JAKARTA - In the struggle for the public face of Islam in Indonesia, militant rarely encounter anyone willing to confront them head on.
But Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a young moderate Muslim intellectual, has taken the battle to the militants on the radio airwaves and through newspaper columns to defend Indonesia's traditional Islamic tolerance.
That tolerant image took a hit last year when the United States attacked Afghanistan as part of the war on terror, prompting militant to threaten violence against Western targets and hold daily street protests broadcast media beamed into living rooms worldwide.
The threats proved hollow and the protests fizzled, but for several weeks in the world's most populous Islamic country the tiny militant groups stole the show while the overwhelmingly moderate mainstream establishment fumbled for a response.
``I have intentionally put myself at the forefront. I need to confront them head on, people need a clear voice,'' said Abshar-Abdalla, 35, speaking at a small cafe that serves a collection of pro-democracy organisations and includes a small studio from where he hosts a weekly radio talk-show on Islam.
``My project is to make democracy and modern Islam work.''
Indonesia's moderate groups have long since responded to the public challenge posed by radicals as the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States approaches, but in a typical Indonesian way that avoids confrontation.
Not so Abshar-Abdalla, who despite criticism from friends who urge him to tone down his language, increasingly calls a spade a spade. To some experts on Indonesian Islam, he is destined to become a major Muslim figure in the country in the years ahead.
``On a personal level I hate their views, but also their attitudes, they are so exclusive. I also hate them in terms of their interpretation of Islam ... they have such black and white judgements,'' Abshar-Abdalla said, referring to the militants.
``Of course, I respect their rights to speak out.''
Abshar-Abdalla's main vehicles to challenge militant views are a weekly talk-show broadcast through 20 local radio stations and a column syndicated in 40 newspapers.
Last year he also helped set up the Liberal Islamic Network in direct response to the growing profile of the radical groups. The network has its own website and says it partly aims to ``promote open dialogue free of conservative pressure''.
Abshar-Abdalla singled out the militant Laskar Jihad organisation and the Islamic Defenders' Front for particular criticism because of their willingness to use violence.
Laskar Jihad gained notoriety when it sent thousands of fighters to join a conflict against Christians in the Moluccas islands in mid-2000. The Islamic Defenders Front is better known for smashing up bars and discos in Jakarta.
Nevertheless, Abshar-Abdalla said he had civil personal relations with Jafar Umar Thalib and Muhammad Rizieq, the leaders of the two groups.
``I don't think Jafar or Rizieq are a threat to Americans but they are threat to the Indonesian people by raising the doctrine of jihad, of armed struggle against people,'' said Abshar-Abdalla, who is also a member of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's 40-million-strong moderate Muslim organisation.
``The use of violence is something that poses a threat to the strengthening of our democratic institutions.''
Abshar-Abdalla has been branded an infidel and threatened via telephone calls and through email, although he ignores them.
Asked for his views on Abshar-Abdalla, Rizieq laughed and responded as if his feisty interlocutor were a wayward student.
Rizieq said he admired Abshar-Abdalla's intellectual capacity and referred to the Liberal Islamic Network ``as our Muslim brothers ... our dialogue partners''.
``But their mission will fail. They are not in touch with the grassroots,'' added Rizieq.
Robert Hefner, a leading scholar on Indonesian Islam at Boston University, said Abshar-Abdalla was probably ahead of the curve on most issues in a country where even moderate hold conservative views about public life and lifestyles.
But he said Abshar-Abdalla could end up playing a role similar to Nurcholish Madjid, Indonesia's most respected Muslim intellectual and to some the conscience of the nation.
Some Indonesians would like Madjid to run for president in the next election in 2004. Madjid has said he does not want to join a political party although he occasionally gets involved in national politics, where he has the clout to wield influence.
``Ulil has to ask himself, and I think is asking himself, whether he's going to transform into a mass leader or whether he's going to continue to play this role as a prominent, and I think, very courageous Muslim public intellectual,'' he said.
``I would have to say that my own sense and the nature of politics in Indonesia is that the greater likelihood is that the role he will play will be similar to Nurcholish Madjid.''
Abshar-Abdalla spent 15 years in his father's pesantren, or Muslim boarding school, in Central Java before going to a conservative Saudi-backed school in Jakarta from 1988-1993. He studied later at a philosophy institute in Jakarta and plans to take some advanced degrees in the United States from next year.
Abshar-Abdalla's latest fight is with the Indonesia Mujahidin Council, headed by radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, over a public-service TV advertisement whose main slogan was ``Islam has many colours'' and which pushed the case for Islamic tolerance.
The council said it insulted Islam and that the religion was not multi-coloured, and threatened to report local television stations airing it to police. The stations dropped the commercial a month ago.
Singapore and Malaysia officials have accused Bashir of being a leader of a regional terror network, charges the cleric denies. - Reuters