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Pieces of the national mosaic

Newsweek - January 25, 1999

Dorinda Elliott – There may be a financial crisis in Indonesia, but Ida Royani's business is booming. Her fashion collection has been rushed off to the stores, where outfits are flying off the racks as women buy new clothes to celebrate this week's end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. For prices ranging from $250 to $500, there are silk-chiffon caftans, batik sarongs with flowing scarves, hand-stitched, beaded confections and even one dress with Ida's name hand-painted in Arabic across the front. All are tailored with the proper decorum, to hang loosely and cover any suggestive curves. Ida, 45, is Indonesia's top Islamic designer, and business has never been so good. The wife of President B. J. Habibie just visited her shop to stock her wardrobe. "Nobody ever said Muslim fashion can't be beautiful. Why not?" says Ida, a former singer who once wore hot pants and plunging necklines. Indeed, she is beautiful in a black caftan, an ikat scarf echoing the earth tones of Javanese batik and dark lipstick the color of passion fruit. "Business is good," she says. "Everyone wants my clothes!"

Islam is all the rage in Indonesia, and not just in politics. On TV, a radiant woman covered from head to toe in white robes is singing out to children, office workers and villagers to join her. They all come along, singing and swaying, marching to a shining white light, the mosque. It is an ad for a bank. It's also part of Indonesians' attempt to sort out their national identity in the chaos that has erupted since President Suharto stepped down. Two decades of breakneck modernization led to a confusing schizophrenia: the thumping rhythm of discos and shopping malls competes with the drone of the traditional gamelan and ancient feudal rituals. Now, in the rubble of economic collapse, Western consumerism and Indonesian mysticism alike seem to have failed. Instead, many people seem to be searching for a firmer foundation. "There has been a rebirth of Islamic activity," says Umar Kayam, an expert on Javanese culture at Gadjah Mada University. "We are facing very difficult times, so people find solutions in religion."

Not all of these solutions are spiritual. Though Muslims are a 90 percent majority, Indonesia's scattered islands and diverse cultures make it a fractured mosaic of cultures and religions; over the centuries, Javanese animism and mysticism have adapted and absorbed elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Nonetheless, in its extreme form, the Muslim revival has led angry mobs to burn churches and businesses owned by Indonesia's ethnic Chinese citizens, most of whom are Christian. A small group of radical Muslims is even pushing for Indonesia to become an Islamic state, with strict Islamic laws. Watching the political agitation around them, non-Muslims fear that if Indonesia becomes an Islamic country, "life would become impossible for us," says a Chinese legal aide in Jakarta. "This is not what I want for my Indonesia."

But Indonesian Islam is a far cry from the strict version practiced in the Middle East. Jakarta's streets twinkle with Christmas lights, though fewer than in earlier years. McDonald's hangs curtains in the windows during Ramadan so as not to offend fasting Muslims, but still serves those who wish to eat. Garuda Airlines (whose symbol is a Hindu god) plays Christmas carols on a domestic flight before the pilot announces sunset, the end of the Muslim fast. While more Indonesians pray five times a day and fast, most Muslims are nonpracticing; they wear no Islamic clothing, and they are as Javanese as they are Muslim. They burn incense to their ancestors and believe that the natural world is full of spirits. They believe that the dalang, the shadow puppeteer, has supernatural powers and visit the dukun, or sorcerers, to solve their problems.

Tabib Aulia, a healer in Yogyakarta, the spiritual center of Java, shows how Islam mixes easily with Javanese superstitions. Aulia says he employs the Koran and the power of Allah to cure everything from cancer to impotence. For $25 to $150, depending on the severity of the problem, Aulia will also magically insert pieces of gold under his clients' skin, to make them appear more beautiful or help resolve other difficulties. These days, many people ask him to give their businesses a boost; a gold implant, he says, will make people buy their products. For a fee, he will also mail small magical Javanese knives, called krises, to clients for good luck or general health.

In Jakarta, middle-class clients line up to see Kusnadi, 72, for everything from marital problems to exorcisms. He says he uses incense, broken glass, flowers, nails and razor blades to cure people. With power he says he derived from his Islamic ancestors (he slept on his grandmother's grave for 1,000 days to hone his supernatural powers), Kusnadi scribbles messages from the Koran and instructs women patients to wear them in their bras to fend off black magic. He says Suharto asked for advice on controlling his rage shortly before he resigned. Kusnadi told Suharto's messenger the anger stemmed from shame about his corruption. Working himself into a trance, Kusnadi tenses, panting, growling, lunging with knuckles flexed. With the spirits' help, he says, he has "become a tiger." But that doesn't mean he's not also a good Javanese Muslim.

The new middle class, while increasingly devout, will fight to bar Islam from politics. Enrollment is way up at the Islam Al-Azhar Number One high school, one of Jakarta's most prestigious and expensive schools. "Especially in the middle class, Islam is growing, because it teaches how to live with our fellow man," says Mustainah, the principal, dressed in a colorful Islamic head scarf and lipstick. "We could never be like Iran, because we have too many different people and cultures. All our differences are a gift to the country." According to Onghokkam, a prominent historian, middle-class politics is developing for the first time, with people pushing for real programs – to fight poverty, for example, or corruption – that include all races and religions.

Only a few Islamic laws are practiced in Indonesia, and the middle class is already pushing for an even more liberal approach. According to the Constitution, men and women are equal. There is no Middle East-style chopping-off of hands as a punishment for theft. There is no Islamic law forbidding men and women from having sex before marriage. Educated Muslims often ignore the Islamic inheritance law, which grants male descendants twice as much as females, and disperse their property equally. Some Muslims also ignore the Islamic adoption law, which grants no inheritance rights to adopted children. To bypass the marriage law, which prevents Muslims from marrying non-Muslims, young couples get married overseas. "Because of better education, Muslims are starting to criticize certain Islamic laws as going against their rights," says Apong Herlina, director of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute.

For many Indonesians, Islam is an anchor in a turbulent sea. Some politicians may want to manipulate religious divisions for their own gain, and they may have an audience among Indonesia's most desperate Muslims – but not among the people who have rediscovered Islam and are exploring the newfound territory. Historian Onghokkam says an Islamic government "would destroy Indonesia." The educated class understands the dangers. "Oh, no, if we did that people would quarrel too much," says designer Ida. She is far more concerned about the fact that so many other designers are ripping off her styles. The idea that Islam is beautiful has caught on, and it's moving plenty of merchandise.