Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

Jesus, Political Philosopher

Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests

What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

The NCC's Near-Death Experience

On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya

Letters to the Editor


Religious Ironies in East Timor

by Robert W. Hefner

Although it is the largest majority-Muslim country in the world, Indonesia has not loomed large in public awareness of the Islamic world. Indeed, the world’s fourth-largest country has barely made a mark on American public consciousness at all.

Only during the early years of the Vietnam War did the mainstream news media, reflecting the government’s fear of falling dominos, provide regular coverage of Indonesia. Coverage picked up briefly in the aftermath of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in late 1975. In the years that followed, periodic massacres by Indonesian troops and the appeals of East Timor’s Roman Catholic spiritual leader, Bishop Carlos Belo, prevented the East Timor story from falling into complete obscurity. News on both Timor and Indonesia increased exponentially, however, after Indonesia’s president, B.J. Habibie, announced in January 1999 that Indonesia would allow the East Timorese to decide their fate in an August referendum.

Well before the vote, violence broke out in areas of East Timor, as pro-Indonesian militias sought to intimidate independence supporters. Although the BBC and several other news organizations reported on the worst of these incidents, few observers were prepared for the maelstrom of destruction that swept East Timor in early September, after it was announced that almost 80 percent of the East Timorese had voted for independence. In full view of United Nations observers and, before they were driven from the countryside, Western reporters, the militias sprang into action. They burned most of East Timor’s towns, killed hundreds of independence supporters, and forced 200,000 people into refugee camps in the Indonesian province of West Timor.

As they scrambled to explain the enormity of this tragedy, a few Western reporters speculated that the scale of the violence might be related to the fact that some 88 percent of Indonesians are Muslim while more than 90 percent of East Timorese are Roman Catholic. Aided by excellent early reports by the BBC and CNN, however, most of the Western media avoided the suggestion that the violence had anything to do with Islam.

A September 13 story in the London Daily Telegraph made the trenchant observation that the militia members targeting church institutions in East Timor were themselves primarily recruited from Catholic families. On September 18, CNN Worldview carried an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University in which he asserted that "religion has virtually nothing to do with this." And in its September 20 issue, U.S. News and World Report reported that the violence was directed not just at the Timorese but at Indonesia’s next head of state. The armed forces’ message was: "Suharto was a puppet master, but you’re a puppet." In these and other instances, the Western press deserves praise for resisting stereotypes of Islam and Muslim politics as motivated by an eagerness to extirpate other faiths.

Yet there was a downside to the media’s balanced portrayal of Islam in the Timor tragedy. In correctly concluding that Muslim interests had little to do with the militia violence, the media overlooked the very important, if more complex and contradictory, religious interests at play in the conflict. These less familiar aspects of the tragedy shed critical light on the ongoing struggle for democracy in Indonesia.

The first irony of the East Timor tragedy is that the man responsible for organizing the occupation of this now overwhelmingly Catholic territory was himself a Catholic. Although President Suharto was responsible for the initial decision to invade East Timor (having received tacit approval of his plan from U.S. officials), the actual architect of the 1975 invasion was a stern army general known as Benny Moerdani. The most powerful of commanders to serve under Suharto, Moerdani is a conservative Javanese Catholic and the only one among Suharto’s army chiefs who was non-Muslim. Still today, Muslim hardliners blame Moerdani for what they regard as the "anti-Islamic" bias in the armed forces during the 1970s and 1980s. They accuse the Catholic commander of denying promotions to pious Muslims and portraying Islam as an enemy of the state. The charge has a grain of truth, but it overlooks the fact that, to the degree that such policies existed, they enjoyed Suharto’s full support. Although nominally Muslim, during his first 20 years in power Suharto regarded political Islam as the number-one threat to his power.

The second irony in this story relates to the cultural change that took place in East Timor as the Indonesian occupation dragged on. In 1975, the East Timorese population was only about 35-40 percent Catholic. Aside from a few Muslims in coastal towns, most of the non-Christian population practiced ancestral and ethnic religions. Most of the troops sent to Timor by Indonesian authorities, however, were Muslim. So too were most of the poor Indonesian migrants who came to Timorese towns in search of a better life. The result was that indigenous Timorese came to identify Indonesians and the occupation with Islam. This perception had a galvanizing effect on Timorese society. By the early 1990s, the proportion of Timorese professing to be Catholic had surged to more than 90 percent. Equally important, the Church and its reform-minded bishop had become key symbols of Timorese resistance to the Indonesian occupation. Although their military campaign dealt crippling blows to the armed resistance, the Indonesians unwittingly strengthened the role of the Church as a symbol of Timorese self-determination.

The curious intermingling of Indo-nesian and Timorese religious destinies did not end there. In the final years of his rule, Suharto had a change of heart toward Islam. After General Moerdani complained to the president about the avarice of his children, Suharto resolved to punish his insolent commander by building a new base of support outside of the military. He was aware that in the 1980s an Islamic revival had swept Indonesian society. Always on the lookout for challenges to his rule, Suharto was also alarmed to see that many young Muslims had interpreted Islam as consistent with the call for constitutional democracy and human rights. Between 1989 and 1996, then, Suharto sought to split the Muslim community, rallying conservative Muslims to his side while vilifying pro-democracy Muslims as "secularists," "Westernizers," and "liberals."

Suharto also reorganized the military during these years. He removed Moerdani supporters from key posts and, for the first time ever in Indonesian history, promoted hardline Islamists to the strategic command. When, in 1995, anti-Indonesian riots broke out in East Timor’s capital, presidential propagandists portrayed the violence not as the result of Indonesian oppression, but of Vatican and Western meddling. Ultra-conservative Muslims rallied to the president’s side, calling for jihad against independence fighters in East Timor, now portrayed not merely as anti-Indonesian but anti-Islamic.

Remarkably, however, Suharto’s attempt to cultivate an ultraconservative constituency never won the hearts and minds of most Muslims. Hard-line supporters of the dictator remained a small minority in the Muslim community. Conversely, the pro-democracy movement that gained momentum after the Asian economic crisis in 1997 recruited most of its supporters from the ranks of young Muslims. Faced with this challenge, Suharto supporters only intensified their hateful propaganda against Chinese and Christian groups during 1997 and 1998, to disastrous effect. In the last two years of Suharto’s rule, some 400 Christian churches were damaged or destroyed and thousands of Chinese shops burned. The Western media carried few reports on either this low-intensity violence or the regime propaganda against Chinese and Christians. In May 1998, Suhartoist hardliners orchestrated riots in the capital in which more than 100 Chinese women were hunted down and raped. Most in the Muslim community were outraged by this vile abuse of their religion. Muslim revulsion against the violence was a key influence on Suharto’s decision to step down on May 21, 1998.

The man who replaced Suharto as president, Vice President B.J. Habibie, sought to distance himself from his heavy-handed predecessor. Habibie’s announcement of the East Timorese referendum was part of this effort to give the heirs to the ancien régime a kinder and gentler face. But from early on, Habibie’s plan encountered fierce opposition. The military command in particular was outraged that it had not been consulted before Habibie made his decision. Several weeks after the announcement, military officials initiated actions openly defiant of the president. They funneled money and arms to pro-Indonesian militias, and laid the groundwork for the militias’ consolidation of power. When, in the aftermath of the August referendum, militia violence swept across the province, the military portrayed it as the "spontaneous" result of local tensions, denying that the armed forces had played a role. This propaganda backfired because, benefiting from first-rate news coverage, the outside world knew better. Under U.N. and Western pressure, then, the Indonesian authorities were forced to let East Timor go.

The final and most bitter irony of the East Timor tragedy is that the violence has had a corrosive impact on Indonesia’s own fragile efforts at democratic reform. The failure in East Timor only stiffened the military’s anti-democratic resolve. Startled by U.N. calls for investigations of human-rights abuses, key generals in the military concluded in late 1999 that further democratization would only lead to human-rights prosecutions. The ascent of military hard-liners has also put new wind in the sails of anti-democratic Muslims. Having backed Suharto in 1998, these conservatives had been discredited in the eyes of most Indonesians.

In the elections of June 1999, parties representing hardline Muslims earned less than 10 percent of the vote. By the end of the year, however, the hardliners had acquired a new lease on life by aligning themselves with military opponents of political reform.

In October 1998, one of the heroes of the Muslim democratic movement, Abdurrahman Wahid, was elected president. Since beginning his political career in the early 1980s, Wahid has been a champion of religious pluralism, a pioneer of women’s rights, and a fierce critic of Suharto’s authoritarianism. Suharto responded to this defiance by attempting to drive Wahid from the leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest of Indonesia’s Muslim social organizations. It is widely believed that, after failing in this effort, Suharto secretly organized riots in several Wahid strongholds, in an effort to show the NU rank-and-file that there was a price to be paid for independence.

In capturing the presidency, Wahid beat out the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose primary base of support came from Indonesia’s secular and Christian communities. Once inaugurated, however, Wahid made his reformist intentions clear. He appointed Megawati vice-president, called for investigations into human-rights abuses, and reached out to the battered Chinese community. But lacking military backing, he has had to move cautiously in his efforts to reform the armed forces, a handicap that some outsiders have mistakenly perceived as a lack of will. In a two-hour conversation with me in November 1999, Wahid made clear that he considers the reform of the military a number-one condition for the consolidation of democracy in Indonesia.

Events of recent months have revealed the scale of the challenge he faces. Since December 1999, the nation has witnessed an explosion of "ethnic" and "religious" violence in the capital and, most tragically, the remote Maluccan islands in eastern Indonesia. In the first five days of the new millennium alone, violence between Christian and Muslim villagers in Maluccu took, by official estimates, more than 2,000 lives. Most were killed in well-coordinated massacres carried out by armed militias.

Since this is taking place far from the gaze of Indonesian and Western journalists, no one can prove who is sponsoring these criminals. However, political observers in Jakarta are convinced that, as in East Timor, the violence has been directed by anti-reform elements in the now deeply divided military. Hardline military commanders dismiss these charges, once again claiming that the killings are the result of "spontaneous" emotions and "local" grievances. They assert that Wahid himself is ineffective as a leader and is therefore to blame for the violence. Meanwhile, despite repeated presidential appeals, military officials have failed to arrest even a single leader of the violence.

Equally alarming, pro-military Muslims have taken advantage of the government’s inability to contain the crisis and have appealed for jihad against Christian Maluccans. Brazenly defying President Wahid’s instructions, the conservatives have opened jihad offices in major cities across Indonesia, recruiting Muslim youth for battle against Christians.

The violence in East Timor during 1999 was, then, actually part of a larger and ongoing drama. Faced with the threat of democratic reform, ancien-régime hardliners in Indonesia have unleashed wave after wave of violence. Their current aim is to show that civilians in general, and President Wahid in particular, are incapable of governing Indonesia. The violence is all the more unfortunate in that it is occurring in a country where the majority of Muslims have just proved their democratic mettle. Democratic Muslims were united in rejecting Suharto’s anti-Chinese and anti-Christian provocations, and rejected the claim that the East Timorese struggle for independence was invented by Westerners so as to humiliate Muslim Indonesia. Now, however, out of range of Western cameras, a campaign of equally horrific violence is being carried out. The country’s fragile democratic achievements are in jeopardy, as is the effort to forge a civil and democratic Islam.

The democratic struggle in East Timor and Indonesia has been deeply affected by religious change in both societies. Catholic conversion in East Timor became, among other things, a means of refuge and resistance against Indonesian rule. For many Indonesian Muslims, the Islamic revival lent moral weight to the demand for democratization, human rights, and the rule of law. For others, a minority, the revival became a tool with which to leverage a conservative defense of the political status quo. In covering Indonesia, the media would do well to capture—and convey to the world—this complex play of religious forces. In East Timor, the whole world was watching, and it made a difference. The media’s coverage of the contest of religious visions in Indonesia may also help determine the fate of one of the world’s most important countries.