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The extremes of moderate Islam

EVEN for supposedly reasonable Muslims, accommodation is a one-way street.

PERCHED high in the verdant mountains of central Java recently, the rural silence was broken five times a day by the Muslim call to prayer. The chanting wafted up from loudspeakers in the local villages as Indonesian Muslims observed longer than usual prayers during Ramadan. I asked a cab driver if he was fasting until sunset during this Islamic month of reflection. Rules are made to be broken, he said with a smile. But not according to the government and police in Indonesia, a country hailed as the world's largest, most moderate Muslim nation.

Local newspapers report an American man being held on suspicion of blasphemy for pulling the plug on a loudspeaker at a local mosque. According to police, Luke Gregory Lloyd pulled out the loudspeaker's cable in Kuta village in central Lombok when he was woken by the Koranic reading.

So how is moderate Islam doing in Indonesia? Not so well if you're that American man facing five years in prison. Perhaps it's all relative. In Saudi Arabia, he may have faced more violent punishment for his cultural insensitivity. That said, the promise of moderate Islam is beginning to look decidedly unconvincing.

Certainly, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made plenty of promises. In an address at Harvard last year, he described his country as a model for how Islam, modernity and democracy can go hand in hand. He said tolerance and respect for religious freedom forms part of Indonesia's "trans-generational DNA".

Back in Indonesia, the President is quiet about the fact that moderate Islam is not so respectful of religious freedom if you belong to the Ahmadiyah sect. As yet another daily call to prayer began, I read about the ban on this religious sect for propagating its beliefs, including the tenet that Mohammed was not the final prophet. Indonesia's Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali announced the Ahmadiyah congregation "must be disbanded immediately" for violating a 2008 decree prohibiting the group from spreading its teachings. If this "is considered as religious freedom, then I call it an excessive freedom", Ali said.

Moderate Islam is not so moderate if you are a Christian either. In August, 300 hardline Islamic protesters confronted Christians worshipping in an open field owned by the Christians. The Christians want to build a church. A leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front told reporters that the culture of the people will not allow a church. Earlier this year, thousands of Muslim extremists set fire to a Christian community centre in West Java when they suspected the local Christians planned to build a small chapel. According to the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, there have been more than 28 attacks on churches since January, a substantial increase since last year.

And how is moderate Islam doing when it comes to freedom of speech? While President Yudhoyono boasts about his country's "increasingly incisive" free press, one the markers of moderate Islam's commitment to democracy, it's too bad if you're the editor of Playboy Indonesia, a magazine consciously remodelled for the local market with no nudity. After being tried and acquitted for public indecency in 2007, Erwin Arnada was found guilty of public indecency last month by a new Supreme Court ruling. Arnada was arrested last week and has commenced a two-year prison sentence. The Indonesian constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, is no match for hardline Islamic groups baying for Arnada's blood. Is that moderation?

Move to New York and the fraught debate over the proposed Ground Zero mosque. Muslims demand the mosque be built. And their left-liberal supporters decry opponents of the mosque as bigots. They demonise and scold mainstream Americans who think otherwise. Even New Yorkers believe Muslims should show some sensitivity to the atrocities committed in the name of Islam on 9/11. A poll in The New York Times found that while 67 per cent agree the right to freedom of religion allows the building of the mosque, they believe the developers should find a different site. An editorial by the moralising New York Times would have none of that. Building the mosque would be "a gesture to Muslim-Americans", it lectured. What about a gesture from moderate Muslims?

In recent years the West has fallen over itself to accommodate Muslim sensitivities. In Britain, the BBC boss says Islam should be treated differently from other religions. American publishers pull books that might offend Muslim sensibilities. Television stations censor images of Mohammed. Why does the accommodation always run one way?

Moderate Muslims would surely understand tolerance is a two-way street. They might agree the building of a mosque at Ground Zero is a political, rather than a religious, point. Instead, there is just silence. Always silence.

That void is filled with voices that profess to be moderate but a closer look suggests they may not be; voices such Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who wants to build the Ground Zero mosque. When he spoke at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre in Adelaide in 2005, organisers lauded him as a man who has "dedicated his life to building bridges between Muslims and the West". In his "interfaith" address, Rauf described America as worse than al-Qa'ida. A moderate would acknowledge the atrocities Muslims have committed against Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of Islam. Rauf condemned the London bombings of 2005 as against Islamic law. A moderate would condemn terrorism and acknowledge the problem: Islam is used to fuel the violence. Asked about suicide bombers, the imam said there are always people willing to kill themselves, those jilted by lovers, those failing to get academic tenure and so on. A moderate Muslim would recognise that, once again, Islam is used to incite suicide bombers who kill innocent people.

In a BBC interview last month to coincide with the publication of his memoirs, former British prime minister Tony Blair described radical Islam as the greatest threat facing the world. He's correct. But a Western leader pointing the finger at radical Islam is the easy part. The harder task is for leaders and the rest of us: to request help in the form of far more moderation from those who describe themselves as moderate Muslims. Unless that happens, the clash of civilisations between Islam and the West will end very badly indeed.

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