Stanley Weiss is reknowed business consultant who travels widely in Asia. He is a proponent of Indonesian democracy and is fond of Bali. His message in this article is that a tolerant and pluralistic Indonesia is possible so long as political and economic empowerment reaches to the majority of the Muslim poor.

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Indonesia: Why Pluralism will Prevail .
By Stanley Weiss. Business Executive for National Strategy.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Indonesia, long admired as a beacon of Muslim moderation, is descending into an Islamic theocracy.

Christian churches are torched. Western resorts, hotels and embassies are bombed. Abu Bakar Bashir, the radical cleric imprisoned for inspiring the Bali bombings of 2002, receives a hero’s welcome home from fellow jihadists.

Across the country, more than two dozen cities and districts have imposed variations of Shariah, Islamic law, requiring women to wear headscarves and banning alcohol, gambling and adultery.

But a visit with Dr. Zulkieflimansyah (who, like many Indonesians, uses one name and is more commonly known as Zul) reveals the more complex face of political Islam here.

As vice chairman of the Justice and Prosperity Party, a rapidly- growing Islamic party with two cabinet ministers, Zul speaks of the need for an “Islamic moral code” in a country that is more than 80 percent Muslim.

But the 34-year-old British-trained economist equivocates when I ask if his party will push for Shariah: “This is difficult. If we say no, we will be rejected by the Muslims. If we say yes, there are too many definitions of Shariah.”

So Zul, now a gubernatorial candidate whose running mate is a well-known actress-turned-politician, speaks of fighting corruption and poverty and creating jobs and investment. “All this can be considered Shariah,” he says. “We are not trying to create a new society like the Arabs. Pluralism is a fact of life, and radical Islam is our enemy.”

Zul’s deft balancing act mirrors that of Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population but which, as a state, is officially neither secular nor Islamic.

After proclaiming independence in 1945, attempts to forge an Islamic state were thwarted when nationalists removed from the new constitution the famous “seven words” – “with obligation for Muslims to practice Shariah.”

Instead, the official ideology of Pancasila – “five pillars”: belief in one God, humanitarianism, national unity, democracy and social justice – was a quintessentially Indonesian compromise, acknowledging the role of religion in public life while guaranteeing the freedom of six state-recognized faiths: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Ever since, attempts to create an Islamic state or impose Shariah nationally, whether by bullet or ballot, have been soundly defeated. As recently as 2002, parliament overwhelmingly rejected amending the constitution to allow for Shariah.

Defeated nationally, Islamists have gone local, empowered by a decentralization movement allowing greater regional autonomy – most notably in conservative Aceh, where canings of Shariah offenders have drawn international condemnation.

But “Aceh does not represent Indonesia,” as an Australian diplomat told me. In a nation of 240 million people, Shariah in a few cities and districts is an aberration. In fact, there already are signs of a backlash against Shariah among Indonesian Muslims, who largely espouse a less rigid form of Islam that blends Hinduism, Buddhism and Javanese mysticism.

“Democracy can be noisy,” Vice President Jusuf Kalla tells me, but in Indonesia “there are far more moderates than radicals.”

Indeed, a major poll last month showed that the vast majority of Indonesians reject Shariah and still embrace Pancasila. But in treating the symptoms of extremism, Jakarta must not ignore underlying causes.

With 40 million chronically unemployed and perhaps 100 million living in poverty, “we are running out of time,” says Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, who oversees a military that considers itself a guardian of constitutional pluralism.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, accused of being indecisive on the economic front, now appears to understand the urgency. Jakarta is alive with rumors that he plans a dramatic “October Surprise,” reshuffling his cabinet, with an eye toward a bold New Deal-style program to create jobs and combat poverty.

The murderous acts and militant agenda of a radical few here are making headlines. But historically, culturally, religiously and politically, Indonesians give hope that the center will hold – that they will succeed in what Sudarsono calls “the big challenge of daring young Muslims not to die for Islam, but to live for Islam.”