Indonesia Muslim leader plays down radical threat

  • World
  • Wednesday, 03 Dec 2008

MYT 12:02:41 AM

JAKARTA (Reuters) - The head of Indonesia's second-biggest Muslim group said on Wednesday he did not think radical Islam was gaining ground in the Southeast Asian nation, but warned factors such as poverty could help it spread.

Din Syamsuddin, who chairs the Muhammadiyah group, said mainstream Muslim groups in the world's most populous Muslim country could cope with challenges from more radical groups.

"We still have full self-confidence to face these many challenges, of the emergence of new theology within the Muslim community," he told a meeting with foreign correspondents.

Most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate, although there is a vocal radical fringe and the country has also suffered deadly bomb attacks blamed on the militant Jemaah Islamiah group.

"But our great concern from the side of the Islamic organisation is that there are non-religious factors to radicalism," he added, citing poverty, unemployment and external pressures from conflicts involving Muslims in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Muhammadiyah claims a membership of 35 million and Syamsuddin said he had been approached by a number of parties to be a possible candidate in presidential elections next year.

The 50-year-old said his candidacy would depend on getting the backing of the other leaders in Muhammadiyah, adding he would consider standing as either a vice president or presidential candidate with a like-minded running mate.

He declined to say what political party he might consider tying up with, although media reports have linked him with the PDI-P party of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Megawati is seen as one of the main threats to current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono winning a second term.

Referring to the recent passage of a controversial anti-pornography law, he said some hardline groups had incorrectly associated the bill just with Islamic teachings.

"This is a mistake," he said, adding that many religious communities, not only Muslims, also backed the idea of preventing any kind of pornography.

Syamsuddin said he did not think the law "will disturb the already existing cultural traditions, customs among the many ethnic groups in Indonesia".

Some Indonesians, particularly Hindu and Christian minorities, see the bill as a sign of creeping intolerance when it comes to religious and cultural differences, with the agenda increasingly influenced by hardline Muslim groups.

The bill was pushed by a small group of Islamist parties. Minority groups said the bill was a threat to artistic, religious and cultural freedom.

He said Muhammadiyah did not support the introduction of Islamic sharia bylaws, which has occured in some parts of predominantly Muslim but secular Indonesia.

"We don't need to implement the sharia Islam in a formalistic, legalistic way," he said.

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