Facing Down the Fanatics

A more tolerant Islam is confronting extremism in the world's most populous Muslim country.

This story appears in the October 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

He answers the door himself. No armed guards, no attempt to hide. Abu Bakar Baasyir lives in a modest one-story home on the campus of the boarding school he helped found in the quiet village of Ngruki, amid the central highlands of the main Indonesian island of Java. Baasyir is 71 years old, stalk thin, with a white goatee and lively dark eyes magnified by gold-rimmed glasses. He is the alleged spiritual leader of the militant Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which has been linked to at least a half dozen bombings in Indonesia over the last decade, including the devastating 2002 Bali nightclub blasts and, perhaps, the suicide bombings at Jakarta luxury hotels this past summer.

Baasyir denies involvement in violence and, like a successful mafia don, has avoided a proven connection to any attacks. He served two stints in prison—a total of less than four years—on minor charges not directly related to the bombings. But the Islamic boarding school he established clearly was the hub for a network of jihadists set on creating an Islamic state in Southeast Asia; several of Ngruki's graduates have been convicted of involvement in major bombings. There's little question that Baasyir's teachings have been the inspiration for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of killings and for attacks against "deviant" Muslim groups that fall outside mainstream Islam. Still, he opens his own front door. "Come in," he says, speaking Bahasa Indonesia, the country's official language. "Have a glass of juice."

He is wearing a long, loose shirt, a white skullcap, and a large wristwatch. There are no chairs in his living room and no artwork, just clean white walls, a potted plant, and a low table supporting a plastic container of sesame cookies. He sits on the floor, barefoot, on a grass green rug. His adult son, Abdul Rahim, serves melon juice in tall, clear glasses.

"There is no violence in Islam," says Baasyir, in his deep, gravelly voice, waving his left hand like a conductor. "But if there is hindrance by enemies, then we have the right to use violence in response. That's what we call jihad. There is no nobler life than to die as a martyr for jihad." He praises the September 11th and Bali bombings. They were not, he insists, acts of terrorism. They were simply "reactions to what has been done by the enemies of Islam."

Indonesia is tucked away in a far corner of the world map, a rain of islands just north of Australia, yet violence here can have global repercussions. It is the most populous Muslim country in the world, home to 207 million Muslims—36 million more than the next largest Muslim nation, Pakistan, and two-thirds as many as all the countries of the Middle East combined. It is extremely devout; a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that Indonesia was one of the world's most religious nations. It's also a thriving democracy, the third largest in the world, after India and the United States.

But it's a new democracy, still finding its legs—little more than a decade has passed since the country's virtual dictator, Suharto, was ousted. The end of his rule granted Indonesians new freedoms of expression, though it also unleashed radicals like Baasyir, who had honed his extremist views during a long exile in Malaysia, where he'd fled after his arrest for opposing Suharto. A year after the 2002 Bali bombings came the first J. W. Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta, then in 2004 a strike on the Australian Embassy, also in Jakarta, and in 2005 a triple suicide attack, again in Bali. And just a few months ago, after a long gap during which many experts came to believe that the threat of terrorism was greatly reduced, came the bombings at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and, once more, the J. W. Marriott. These are scattered events in a vast nation. But in the words of one Indonesian proverb, roughly translated, "It takes just a little poison to spoil all the milk."

Indeed, Indonesia's 17,500 islands can feel, at times, like so many marbles on a wobbly table. A subtle tilt, and they'll all roll in one direction. As recently as 2005, Indonesia seemed to be tipping toward Islamic radicalism, feeding Western fears that it was becoming a haven for terrorists. For several decades, Indonesian society had been growing more overtly Islamic: Attendance at mosques swelled, and Muslim dress became popular. In the late 1990s, a growing number of district governments began enacting regulations inspired by sharia, or Islamic law, and support for Islamic political parties was on the rise. Increasingly, militant Islamic groups that advocated a violent struggle to recast Indonesia as an Islamic republic seemed to be drowning out the voices of the majority of Indonesian Muslims, who believe that their faith can smoothly coexist with modernity and democratic values.

But in the past few years, although Indonesians continue to embrace Islam in their private lives with greater fervor, it's become clear that most don't want religion to be enforced in the political sphere. "So many people equate Muslim piety with radicalism," says Sidney Jones, an Indonesia specialist with the nonprofit International Crisis Group who has lived in the country for more than 30 years. "Indonesia is full of examples of why that notion is wrong." As Islamist politicians have moved to regulate women's dress codes and ban activities like yoga, moderates have begun to make their voices heard. In the Indonesian parliamentary elections this past April, candidates backed by Muslim organizations received less than 23 percent of the vote, down from 38 percent in 2004.

Though the recent bombings are a setback, Indonesia has lately been seen as a success story in how to curb violent extremism. Authorities have arrested at least 200 members of Jemaah Islamiyah in the past five years, although some dangerous fugitives remain at large. Many radicals have shifted to advocating the establishment of Islamic law. Even Abu Bakar Baasyir, since his release from jail in 2006, has distanced himself from more militant factions of Jemaah Islamiyah and begun promoting the struggle for sharia as the way for Islamists to achieve their goal of transforming the democratic nation into an Islamic republic.

Baasyir believes that any human-created lawmaking body—a house of congress, a court of law—is an insult to the sovereignty of God. "Allah has sent a manual on how to treat human beings," he says. "That manual is the Koran." There's no need, in his view, for any other code. "Islam and democracy," he concludes, "cannot coexist." Now that Suharto is out of power and centralized rule has been weakened, local districts can decide for themselves whether to institute sharia-based regulations. Where this has been done, Baasyir says, everything is better. Much better. "Go see for yourself," he says.

The province of Aceh, on the western prow of the Indonesian archipelago, is now perhaps best known for suffering a direct strike from the December 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 160,000 Indonesians. But for centuries, the Aceh region has been recognized as one of the most devout Muslim areas in all of Asia. Aceh's unofficial slogan is that it is the "veranda of Mecca," and many of its residents seem to sit on this porch with their backs to the rest of Indonesia, embracing an Islam closer to that which exists across the ocean on the Arabian Peninsula. Here, more than anywhere else in the islands, people observe a strict Islamic code of conduct. In 1999 the national government paved the way for Aceh to become the nation's first province to establish sharia as criminal law.

Devi Faradila is a fashionable, 35-year-old mother of two and a parliamentarian in Aceh Province. At the time of my visit, she was the leader of the all-women's unit of the Banda Aceh Sharia Patrol, a municipal force in charge of monitoring compliance with local rules in the province's capital. On a typical Friday—a day, according to Aceh law, when all Muslim men must attend mosque—Faradila readied her unit for duty, breaking up a Ping-Pong game in the station house, wagging her finger at a couple of text messaging officers.

Faradila and 13 patrollers donned black baseball caps to complete their uniforms—black shoes, black slacks, black blouses, and lime green head scarves—and piled into a pickup equipped with loudspeakers. Faradila, in the driver's seat, pulled on leather gloves, added a fresh coat of lipstick, and put on mirrored sunglasses. Her deputy hopped in beside her. The rest of the women sat in the bed of the pickup.

The truck moved slowly through the city, Faradila blasting a constant stream of announcements over the speakers. "Hurry up, men! Friday prayers are about to begin." "Stop all activities. It's time to pray." Men on the streets or in shops—a carpet seller, a furniture maker, a fruit vendor, a bricklayer—turned their heads and stared. A few checked their watches. "Today is Friday. It is obligatory for men to pray."

Aceh is the only Indonesian province with a sharia patrol unit; a total of 800 officers, mostly men, police the region day and night. But at midday on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, sharia enforcement is left to the women, who can pray at home. Faradila wove the truck around the massive five-domed mosque at the city center, then toward the shoreline, which was both gorgeous, with mountains rising green from the sea, and haunting—giant swaths turned to swampland by the tsunami. One officer in back spotted a teenage girl strolling down a sidewalk with no head scarf, a reckless act in a city where virtually every Muslim woman is covered. The truck immediately screeched to a halt. "Veil! Veil! Veil!" the officers shouted. The girl looked aghast. She indicated in pantomime that she would put a covering on, and the truck drove off.

As prayer time grew near, Faradila's pleas became less polite. "Close your shop!" "Find the nearest mosque!" The truck pulled over in front of a dilapidated two-story building, a fish market and artists' studio, a known place for drinkers. The team leaped out of the truck—half Charlie's Angels, half Taliban. Two men were swiftly nabbed. They were fishsellers, they said, and smelled too bad to attend a crowded mosque. The women issued them citations anyway.

A widely distributed booklet, A Brief Look at Sharia Islam in Aceh—the cover shows a man being whipped—outlines the rules. If you're caught gambling: six to 12 lashes. Improperly mingling with the opposite sex: three to nine lashes. Drinking alcohol: 40 lashes. Skipping prayer on three consecutive Fridays: three lashes. The whip, according to the booklet, must be made of rattan a quarter to a third of an inch thick. At the Banda Aceh Sharia Patrol station, two whips were on display, each as long as a cane and as snappy as a flyswatter. There was a photo album filled with images of the whippings; more than a hundred have taken place since 2005. The man who administers them wears a maroon robe, white gloves, and a face-covering hood. The crowds are enormous.

Polls indicate that, although most Indonesians say they want sharia as the foundation of public life, they are uneasy about the imposition of such corporal punishments. Outside of Aceh, adoption of religious-based regulations has been piecemeal, with some districts prohibiting gambling or drinking, or requiring women to wear veils. Yet these rules have often been enacted by secular politicians who see Islamic regulations as a way to curry favor with their pious constituents or distract attention from ongoing corruption. In the future, experts say, playing the "Islam card" may not have the populist force it did just three or four years ago.

Except, perhaps, in Aceh, which appears to be ratcheting up its Islamization and has even considered implementing the surgical severing of hands in accordance with the Koran's punishment for theft. That would be fine with Faradila. Sharia law, she insisted, has made Banda Aceh more reverent and much safer. She'd like to see an expansion of the laws. "Cutting hands," she said, "in the correct circumstances, would serve as a lesson to others. Crime would be greatly reduced." Stoning for adulterers would also be fine. "When you embrace Islam," she said, "you have to embrace all the laws."

Fundamentalist Islam is a fairly recent import to Indonesia, where a relaxed if no less fervent form of the religion has long held sway. "Smiling Islam," it's often called. Islam originally came here the way most things come to islands—by sea. The islands' volcanic soil is ideal for growing spices, and by the 12th century most of the traders taking Indonesian pepper and nutmeg and cloves to the West were Muslims from the Middle East. For Indonesian producers, converting to Islam had advantages—trading partners preferred fellow believers.

The spread of Islam into Indonesia was gradual and peaceful. What took one frenzied, blood-soaked century in the Middle East required a leisurely half millennium in Indonesia. Scattered across some 3,000 miles of ocean, the islands had hundreds of ethnic groups and religious practices. Islam helped integrate previously separate peoples into a single regional culture. By the time the United East India Company, run by the Dutch, won control of the spice trade in the 17th century, Islam had spread to nearly all of Indonesia's coastal societies. "Islam was so successful coming to Indonesia because it was able to accommodate the existing culture and religions," says Syafii Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism in Jakarta. "Even in the architecture of the mosques, local style was incorporated."

Yet when the global reshuffle following World War II opened the path to independence from Dutch rule, Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, chose not to establish an official state religion. Creating an Islamic republic, he felt, would alienate the minority of the population that was not Muslim; Sukarno himself had a mother of Balinese Hindu ancestry and a Muslim father. Indonesia's second president, Suharto, took power in 1966, in the wake of explosive anticommunist violence that killed half a million people, and for a while he was able to smother the hostilities and foster economic growth. But his regime was repressive and militarized. Suharto's resignation, in 1998, was triggered by a student-led, largely Muslim pro-democracy movement a few million strong—a development that some historians have cited as a landmark event in contemporary Islam.

But the end of Suharto's regime also intensified a schism within the Muslim community between those who supported the nation's traditional blending of Islam with local beliefs and those who sought to "purify" Islam, stripping away its regional flavor. That clash continues today, fueled in part by ideas and practices originating in the strict Wahhab­ism of Saudi Arabia, which has funded Islamic universities and boarding schools throughout Indonesia.

Still, across most of the country Islam continues to meld with a multitude of indigenous faiths and traditions. Rhythmic drumming, once associated strictly with native ceremonies, is often used before the Muslim prayer call, introducing the standard chant broadcast from mosque minarets. An Islamic group on Lombok Island even drinks a traditionally made palm wine in its celebrations, though the Koran warns against any alcohol consumption.

Perhaps the quintessential expression of Smiling Islam can be found in Jakarta, Indonesia's messy, manic capital, where extravagant malls and cinemas with names like Hypermart and Blitzmegaplex are under construction, and luxury high-rises abut teeming slums. Here, on a gravel side street, is the dusty, cluttered office of Ki Demit. Ki is the honorific bestowed upon Indonesian mystics. Ki Demit, whose name means Little Ghost, is 28 years old, baby-faced, and the son of another ki—Big Ghost—as well as the grandson and great-grandson of mystics. "I come from the most magical bloodline in Indonesia," he says.

In most places across the Middle East, such a statement would be heretical—anything paranormal not attributed to Allah is forbidden in Islam—but inscribed on a black batik in Ki Demit's waiting room is the menu of his charms. These include santet (sending a hex), pelet(gaining a lover), kekebalan (immunity from injury), and kejantanan (prowess in bed). One wall is covered with photos of celebrities—a soap opera star, a singer, a comedian—who have sought the help of Ki Demit or his father.

Ki Demit's clients sit cross-legged on the floor in front of him, a creaky ceiling fan above, the room crammed with candles and perfume bottles and prayer beads and antique knives. "I can read people's minds, and I can see the future," he says. "But I don't want to compete with God. I am only God's mediator." At the conclusion of many of his sessions, he'll give a client a handful of dried flowers he says are imbued with supernatural powers. Once the client takes a bath with the flowers, he says, his spell begins.

"I'm a good Muslim," insists Ki Demit. "Of course I pray five times a day. Of course I observe Ramadan. But long before Islam came to Indonesia, my ancestors were practicing these rituals. My father trained me as a ki, and when I have a son I will, of course, train him. I embrace Islam strongly, but I hold tightly to my powers. You cannot play with this power."

Across town from Ki Demit is the television studio where singer and talk-show host Dorce Gamalama recorded her daily show (before it ended this past May). She's the Oprah of Indonesia, widely known by her nickname, Bunda, which means "mother." She taped her show in front of a studio audience of mostly middle-aged women in head scarves—conservative Muslims seem to be her biggest fans, perhaps because Dorce herself, beneath the buzzy energy and megawatt smiles, is a devout Muslim. Near her home in Jakarta, she's built her own mosque.

Oh, and one more thing: Dorce was born a male. She's a transsexual. She's had her "condition," as she calls it, all her life and had a sex-change operation in her 20s. She's been married twice, both times to men. She owns 300 pairs of shoes and a thousand wigs. She sings, dances, and tells mildly risqué jokes. She's not above taking the occasional comedic pratfall.

Her talk show, which featured movie stars, musicians, and athletes, set the conversational tone of Indonesia—her otherness, in a way, allowed her to openly express what might ordinarily be left unsaid. She chatted about marital troubles, spoke candidly of sex. ("Women, if you want to make love, don't wait for your man to offer. Go ahead and ask for it.")

In her dressing room after one show, she kicked off her shoes and greeted a stream of well-wishers. A 19-year-old boy told her, "I like your show because you are cute." A 90-year-old woman said, "I just want to kiss you." All the while, she rarely stopped talking, reminiscing about her early days in show business, when she served as the in-flight entertainment on chartered flights to Mecca. Only in Indonesia could a transsexual troubadour be deemed an appropriate diversion for hajj pilgrims.

"I'm a normal person," she said. "I behave as a woman. I'm even prudish! There's no sex with me before marriage." When asked if her faith always comes before her career, she looked insulted. "My life," she told me, "is for God."

That's what everyone says: the militant, the mystic, the sharia cop, the TV star. United in their devotion to God, divided on how, precisely, one should express that devotion. The version of Islam that captures the minds of the next generation—the tolerant Smiling Islam or the austere and sometimes violent brand advocated by extremists—could determine the path Indonesia takes and perhaps provide a model for the future of global Islam. One place to gauge its direction is at the country's Islamic boarding schools, particularly the one located at the end of a bucolic lane in Ngruki, where Abu Bakar Baasyir teaches.

The school is actually a lovely place, buildings of white-painted brick capped by red- and blue-tiled roofs. Outside the gate a man sells ginger milk from a bicycle-pulled cart. In front of the school's mosque, in the center of campus, an array of gum-ball-colored flip-flops are stuffed into wooden cubbies. Shouts echo across the basketball court. About 1,500 students, slightly more girls than boys, attend the school, which offers education at the junior and senior high school level. Students live in dorms, 20 to 30 per room, and sleep on mattresses on the floor.

Noor Huda Ismail is a former student at Ngruki, now 36 years old and an expert on security issues in Southeast Asia whom I hired to help set up interviews for this story. After the first Bali bombing, Ismail says, the Indonesian government sent an investigative team to Ngruki. The results were inconclusive. "There was nothing specific to terrorism in the curriculum," says Ismail. "The public face of Ngruki was like any other. There was nothing at all clandestine—unless you were 'picked.' "

While at Ngruki, Ismail was, in fact, picked. "My indoctrination took place outside of class," he says. "It began with small meetings, teacher-student meetings during sports, during day hikes. I was told that our enemies are strong." He was an ideal candidate, he believes, due to his ability to speak English and Arabic.

"Just before I graduated," says Ismail, "I was invited to one of the teacher's houses. I sat on a mat on the floor. The light was low. There were three of us students there. The message was that Islam is your only possible salvation, and if I wanted to go to heaven, I had to join the squad. I was 15 years old." One of Ismail's roommates was Hutumo Pamungkas, who is now serving a life sentence for his participation in the Bali bombings. "It's shocking that more of us didn't turn to extremism," Ismail says.

Robert W. Hefner, an anthropologist who has studied Muslim politics in Indonesia, believes that Islamic extremism has lost much of its momentum in the archipelago, though it may be impossible to stop all attacks. Significant credit belongs to the Indonesian police, who have not only arrested hundreds of violent Islamists but have also successfully "deradicalized" some imprisoned militants by offering them conjugal visits and scholarships for their children. But the change is also the result of a decades-long effort by Islamic educators to implement reforms in their schools. Since 2004, all students entering the state Islamic system are required to take courses on civics, human rights, and democracy. Even Ngruki, despite its reputation as a hotbed of radicals, accepts the government's guidelines.

Ultimately, Indonesia may be simply too big and diverse to adhere to any narrow definition of Islam. Even something as secular as one Indonesian takeoff on American Idol can be a platform for Islamic variety. During a recent season, the final two contestants were both Muslim women. One wore a veil, one did not. No one seemed to care. Indonesia's national motto, after all, is "Bhinneka tunggal ika—Unity in diversity."

"Islam in Indonesia is a huge tent under which all voices can talk to each other," says Robin Bush, of the Asia Foundation. Fringe groups, she points out, can receive an inordinate share of media attention and frighten people away from publicly denouncing them. They can even send suicide bombers into hotels. But their reach has not extended into the ballot box.

Of course, that could change. Continued government corruption, another Suharto-like leader, a charismatic imam who can rally the disaffected—any of these might shift Indonesia's balance. "If our secular government fails to deliver, Jemaah Islamiyah will have fodder to recruit," says Ismail. "I think we are going to be constantly in flux," he adds. "When the Western influences get too strong, the Islamist elements will get louder. When Islamist voices get too loud, the more secular voices will be raised. It will always be that way. Up and down. Up and down. Welcome to Indonesia."