JAKARTA (AFP) ― As a pious young Muslim in Indonesia, Didit Sukmana prays five times a day, recites the Koran daily and fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
That’s not all. The 23-year-old student and Jakarta resident refuses to shake hands with women, will not marry a non-Muslim and approves of such Islamic Hudud sanctions as cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers to death.
“I wholeheartedly agree that sharia law should be implemented in Indonesia.
“If beheading and hand-chopping put people off crimes which then results in a more orderly society, why not?” he said.
Young men and women attending a ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the Nahdlatul Ulama organization at a stadium in Jakarta on July 17. (AFP-Yonhap News)
It’s not the image the outside world usually associates with Indonesia’s urban youth, who are more often described as enthusiastic adopters of new technologies such as Facebook than supporters of strict Islamic law.
But according to a recent survey by Germany’s Goethe-Institut, the bulk of youths in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country share remarkably traditional values about faith and family, despite a decade of social and political change since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.
More than half of nearly 1,500 Indonesian Muslims aged 15 to 25 years polled from October to November last year supported the eye-for-an-eye Hudud punishments for crimes such as theft, adultery and apostasy.
Fully 66 percent agreed with capital punishment for murder and 68 percent favored whipping for alcohol consumption.
Conservative beliefs were stronger in relation to family matters, with nine in 10 respondents disagreeing with interfaith marriage. Of those willing to marry non-Muslims, most expected their spouses to convert to Islam.
Nearly half identified themselves as Muslims first and Indonesians second, pointing to the weakness of the Indonesian state in an archipelago of 240 million people, 80 percent of whom are Muslims, spread over 17,000 islands.
The study noted the importance of Islam as a “source of strength and positive energy to cope with Indonesian urban life, which is becoming tougher and more competitive.”
“There’s no strong institution in the country we can depend on,” 23-year-old teacher Fikriyah Rasyidi said.
“We feel that nobody, not the government, is looking after us. Many people are jobless, costs of education are high. So in times of stress, religion becomes a balm for the soul.
“Governments change but God and religion are indestructible,” she added.
Most of Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims are moderates, but the country has struggled to deal with a radical fringe of extremists who have carried out numerous attacks including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
In a recent Independence Day speech, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defended the country’s reputation for pluralism and tolerance in the face of growing alarm among civil society groups about rising extremism.
“Even though there are challenges and threats to pluralism, tolerance and social harmony, we cannot move from our belief that Indonesia is a nation that is able to live in pluralism,” he said in a televised address.
Critics accuse the ex-general of pandering to the religious right by failing to crack down on violent hate groups, such as those behind the brutal mob slaying of three members of the Ahmadiyah minority sect in February.
The attack was caught on film and occurred in front of police, but the culprits got off with jail sentences of between three and six months. Meanwhile an Ahmadiyah survivor of the attack was jailed for six months for trying to defend himself.
“I worry that Islamic radicals will exploit religious conservatism and influence youths to take their side and push their interests. This may give rise to religious conflicts,” Islamic studies lecturer Jajat Burhanudin said.
But while religion may be important in their personal lives, Indonesians are not turning to political Islam to solve the country’s problems, Burhanudin said, citing “happy indications” that Muslim parties fare poorly in elections.
Sharia punishments such as whippings for adultery and gambling have been introduced in some areas, notably conservative and semi-autonomous Aceh province, but there is no push to incorporate them into national law.
“To me, religion is a less superficial concept than the state, but I consider myself to be secular,” said 25-year-old youth activist Mahardhika Sadjad.
Achmad, a 17-year-old student, added: “It’s not as if I live in the dark ages. I support democracy and progress... But God always comes first.”