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Indonesia's path to a more puritanical form of piety cannot be separated from the global trend toward conservatism that has swept Islam since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which brought Ayatullah Khomeini to power. The movement has only accelerated since Sept. 11, 2001, with the Internet bringing together Muslims worldwide in condemnation of Western actions in the Middle East. "With the hegemony of the West, we have so many problems," says Muhamad Ikhwan, director of Wahdah Islamiyah, which runs a 1,000-student Islamic academy in the eastern city of Makassar, where many girls wear chadors that cover everything but their eyes. "The world was safe when it was run by Islamic civilizations, so we want to bring Islam back to its former glory."
Unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia, however, the Republic of Indonesia is governed by a constitution that guarantees a separation of mosque and state. Those secular underpinnings, say some legal experts, call into question the very constitutionality of the Shari'a bylaws. But the administration of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has sidestepped this debate. Vice President Jusuf Kalla calls the faith-based regulations "normal" in a Muslim-majority state, insisting: "It is not Shari'a law but laws influenced by Shari'a." Yudhoyono himself has avoided any public comment on the bylaws' legality. "The President will do nothing on this because he is scared of offending the Islamic movement," says former Indonesian President and moderate Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid. "If the silent majority isn't speaking out against the Shari'a-ization of Indonesia, then why should he risk his political career for them?" Even presidential adviser Agus Widjojo frets about the official silence: "The government can't just have a policy of no action on Islam. This policy only emboldens the extremists."
Supporters of Shari'a argue that the central government's attitude simply reflects public sentiment. A 2006 poll by the Indonesia Survey Institute found that 58% of Indonesians believed adulterers should be stoned, as is mandated by Islamic law, up from 39% five years before. "There's a new feeling in Indonesia that people have been burned by secularism, that it's not working," says Zulkieflimansyah, a former UI student president and a legislator from Indonesia's biggest Islamic political party, the Justice and Welfare Party. "Islam can give them hope, and our mission is to educate Muslims about the real Islam."
But what exactly constitutes true Islam in Indonesia? Is it a mystical tradition based on centuries of syncretic practice or an Arab-inspired move toward the religion's 7th century roots? How this debate plays out will dictate just what kind of a Muslim democracy the world's fourth most populous nation aims to be. "I believe we must strengthen the moderate paradigm and say that our Islam stands for tolerance, dynamism and freedom of expression," says Zuhairi Misrawi, a researcher with the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development in Jakarta. "But is that what the majority of Indonesian people want? It's becoming harder to tell."