The Classroom Battle for Indonesia's Soul

(International Herald Tribune) Stanley A. Weiss - With the world focused on Iraq's bloody struggle to emerge as the first democratic state in the Arab world, an old question is being asked anew: Can Islam and democracy coexist? Contrary to conventional wisdom, the answer lies not in the Middle East, home to only 20% of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, is in the middle of its first direct presidential election just six years after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship. The real question is whether Muslim moderates in countries like Indonesia can win the battle of ideas with Islamic reactionaries. And the battle for the future of Indonesia, like the battle for the soul of Islam itself, will be won or lost in its classrooms. Many fear the increasing militancy of a small minority of the madrasas, or Islamic day schools, and pesantrens, or Islamic boarding schools, that now enroll up to 20% of Indonesian schoolchildren. Saudi "charities" have spent millions promoting their intolerant Wahhabi strand of Islam in the most radical of these institutions. Their alumni include foot soldiers of Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist group responsible for attacks across Indonesia, including the Bali nightclub bombings of 2002. Muslim nations must make education a priority, and the U.S. must help.

2004-08-20 00:00:00

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