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RELIGION: Islam and Indonesia

While we think of Islam in terms of the Arab world where it originated, the mass of the world's Islamic population is in Asia, notably in Indonesia. The conventional account is that the conversion of the islands to Islam in the fifteenth century was the work of traders, and that the Islam of Indonesia is much milder than that of the Arab countries. Before Islamization the religion of Indonesia was a Hinduism much like that of Bali, and whatever gentleness there is in Indonesian Islam derives largely from that. A quite different picture emerges from Simon Winchester, Krakatoa. The Day the World Exploded. He describes how the volcano exploded on April 27, 1883, killing thousands of people. At the same time a fanatic Arab from Yemen, the home of Osama bin Laden, was urging the people to revolt against their Dutch masters. He said that the explosion of Krakatoa was a sign that the redeemer they were expecting was angry at their failure to do so and would delay his coming. The islanders revolted, but the Dutch crushed them ruthlessly. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the movement which finally brought independence to Indonesia. The fanaticism of the revolt has left traces in Indonesia today. I have looked in various reference works, including Indonesia, a country study in the Area Handbook Series, and can find no mention of this Islamic fanatic and his followers, so I am hoping our Indonesia expert Don Emmerson can enlighten us.

The explosion of Krakatoa, now spelt Krakatau, had an impact all around the world. Sunsets looked like fire,and the tidal wave even reached England and France. The physical and emotional impact on Indonesians must have been incredible, and to understand this we must take into account the geography of the area. The heavy concentration of population is in Java; Jakarta, the capital, is close to the western tip of the island. Just across the Salat Sunda is the easternmost tip of Sumatra. where the city of Bandar Lampung is located. Krakatau is in the middle of the strait between the two islands, right in the middle of the most densely populated area of Indonesia. Some witnesses of the explosion have left graphic descriptions of the event. It was the most violent volcanic explosion in recorded history.

Ronald Hilton - 5/30/03