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Protests drown out Muslim radicals

By Amy Chew

Hundreds of protesters rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.
Hundreds of protesters rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- "Stop War, Peace Now," read several banners during recent anti-war protests on the streets of Indonesia.

Over the weekend about 2,000 protesters rallied outside the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Indonesia's capital Jakarta shouting anti-U.S. slogans before marching to the U.N. office a few blocks away.

By Indonesian standards, the protests have not been large. But they have been significant.

Significant, analysts say, because the peace rallies have served to drown out the voices of radicals baying for America's blood in the world's most populous Muslim country.

"These demonstrations have been 'hijacked' by the massive demonstrations in America and Europe and also the participation of non-Muslim in the protests here," former minister and political analyst, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, told CNN.

"The radicals cannot turn it [Iraq war] into a religious issue."

The situation now is in stark contrast to events surrounding the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. That campaign sparked massive demonstrations and threats against foreigners.

Some churches were also threatened, causing nervousness among the Christian minority.

Now, the conspicuous presence of Christians and a smattering of ethnic Chinese -- a group who traditionally shun from taking part in protests -- along with Muslims has served to help neutralise existing and potential extremism.

The country's Christian minorities said they felt safe and secure throughout the loud and sometimes noisy demonstrations against the war in Iraq.

"We feel safe. There have been no threats against Catholics or Protestants. The huge movements in America and Europe have helped to calm the situation here," Mudji Sutrisno a Catholic priest, told CNN.

According to Sutrisno, the country's two largest Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhamadiyah, have told their followers the war in Iraq is not an attack against Islam.

"NU and Muhamadiyah are the majority in the country so I don't worry about the radicals who want revenge as they comprise a small group," said Sutrisno.

Muhamadiyah, which claims some 30 million followers, has instead called the Iraq war an attack against humanity.

"The people in America, Australia, England themselves have staged huge protests as they don't agree with the war but what can they do when their leaders, Bush and Blair, don't want to listen," Muhamadiyah chairman Syafii Maarif said.

Maarif also urged the people not to try and force foreigners to leave the country -- a tactic sometimes labelled "sweeps" -- as it would be "very bad" for the country.

War against values

Muslim women shout 'Allahuakbar! (God is great)' during a rally.
Muslim women shout 'Allahuakbar! (God is great)' during a rally.

In the capital Jakarta, the largest protests have been staged by the Justice Party -- a Muslim-oriented group with as powerful organisational ability which advocates turning Indonesian into an Islamic state.

Its leader Hidayat Nur Wahid called the Iraq war "a war against universal values."

Even the radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) softened its tone during a rally in Jakarta on Sunday.

"This war is a war against all religions -- Christians, Hindus, Buddhists -- as they all oppose this war," FPI secretary-general Ahmad Shabri Lubis told reporters.

FPI has called for volunteers to wage a jihad or holy war against America in Iraq.

They claim more than a thousand men have signed up so far.

In the second largest city of Surabaya, thousands of demonstrators protested carrying placards that read "Stop War" and "Bush Is a Terrorist."

The protesters were largely students, secularists and nationalists. They outnumbered protesters who called for "jihad" or holy war against America.

Prominent labor activist Dita Indah Sari is busy mobilising nationalists, secularists, students, workers, to take to the streets in Jakarta.

"We want to broaden this movement to encompass as many elements of society as possible," she told CNN.

"The huge anti-war movement in America and Europe has shown Indonesians here that non-Muslims are against the war," she adds. "This has taught Indonesians not to be racists and not to be narrow-minded."

However, if the war in Iraq should be protracted and long drawn-out, it risks strengthening the voices of the radicals.

"If the war is protracted -- messy, with horrendous images of civilian casualties coming from the TV -- then there will be a build up to the protests in Indonesia and the potential they will get out of hand," said former minister Kusumaatmadja.

And that is something the government is monitoring closely.

Already, there have been reports of police in Surabaya arresting a group of Muslim radicals that were hunting for Americans to make them sign promises to leave the country.

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