JAKARTA, Indonesia — As leader of Indonesia’s — and the world’s — largest Muslim organization, Said Aqil Siraj used to get pelted with angry e-mails and text messages whenever he questioned Saudi Arabia’s rigid, ultra-puritanical take on Islam.
But the often menacing messages recently stopped — cut off by a single stroke from a Saudi executioner’s sword to the neck of an Indonesian maid in Mecca.
“Now I don’t get sent anything,” Siraj said. He is glad to be out of the firing line, at least for the moment, but is appalled that it took the beheading of a 54-year-old Indonesian grandmother to quiet abuse by supporters of Saudi-style Islam.
The beheading of Ruyati binti Satubi — executed in June for the killing of an allegedly abusive Saudi employer — stirred such revulsion here that even the most strictly observant Indonesian Muslims now ask how the guardians of Islam’s most sacred sites can be so heedless of their faith’s call for compassion.
At least 20 Indonesians, nearly all women, are on death row in the Persian Gulf kingdom.
While few doubt that Satubi stabbed her boss, the mother of three is widely viewed as a martyr — the victim of a harsh and often xenophobic justice and social system rooted in Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi creed, a highly dogmatic and intolerant strand of Islam that, in its most extreme forms, helped provide the theological underpinnings for jihadi militants.
“Some Indonesians began to think that Wahhabism is the true teaching of Islam, but thanks to God, there has been a change of thinking,” said Siraj, who heads Nahdlatul Ulama, an organization with about 50 million members and 28,000 Islamic boarding schools.
The beheading, which triggered protests outside the Saudi Embassy and elsewhere, “has had a good influence” by accelerating a backlash against harsh imported strains of Islam, Siraj said.
“Mecca is a holy place, but the people who live there are very uncivilized,” said the executed maid’s daughter, Een Nuraeni, who prays regularly and wears a veil pulled tightly over her hair. “There is nothing in Islamic law that says you can torture or rape your housemaid.”
Her mother, desperate for money, had worked for three families in Saudi Arabia since taking her first job there in 1998. On trips home, Nuraeni said, she complained of being spat at in the face, beaten, deprived of food and other mistreatment, but kept going back “for the sake of her children.”
Migrant Care, an Indonesian group that lobbies on behalf of workers abroad, said it has this year already received 6,500 reports of violence, sexual harassment, rape and other abuses against Indonesians in Saudi Arabia. Eighty percent of the more than 1.2 million Indonesians working there are women, mostly maids.
Indonesia’s government, complaining that it received no advance notice of Satubi’s execution, recalled its ambassador from Riyadh and announced a moratorium from Aug. 1 on labor exports to the Gulf kingdom. Police set up a special unit at Jakarta’s main airport to enforce the order.
The acrimonious rift between the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and Indonesia, home to the largest community of his followers, even led to calls for a boycott of Mecca by hajj pilgrims.
The mood became so testy that when Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa announced that he had received an apology over the beheading from the Saudi ambassador in Jakarta, the kingdom’s usually mute embassy promptly issued a statement that accused the minister of lying.
Indonesia has traditionally embraced mostly relaxed forms of Islam. But starting in the 1970s under then-dictator Suharto, a flood of money from Saudi Arabia to fund mosques and other ventures helped boost a Wahhabi-tinged form of Islam known as Salafism, which sometimes veered into violent extremism.
The Bali bombings in 2002 and subsequent attacks in Jakarta were carried out by militants inspired by Salafi extremists such as Osama bin Laden. Nonviolent Salafis, meanwhile, emerged as a political force, helping to found the Islamist Justice and Prosperity Party, or PKS, which won nearly 8 percent of the vote in 2009 .
Both strands are now in trouble. A wave of arrests and killings by security forces has largely uprooted the organizational foundations of Salafi jihad ideology, although it lives on thanks to the Internet. Abubakar Baasyir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah, was sentenced in June to five years in prison for terrorism.
Meanwhile, the PKS, part of the governing coalition, has been tainted by allegations of corruption and has been torn by internal strife between purists and moderates. Some of its more hard-line members have been purged. “We threw them out” because they “always wanted 100 percent pure values of Islam” and couldn’t compromise, said Fahri Hamzah, a PKS member of parliament.
Siraj, the leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama organization, studied in Saudi Arabia for 13 years and came to despise the kingdom’s religious and political order, which he describes as “jahiliyyah” — the period of ignorance and hypocrisy that, according to the Koran, prevailed there before the arrival of the prophet Muhammad.
Salafis, he said, are by no means all violent and many eschew politics, but they “are very hard in the way they think.” He recently wrote the foreword to a new book, “The Bloody History of the Salafi-Wahhabi Sect.”
Hizb ut-Tahir, a nonviolent organization that wants an Islamic state or caliphate, defended the beheading as legal under Islamic law but called for an investigation into whether Satubi committed murder in self-defense. Ismail Yusanto, the group’s spokesman, said the problem is not strict Islamic justice but the poverty that drives women to work abroad when “their main place is the home.”
Saudi Arabia, worried by the spread of extremist thinking at home and damage to its reputation abroad since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has tried in recent years to check the export of militant Salafi ideas.
But what the Saudi government now condemns as mutant strains have nonetheless put down thin but tenacious roots on the margins in Indonesia, shielded in the past by a reluctance by many to criticize views supposedly rooted in the land of Muhammad’s birth.
“Saudi Arabia is the holy land, so people always used to make excuses for it,” said Wahyu Susilo, a policy analyst for Migrant Care. “They now realize that Saudi Islam is not the right image of Islam.” To protest the June beheading, his group printed thousands of posters saying: “Saudi Arabia — the killing fields for Indonesian women migrant workers.”
The Indonesian government, under fire for not doing enough to protect its citizens, last month secured the release of an Indonesian maid on death row in Saudi Arabia. It did this by paying compensation of $538,000 to the family of her employer, whom she killed after he allegedly tried to rape her.
Arab News, a newspaper based in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, reported last week that Saudi authorities have agreed to spare two more Indonesian maids from beheading, including one convicted of using black magic to hurt her employer.
At her family’s village near Bekasi, east of Jakarta, Nuraeni, the daughter of the beheaded maid, has received a procession of visitors offering condolences and angry views on Saudi Arabia. Scores of women in the village have spent time working in the kingdom and shared stories of their travails there.
Even Nuraeni’s elderly grandfather, a sternly devout Muslim who has memorized the Koran and made a hajj trip to Mecca, wants nothing to do with the kingdom. “He now hates Saudi Arabia,” Nuraeni said.
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