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As Indonesia debates Islam's role, U.S. stays out

There are many reasons for the change of mood: an economy that is growing fast despite the global slump; increasing political stability rooted in elections that are generally free and fair; moves by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a U.S.-trained former general who won reelection by a landslide in July, to co-opt Islamic political parties.

Another reason, said Masdar Mas'udi, a senior cleric at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's -- and the world's -- largest Islamic organization, is that the United States has backed away from overt intrusions into religious matters. A foe of hard-line Muslims who has worked closely with Americans, Mas'udi said he now believes that U.S. intervention in theological quarrels often provides radicals with "a sparring partner" that strengthens them. These days, instead of tinkering with religious doctrine, a pet project focuses on providing organic rice seeds to poor Muslim farmers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington deployed money and rhetoric in a big push to bolster "moderate" Muslims against what Bush called the "real and profound ideology" of "Islamo-fascism." Obama, promising a "new beginning between America and Muslims around the world," has avoided dividing Muslims into competing theological camps. He has denounced "violent extremists" but, in a June speech in Cairo, stated that "Islam is not part of the problem."

North, the USAID mission chief, said the best way to help "champions of an enlightened perspective win the day" is to avoid theology and help Indonesia "address some of the problems here, such as poverty and corruption." Trying to groom Muslim leaders America likes, he said, won't help.

Rethinking post-9/11 tack

This is a sharp retreat from the approach taken right after the Sept. 11 attacks, when a raft of U.S.-funded programs sought to amplify the voice of "moderates." Hundreds of Indonesian clerics went through U.S.-sponsored courses that taught a reform-minded reading of the Koran. A handbook for preachers, published with U.S. money, offered tips on what to preach. One American-funded Muslim group even tried to script Friday prayer sermons.

Such initiatives mimicked a strategy adopted during the Cold War, when, to counter communist ideology, the United States funded a host of cultural, educational and other groups in tune with America's goals. Even some of the key actors were the same. The Asia Foundation, founded with covert U.S. funding in the 1950s to combat communism, took the lead in battling noxious strands of Islam in Indonesia as part of a USAID-financed program called Islam and Civil Society. The program began before the Sept. 11 attacks but ramped up its activities after.

"We wanted to challenge hard-line ideas head-on," recalled Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an Indonesian expert in Islamic theology who, with Asia Foundation funding, set up the Liberal Islam Network in 2001. The network launched a weekly radio program that questioned literal interpretations of sacred texts with respect to women, homosexuals and basic doctrine. It bought airtime on national television for a video that presented Islam as a faith of "many colors" and distributed leaflets promoting liberal theology in mosques.

Feted by Americans as a model moderate, Abdalla was flown to Washington in 2002 to meet officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, including Paul D. Wolfowitz, the then-deputy secretary of defense and a former U.S. ambassador to Jakarta. But efforts to transplant Cold War tactics into the Islamic world started to go very wrong. More-conservative Muslims never liked what they viewed as American meddling in theology. Their unease over U.S. motives escalated sharply with the start of the Iraq war and spread to a wider constituency. Iraq "destroyed everything," said Abdalla, who started getting death threats.

Indonesia's council of clerics, enraged by what it saw as a U.S. campaign to reshape Islam, issued a fatwa denouncing "secularism, pluralism and liberalism."

The Asia Foundation pulled its funding for Abdalla's network and began to rethink its strategy. It still works with Muslim groups but avoids sensitive theological issues, focusing instead on training to monitor budgets, battle corruption and lobby on behalf of the poor. "The foundation came to believe that it was more effective for intra-Islamic debates to take place without the involvement of international organizations," said Robin Bush, head of the foundation's Jakarta office.

Abdalla, meanwhile, left Indonesia and moved to Boston to study.

One U.S. group jumps in

While the Asia Foundation and others dived for cover, one American outfit jumped into the theological fray with gusto. In December 2003, C. Holland Taylor, a former telecommunications executive from Winston-Salem, N.C., set up a combative outfit called LibForAll Foundation to "promote the culture of liberty and tolerance."


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