for its moderate Muslim and emerging democratic credentials, consider the case of Islamic preacher Yusman Roy. Last year Roy was sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges for leading Muslim prayers at an East Java Islamic school in his native Bahasa Indonesia rather than Arabic as conservative religious councils require. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the language issue pitches modern, liberal interpretations of Islam, known broadly here as abangan, against conservative orthodox views, represented broadly as santri.

Conservative Islam was in the main kept under the state's thumb under former strongman Suharto. Today, all Indonesian citizens are obliged to register under one of five government-approved faiths, namely Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism or Protestantism. This information is included on state-issued identity cards and, in a holdover from the country's authoritarian past, by law every Indonesian must carry the ID cards at all times.

With Suharto's 1998 downfall and the subsequent establishment of democracy, Islam is gaining political expression through faith-based political parties that have pushed in parliament for Islamic-tinged legislation, including a controversial anti-pornography bill that aims to nudge Indonesia in the direction of strict religious regimes seen in certain Middle Eastern countries.

Roy's case is increasingly at the epicenter of an intensifying debate between conservative and moderate religious forces. The Islamic teacher was recently released from prison for good behavior and has returned to the Islamic school he runs with his wife in the town of Lawang in East Java. After spending nearly two years in abysmal prison conditions, Roy says he is nonetheless determined to continue leading prayers in Bahasa Indonesia, the national Malay dialect.

"The problem with many Muslims in Indonesia is that they don't think for themselves," he said. "They stand in the mosque and mumble, but they don't understand what the clerics are saying because they don't know Arabic. What's the problem with using Indonesian? God understands everything we think and say whatever the language."

Significantly, Roy is not shying from a fight with powerful Islamic traditionalists, including the clerics represented by the rule-making Indonesian Muslim Scholars' Council. He has recently published and distributed a little book outlining his philosophy for leading prayers in Bahasa Indonesia rather than Arabic.

In April 2005, he spent Rp10 million (US$1,100) to promote a public meeting at the State Islamic University in the East Java provincial capital Surabaya to encourage public debate on the issue of bilingual prayers. There, he encountered strong resistance from Muslim fundamentalists, who firmly insisted that God's instructions to the Prophet Mohammed were made in Arabic and therefore were sacrosanct.

Roy takes exception to that strict interpretation and laments the lack of public debate on such a significant issue: "Why can't we discuss these issues? There's no commandment to use Arabic. We should debate, not fight."

As the son of a Catholic Dutch woman and a Muslim Javanese who fathered 11 children with four wives, Roy's mixed ethnicity has been questioned by conservatives aiming to undermine his stance. A former boxer and debt collector, the tattooed Roy converted from Catholicism to Islam later in life. But Muslim clerics' use of Arabic in their prayers, which he couldn't understand, encumbered his conversion.

"It took me about 15 years before I became fully Muslim," he said. "I saw contradictions between what was written in the [Koran] and what people were saying and doing. The clerics were saying it doesn't matter what you pray as long as it's in Arabic. That's wrong. We have to know what's being said when we talk to God."

After last year's seminar in Surabaya, police called at Roy's home and escorted him to the nearby town of Malang, where he was arrested and later sentenced to prison. Hours after his arrest, three truckloads of angry devotees from the conservative Islamic Defenders' Front arrived at his school, apparently bent on violence, according to Roy's wife.

He faced two charges: deviating from Islam in his teachings and inciting hatred by challenging the clerics in the Muslim Council, who had previously prohibited him from using the Indonesian language in prayer. Although Roy, 50, received verbal support from former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who previously headed Indonesia's largest moderate mass Islamic group, the 30-million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama, or Revival of Religious Scholars, and substantial legal aid and publicity from overseas, he was convicted and jailed on the second count of disobeying the council.

With Roy behind bars, his wife Supartini ran their free Islamic school, Pondok I'Tikaf - which from the Arabic translates to "meditation" - and managed its 300 students alone. In prison, Roy received a new tattoo with the Indonesian words for patience, prayer and emotional control on his right arm. The former pugilist says that when other prisoners learned why he was sentenced, they often picked fights with him.

Recently released, Roy has resumed his Islamic teachings and prayers in Bahasa Indonesia rather than Arabic. He still fears the conservative vigilante group the Islamic Defenders' Front could wreak havoc on his small school, and says his faith in the same god his potential attackers invoke will protect him from religious-based reprisals.

The police have cut the phone lines to their house to stop the barrage of anonymous verbal threats, but because the local police force is clearly on the side of the Islamic clerics who have challenged Roy's Islamic interpretation, his school is highly vulnerable to a vigilante-style attack, he says.

"I'm not afraid of being charged again. It's the government's job to protect all citizens whatever their views, and I demand that protection," said Roy, who now avoids the local mosque because of the controversy. "The people who attack me don't know right from wrong. They don't understand the prayers in Arabic, so they don't pray properly.

"There's a group in Indonesia that wants to keep Islam backward," said Roy. "I'm fighting this cause as a pioneer with my soul and property. It's difficult being alone, but I'm sure God will protect me. I'm an Indonesian Muslim, not an Arab Muslim! Why would anyone want to stop me?" It's a question at the heart of the unfolding contest between conservative and moderate forces for Indonesia's religious and democratic soul.

Posted in Religion @ 16 December 2006 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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