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Obama's pitch for moderate form of Islam comes unstuck in Indonesia

November 14, 2010 - New York

There is now very little tolerant Islam to be seen anywhere, outside of staunchly secular Tunisia.

According to a book titled "Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of s*x in the Middle East", authored by John R. Bradley, Indonesian capital Jakarta is an outstanding example of a city converting from the party capital of Southeast Asia, to being ultra-Islamic in the Saudi Arabian mould.

According to the New York Post, US First Lady Michelle Obama's handshake with an ultra conservative Muslim Indonesian government minister during the recent Obama visit to Jakarta earlier this week, has probably illustrated this hypocrisy in the country.

That handshake, rather than the president's appeal to moderate Islam, came to dominate the headlines about his visit to the country of his childhood, the New York Post reports.

For a start, the controversy undermined the very argument Obama had traveled to Indonesia to make: that the world's most populous Muslim country should be hailed as a role model for moderate and progressive Islam.

In Indonesia, an extremist Wahhabi form of Islam is on the ascendancy.

Bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, it is steadily eradicating the tolerant and pluralistic Islam that did indeed define Indonesia back when Obama lived there, many decades ago.

Nothing better illustrates the new Wahhabi stranglehold on Indonesian politics than the reaction of Tifatul Sembiring, the minister in question, to news reports about the now infamous handshake.

Initially, he claimed that the physical contact had taken place without his consent, as if he had been seized by the well-toned First Lady and wrestled into submission.

The video of the handshake, though, shows the minister warmly greeting the president's wife, not with one but both hands, in enthusiastic violation of his oft-stated belief that unrelated men and women must avoid physical contact in public at all costs.

There is a broader point to be made here, namely that pandering to the most absurd tenets of extremist Islam merely increases the vast gulf in any Muslim country between public and private morality.

In other words, it encourages hypocrisy, because in the modern world following such tenets with any degree of seriousness is well nigh impossible.

The Indonesian minister's flip-flopping is a perfect example.

But we need only glance at his role model, Saudi Arabia.n strictly segregated Saudi Arabia, a screaming panic seizes the clerics at the slightest sign of what they like to call "indifference to the veil."

Women risk breaking the law merely by stepping outside of their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. Extramarital s*x is, in theory, punishable by public beheading or stoning.

Yet 70 percent of marriages in the country are now reportedly of the "temporary" variety that can last as briefly as a few hours, and are often a barely concealed cover for prostitution.

Then there is outright prostitution. Again, it is officially banned and harshly punished, but widespread in all strata of Saudi society, with the religious police even conducting regular raids on brothels in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

All this would perhaps be tolerable if the result was that people could go about their private business undisturbed, so long as they did not make a song and dance about their transgressions. That is how things played out historically, but not any more.

The result is that for the ordinary Muslim in the streets of Jakarta, things are becoming as difficult as the streets of Riyadh.

There is a constant need for random examples to be made of hapless violators, who may be punished today for what only yesterday seemed widely tolerated, and what may again be tolerated tomorrow.


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