Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Roots of Moderate Islam in Indonesia

By Mun’im Sirry

Over the past few years we have witnessed the growing number of Western scholars exploring the particularity of Indonesian Islam from that of the Middle East. This is true not only to the extent that some Indonesianists such as Robert Hefner of Boston University are successfully demonstrating that Indonesia is not a periphery of the Muslim World, but also able to point out certain elements of its distinct and attractive features.

Apart from the fact that Indonesia is home of the largest Muslim community in the world, Islam in Indonesia has ostensibly gained more attention in the Western scholarship. A distinguished scholar of Middle East, Dr. Bassam Tibbi, for instance, calls Indonesia as a model for the Islamic civilization in transition to the 21st century. He bases his argument on the ground that “It represents a model for religiously and ethnic-culturally different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect.”

Another expert of Middle Eastern Islam, Giora Eliraz of Hebrew University at Jerusalem – who shifted his intellectual interest to Indonesia – in his recent work, Islam in Indonesia (2004), argues that although the Middle East has had significant impact on Islam in Indonesia, but once certain Islamic ideas and streams of thoughts diffused to Indonesia from the Middle East, they underwent some modifications and exhibited an inclusive and pluralist character.

To make his point, Eliraz refers to the “venture” of the ideas of the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh to the country. While in his homeland (Egypt) Abduh’s progressive idea gained support only among a tiny group of reformers, in Indonesia it transformed into the largest modernist Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, which along with the traditionalist organization NU (Nahdhatul Ulama) represents the mainstream of Moderate Islam in Indonesia.

The question now arises: What explains this moderation, in contrast to the explosive growth of militancy in so many Muslim majority countries? There are probably several parts to a complete answer. Some argues that the moderate feature of Indonesian Islam can be traced back to the way in which Islam was firstly introduced to the archipelago by foreign traders. The culture developing along the coast under the influence of the traders included traits like egalitarianism, dynamism, entrepreneurship, and independence, which affected the ideology and practice of Islam in the country significantly. As a result, the Indonesian people are now basically egalitarian in their outlook, an important ingredient for a functioning tolerance.

In line with this argument is the fact that the type of Islam that entered into the archipelago was sufistic in nature. This makes Indonesian Muslims very receptive to the local context which eventually leads them to an inclusive understanding of who and what can be considered Islamic. In 1960s the renowned American anthropologist Clifford Greertz drew a line between abangan (syncretist Muslims) and santri (practicing Muslims) to indicate the diverse religious orientations in the country.

However, one should not forget that there was a long history of moderation among both the traditionalists and the modernists. NU had in the 1930s issued a fatwa (religious degree) declaring Dutch rule legitimate. The early leaders of Muhammadiyah focused more on internal reform (tajdid), making better Muslim one by one, as opposed to capturing the state in the name of Islam.

In addition, we may take into account some recent developments that make this religious and political moderation among Indonesian Muslims is possible. First, much credit must be given to a remarkably creative and dedicated group of young religious and social thinkers and activists who chose early in the New Order of Suharto regime to reject the Islamic state approach. At the height of the New Order’s political repression of Islam during the late 1970s and early 1980s, new pattern of thinking emerged in the umma (Muslim community), particularly among younger intellectuals, which would have a major impact on the nature of political articulation of Islam. This phenomenon, which was initially called the “reform movement” (gerakan pembaruan), is perhaps best summed up in Nurcholish Madjid’s 1972’s dictum: ‘Islam yes, Islamic party no.’ This new generation is, to large extent, quite successful in desacralizing the notion of Islamic state.

Second, at the same time, the New Order’s own stance towards Islam began to change from the late 1980s. A series of legislative and institutional concession to Islamic sentiment provided tangible evidence of this. Prominent among them were the promulgation of Islamic family law in 1989, the establishment of ICMI (Indonesian Muslim Intellectual Association) in 1990, lifting a ban on female state school students wearing jilbab (head cover) in 1991, the founding of an Islamic bank (Bank Muamalat) in 1992, and abolition of the state lottery. All these gave a strong impression to Muslims that they could live in accordance with Islamic teaching even though the state is not Islamic one.

Third, the tendency toward a moderation has also something to do the success that Islamic institute of learning has had played in enlightening Indonesian Muslims, especially UIN (State Islamic University). There are 27 UINs throughout Indonesia along with a hundred of STAINs (State Institute of Islamic Studies) which introduce a progressive understanding of Islam.

Fourth and yet more importantly is the introduction of a new way of understanding Islam especially by those who studied in the West. At least, in the last two decades, we have witnessed an increasing number of Muslim students fromIndonesia enrolled in various Western universities. Many people, including myself, think that this can partly be explained by the shifting direction of study among Muslim societies of Southeast Asia from the Middle East to the West. When these students return to their home country, they promote different approaches to the study of Islam – approaches in which Islam is no more seen as a static object, but rather as a dynamic process of understanding. It seems that those who studied in the West are well-equipped with methodologies and research capabilities so as to present an “Islam” more adaptable and amendable to social change.

It is worth mentioning that many Indonesian students who pursued their graduate studies in the West occupy the highest position of influence in Indonesia, academically and politically. They are also able to develop a different picture of Islam – an Islam that is compatible with the modern notions of human achievements, such as democracy, human rights, civil society, etc. Just to give an illustration: three prominent American Muslim scholars – Ismail al-Faruqi (1921-1986) from Palestine, Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988) from Pakistan, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933) from Iran, who are generally regarded as among the best known and intellectually influential Muslim scholars of the twentieth century, and whose ideas and thoughts are not welcomed in their respective countries, but Indonesian Muslims have taken the historic step of welcoming them and their ideas when they were not welcomed in their native lands.

I think it is not an exaggeration or even overly optimistic to say that this recent development will pave the way for the emergence of what we may call a “moderate Islamic network” between the United States and Indonesia.

Mun’im Sirry, Indonesian Muslim scholar and author of several books, including Resisting Religious Militancy (Jakarta: Airlangga, 2003).

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