Islamic radicals are playing with matches by trying to establish a bridgehead in the West Kalimantan homeland of the Dayaks, traditional head-hunters who inflicted terrible bloodshed on Muslim Madurese settlers in an outbreak of sectarian carnage in the late 1990s.

In a clear reaction to the shock two-year jail term handed down to deposed Christian Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, two leaders of the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) were recently forced to return to Jakarta only half an hour after arriving in Pontianak, the West Kalimantan capital.

The FPI has tried to establish branches in West Kalimantan and in neighboring Central Kalimantan, where the Dayaks prevented its members from leaving their plane in February 2012 on the grounds their presence was not conducive to religious harmony.

With thousands of police and military moving swiftly to tamp down the latest upsurge in tensions, West Kalimantan’s Catholic governor, Cornelis M H, warned he would kick out FPI head Rizieq Shihab if he made any attempt to visit the province.

Shihab is unlikely to test that warning any time soon. Indicted this week on what he regards as politically-charged pornography charges, he has refused to return home from the hajj in Saudi Arabia, flying from there to Malaysia and then back again.

His lawyers claim the charges are revenge for the leading role the 50-year-old firebrand played in pushing the blasphemy case against Purnama, which ended in his resounding defeat in the April 19 gubernatorial election.

Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Indonesian hardline Muslim group FPI (Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defender Front), arrives at the police headquarters in Jakarta on January 23, 2017. Shihab was summoned as a witness by police over allegations he insulted rupiah bank notes by saying they contained communist symbols. / AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY
Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Indonesian hardline Muslim group Islamic Defender Front, arrives at Jakarta’s police headquarters on January 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

The reaction to Purnama’s blasphemy conviction wasn’t only confined to West Kalimantan. In Monado, the capital of Christian-dominated North Sulawesi, police fired teargas to disperse a crowd protesting a May 13 visit by deputy House speaker Fahri Hamzah, a member of the Islamist Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS).

West Kalimantan is the greater worry, however, because of the potential for re-igniting the violence which wracked the province in 1996-97 when Dayak war parties fell on Muslim Madurese settlers, killing more than 500 in the worst outbreak of blood-letting since the 1960s.

Cut off and with the security forces unable to protect them, more than 75,000 rural Madurese were forced to leave their homes in the interior and resettle along the coast, where most remain today.

The mostly Christian Dayaks comprise 35% of West Kalimantan’s 4.3 million-strong population, fractionally more than the ethnic Malays. But Muslims, mostly Malays, Madurese and Javanese, still outnumber Christians by 51% to 36%.

Dayak tribe members wear traditional clothing adorned with animal skull necklaces as they take part in an annual festival in Pontianak, West Kalimantan province, on May 20, 2017, which will last for a week as an expression of gratitude to God for his blessings for a year. / AFP PHOTO / UNIQUE
Dayak tribe members wear traditional clothing adorned with animal skull necklaces during an annual festival in Pontianak, West Kalimantan province, on May 20, 2017. Photo: AFP

The fourth largest ethnic group at 8.1%, the ethnic Chinese populace was largely unaffected by the 1996-97 violence, which the Dayaks blamed on the aggressive Madurese who first came from east Java in the early 1900s to work as rubber tappers.

But they haven’t always been left alone. Over a two-month period in late 1967, in a bid to flush out communist guerrillas, the military employed Dayak mobs to uproot as many as 117,000 rural Chinese,
killing an estimated 2,000-3,000 in the process.

Most are now concentrated in Pontianak and Sinkawang, an old trading port of around 192,000 residents where the descendants of Hakka Chinese merchants and gold miners make up 70% of the population – the only town in Indonesia with a Chinese majority.

The 1996-97 bloodshed erupted after several incidents, including the murder of four Dayak teenagers dragged off a bus by a Madurese mob, and an unprovoked attack on a Dayak girls boarding school.

Slow to be aroused, the Dayaks went on the rampage once the mangkok merah, a “red bowl” smeared with chicken blood, began to be passed from village to village, the traditional method of declaring war.

In the ritualistic mayhem that followed, the Dayaks burned villages and beheaded many of their victims, drinking their blood and in some cases eating their livers and hearts.

The three months of terror was mostly the result of long-standing enmity between the ethnic groups, some of it involving land disputes and economic issues. The Dayaks have long complained the Madurese are too quick to anger, too quick to pull a knife – and too slow to learn local customs.

Ethnic Dayaks brandish their weapons as they stand on a truck at the Kasongan district en route to Sampit to hunt for the Madurese, in central Kalimantan February 23, 2001. An Indonesian navy ship is heading for Borneo to evacuate terrified refugees as hospital officials said Friday that the death toll from almost a week an ethnic bloodshed rose to 142 people.BEA/TAN - RTREP4O
Ethnic Dayaks brandish their weapons during communal violence in Kalimantan in a 2001 file photo. Photo: Reuters

Religion was not a major issue in West Kalimantan then, but the arrival of four Muslim clerics from East Java in December 1996 did heighten tensions, with rumors circulating among Dayak communities that they were there to start a holy war.

The fallout from the Purnama case suggests religion could now become much more of a trigger, as it subsequently was in Maluku and Central Sulawesi in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when 5,000 people died in bloody sectarian violence.

Minorities in West Kalimantan, North Sulawesi, Bali, Papua and East Nusa Tenggara are growing increasingly worried about the rise of conservative Islam and what that means for the future of a country that has always prided itself on being unified in diversity.

Self-serving politicians are largely blamed for fueling the religious tensions, oblivious to the harm it might do as Indonesia approaches the 2019 legislative and presidential elections when political temperatures will already be on the rise.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo waits inside the presidential palace before a meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia March 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

President Joko Widodo has made repeated calls for unity, even suggesting earlier this year that Indonesian democracy has gone too far in allowing secularism, hate speech and fake news to flourish and threaten national stability.

In more recent speeches, particularly since the Purnama verdict, his rhetoric has become increasingly harsh. In one, he caused a stir by threatening to “gebuk” (wack) those who were putting unity at risk — language that harks back to the days of president Suharto’s New Order regime.

It is still too early to judge whether the marriage of conservative Islam and populist politics, which came to the fore during the Jakarta governor election, will play out on the wider national stage.

But a recent Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) poll showed that more than 70% of Indonesians still reject the idea of an Islamic state and that democracy based on Pancasila, the state secular ideology, is still their preferred form of government.

A member of an exclusive Muslim group An Nadsir casts his ballot during voting in parliamentary elections at a polling station in Gowa, South Sulawesi April 9, 2014. Indonesians voted for a new parliament on Wednesday in a poll expected to be dominated by the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), boosting the chances of its popular candidate in a presidential election three months from now. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad (INDONESIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3KIWI
A Msulim Indonesian votes at parliamentary elections held in April 2014. Photo: Reuters/Yusuf Ahmad

That roughly conforms with the result of the past four national elections where the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity and United Development parties have only garnered 12%-13% of the vote.

If that rises to 15% or more, it will be a worrying sign that political Islam is gaining ground after remaining mostly static for nearly 20 years. When it comes down to a critical choice, many Indonesian Muslims still find it difficult to decide what is more important in their lives — Pancasila or Islam.

It is a contradiction national leaders have never been able to address, let alone resolve, evidenced by the question arising from the verse in the Koran that got Purnama into trouble in the first place: should Muslims be ruled by non-Muslim leaders.

In West Kalimantan, that has never really been the issue, with the current governor, Cornelis, 62, a member of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) now into his second term after replacing his Muslim predecessor in 2008.

But as the communal strife that struck Maluku and Central Sulawesi has shown, Islamic hardliners target regions where there is a tenuous religious balance to exploit. With the Dayaks, however, they may be playing with a powder keg.