Reclaiming Islam

I was born, raised and educated in Indonesia. I still live between Australia and Indonesia, so I often forget that what I can see in Indonesia’s social and political landscape is not necessarily visible to most Australians.

When Australians think of Islam in Indonesia, they now think of Amrozi, the Bali bomber who can’t stop smiling; Abu Bakar Ba’ashir, who may or may not be the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah; and terrorism. Who could blame them?

I can’t blame Australians for being cynical, or at best confused, when told that the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims are moderate and peace-loving. Moreover until the October bomb attack, the Indonesian government continued to maintain that there were no terrorists in Indonesia. Political analysts prior to the attacks were saying that the government was reluctant to take tough action against the hard-line Muslims for fear of a backlash from the wider Muslim community, whose support they could not afford to lose. There is some truth in all of the above.

Indonesia does have Amrozi, Abu Bakar Ba’ashir and Jemaah Islamiah.

Violence has been employed as a political means by some militant Muslims. And the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims are moderate and peace-loving.

There were reasons for the government’s reluctance to act against militant Muslim groups suspected as being behind a number of violent incidents. The most important was that Indonesian society then believed that while many of the terrorist acts were committed by militant Muslims, they were also aided, even manipulated, by elements of the army for their own purposes. Seeing the government crack down on militant Muslims might well invoke the sympathy of the majority of Muslims, because it would have been regarded as targeting the weak. It would be too difficult to prove anything against members of the army, and even harder to get a conviction. It seems that behind the government’s lack of action were inertia and denial.

It’s not clear whether the resulting complacency contributed to the Bali bombing. The attack certainly jolted the Indonesian government out of its denial. They also have to face the fact that for many Australians, Amrozi has become the face of the Indonesian Muslim.

However, it would be wrong to assume that all moderate Muslims have been unaware of the presence of Islamic militants. For years Muslim intellectuals have been unhappy about the way the militants are using the name of Islam to perpetrate very un-Islamic acts. They have been writing columns in newspapers and speaking at conferences, emphasising that violent jihad and hatred are not a part of the real teachings of Islam.

The speakers represent different Islamic organisations. Many are people with no clear political affiliations. This is an advantage as most Indonesians do not readily accept what politicians say at face value. Yet intellectual language has its own limitations. It does not reach the grassroots level, while political language, being ‘sexier’, is more easily understood.

In 1997, Nurcholish Madjid, a respected Muslim intellectual and scholar—founder of Paramadina Foundation, which also runs Paramadina University in Indonesia —raised the idea of a network of Muslim liberal thinkers. Several attempts were made to realise this ambition.

Following the Christmas Eve bombing of several churches in 2000, the need to create a network became urgent. Early in 2001, various Muslim thinkers and activists gathered together, this time at Teater Utan Kayu—a cultural centre founded by author, poet and senior journalist Goenawan Mohamad. The meeting was moderated by Goenawan, and a strategy for action was adopted.

Jaringan Islam Liberal, or Liberal Islam Network, was launched. A website was set up, moderated by Luthfi Assyaukanie, author and lecturer at Paramadina University. The website quickly expanded. Media syndication was established. Columns and articles discussing Islamic teachings began to appear outside Muslim-related publications. A wide-circulation newspaper group, Jawa Pos, which also has regional newspapers, now sets aside regular space for activists of the Network. Popular radio stations have set up chat shows, where day-to-day needs and problems of Muslims are discussed on air. Clerics with extensive understanding of Islam are invited as guest compères to answer questions from listeners, on topics ranging from inter-religious marriages to the correct attire for a particular event for Muslims. In answering questions about religious interpretation, the clerics often make distinctions between the universal Islamic teachings and the temporal and cultural aspects of Islam which have been open to interpretation for centuries. They remind people that the latter have been debated among clerics themselves, without them being less Islamic for doing so.

The Liberal Islam Network works across and transcends existing organisations.

It challenges the literal and scriptural interpretations of Islam, and seeks to separate the temporal and cultural aspects from the universal truth of Islam.

In its activity not only does the Network find itself in confrontation with radical Islamic movements such as Laskar Jihad (Holy War Soldiers) and Front Pembela Islam (Defenders of Islam Front), it also incurs the wrath of conservative clerics from more established organisations, such as the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Ulema Council).

Ulil Abshar Abdalla, chairman of Indonesia’s Research and Development of Human Resources Institute and one of the most prolific writers and active speakers of the Network, last year incurred a death fatwa from some clerics of the Indonesian Ulema Council. Ulil offended the ulemas with his trenchant and fearless criticism of the conservative practices in the country’s Islamic communities, which Ulil believes blur the distinction between the universal teachings and the scriptural aspects of Islam.

The fatwa generated a great deal of controversy, while Ulil soldiered on, unrepentant.

‘I’m lucky, in that I was brought up in an era where people were beginning to be critical of what they were taught, so now when I am supposedly condemned by these ulemas, I receive so much support from left, right and centre, even from some ulemas at the Indonesian Ulema Council itself. I know I have nothing to fear,’ said Ulil when asked about the fatwa.

There is continuing opposition from conservative and radical groups, who accuse the Network of being funded by the West or worse still, by the United States (which is increasingly seen as opposed to Islam). They also say that the Network is too elitist to ever reach the general population.

The Network activists deny this. They are, they explain, Muslims who have been brought up in the local Islamic traditions and culture, who practice Islam and absorb Islamic values without having to transplant Arabic culture into their lives, unless, of course, they are of Arabic background. What they have integrated into their lives are the universal and absolute teachings of Islam, which can be implemented in any host culture. Indonesian people from different regions are generally proud of their own local mores, so the idea that they can be practicing Muslims while retaining their regional identities should offer reassurance.

The reach of the Network activists has also extended to rural and younger Muslims. They have been invited to pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) for discussions with the clerics and students. And in these discussions, as in those with university students, the Network activists are at ease with the language of the Qur’an and well versed in its interpretations. Theirs is not a language of slogans, which is important in promoting understanding rather than merely encouraging people to follow.

Disagreements arise as to what is meant by the temporal and cultural aspects of Islam, but Luthfi Assyaukanie believes that this inquiring attitude is a healthy phenomenon.

People who support the Liberal Islam Network, endeavour to open the minds of Muslims who may otherwise be influenced by militant groups. It seems they may be winning as most Indonesians do not feel comfortable with anything extreme. The majority of Muslims in Indonesia do not want Islamic sharia instituted. They believe in Islamic values, but do not want to live under an Islamic state. In the 1999 election, the first democratic election in Indonesia since 1955, all the Muslim parties who
supported Islamic sharia were defeated.

Among the wider Muslim community there is an increasing tendency to reject the concept of the violent jihad. Those who practice it are generally regarded as irresponsible. However, this is not enough to prevent horrific events such as the Bali bombing from recurring, as the attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003 proves.

During an ABC Foreign Correspondent interview, the Head of the Team of Investigation into the Bali Bombing, (Police) General I Made Mangku Pastika, postulates that there are three layers of terrorists who were involved in the Bali bombing. There are the foot soldiers, who were made to believe that they were launched on a fast track to heaven. The middle-level operatives, such as Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Ali Gufron alias Mukhlas, who have a deep hatred toward the United States for what they believe are that country’s massacres of Muslims around the world. Then there are those in the highest echelon, who have power in mind, who want to create a pan-Islamic state.

While this may sound like a thumbnail sketch of a complex situation, it offers a clear structure. It tells of the existence of radical Muslims who do not hesitate to use violence to fight for political gain, who also have enough persuasive power to recruit middle-level operatives and foot soldiers. Such people may be a minority, but they remain a dangerous and aggressive one.

What’s more, such groups are mostly underground. To flush them out requires a carefully considered strategy.

The endeavours of people involved in the Liberal Islam Network, which is expanding internationally, deserve support. At present, the powerful nations are focused on eliminating problems by military might. This makes the tasks of liberal Muslims very difficult.

The militant groups base their recruiting technique on showing their candidates how the United States and its allies indiscriminately killed and tortured Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how Muslims living in Western countries are victimised just for being Muslim. If the West continues to fight terrorism by causing further killing, it will only serve to further the arguments of militant leaders.

There is no doubt that Indonesia’s security and intelligence agencies need smartening up. But this should be accompanied by a serious study of the Indonesian social and political situation on the part of Western nations, particularly Australia. There needs to be a window to the world behind Amrozi’s face. ?

Dewi Anggraeni’s book, Who Did This to Our Bali? will be published later this year.



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