Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Islamic world view behind Cikeusik

FRIDAY, 10 FEBRUARY 2012 16:41


The incident that took place in Cikeusik, in the Pandeglang district of the province of Banten in early February 2011, has left a deep wound on the consciences of people concerned about humanitarian issues. Information technology has laid bare the full horror of the events, spreading images of the blows from blunt objects, bamboo sticks and rocks that rained down on the half-naked bodies of two members of the Ahmadiyah community who, even in a state of total immobilisation, remained the targets of hate-filled emotion. Some of the attackers could even be seen jumping up and down on the bodies of the victims after they were most likely already dead.
Yet these tragic events had a simple cause: these people met their deaths at the hands of a mob because they held beliefs that differed from those of the mainstream. The public outrage at this act of inhumanity reached new levels of intensity in July 2011 when those charged with the administration of justice handed down insignificant sentences on the perpetrators of the violence and murder.
There are a number of issues surrounding the incident that till now remain unclear: How is it that differences of belief can become so emotional? How do we explain legal decisions so out of step with the public’s sense of justice? Why does the government fail to protect its citizens? Have the police and army been involved as actors? What about the possibility of conspiracies designed to harm the image of Islam?
Unless all these issues can be fully resolved, it is likely that similar acts of violence will recur, making it more difficult to ensure the maintenance of religious tolerance and human rights in the years to come. When the violence that occurred in Cikeusik is considered in the light of other instances of violence and infringements on freedom of religion, such as the debates over the building of places of worship, accusations about false teachings and insults to religion, claims concerning Christianisation (or apostasy) and a whole range of issues related to the misuse of religion for particular interests in regional elections, the future of religious tolerance and plurality in Indonesia’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural society does not look bright.

World view and religious radicalism in West Java

Where religious-based violence is concerned, surveys indicate that West Java has for a while been one of the most conflict-prone regions in Indonesia. Among the complex of issues that lie behind these acts of violence, religious world view stands out. In general, the Islamic community in Indonesia, and in West Java in particular, subscribe to a religious world view based on a version of Islam that is minimalist and puritanical, which is also expressed in Islamic mass organisations like Nahdhatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah, the Islamic Union (Persis), the Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI), the Islamic Forum of Scholars and the Community (FUUI) and the Congregation of Muslims Party (PUI).
Without doubt, some of the West Javanese Islamic scholars who studied in Mecca were influential in shaping and strengthening this view. While studying there, they came under the influence of Wahabi theology, which gives negative meanings to diversity in Islamic observance. Sundanese Muslims tend to be very puritanical in their practice of religion and in their theological outlook, so they are prone to strong reactions whenever their convictions are challenged. In recent times, such strong reactions have occurred in response to three particular issues: the granting of permits for places of worship, perceived insults to Islam, and proselytising among the poor by Christians. Each of these issues, when considered carefully, can be seen to be related to theological convictions which problematise diversity. The same is true of puritanical responses to interpretations of Islam from secular and liberal perspectives; these are seen as threats to the beliefs held by the broad Islamic community, or umat.
Acts of violence against the Ahmadiyah community, including the Cikeusik incident, are related to the dominant form of Islamic theology in West Java, because they arise from doctrinal issues surrounding the status of the prophet Muhammad and the Ahmadiyah scriptures that are considered heretical on this score. Holders of mainstream beliefs in the region, as represented by Islamic-based mass organisations, vigorously reject the presence of Ahamdiyah in West Java, because of the challenge it poses to orthodox beliefs. Almost all of the mass organisations mentioned above (NU, Muhammadiyah, Persis, MUI, FUUI, PUI and others) have issued statements rejecting Ahmadiyah’s right to exist, accusing it of promoting a false doctrine counter to true Islam.
In my view, it is this minimalist and puritanical Islamic world view which has produced the ‘negative theology’ of the West Javanese Islamic community and its inflexible stance. This outcome has provided justifications for the practice of violence. This violence can be verbal, taking the form of labelling different views as deviations from the truth and in defining those who hold them as infidels. It can also take physical form, such as evictions and other acts that have resulted in the deaths of members of the Ahmadiyah community in several locations.
The puritanical character of West Javanese Islam is strengthened by the existence of educational institutions (including study groups) that tend to emphasise the dogmatic and ritualistic aspects of Islam and promote exclusive, intolerant and sometimes sectarian attitudes. These institutions and study groups are very effective at re-inventing, preserving and passing on the minimalist and puritanical Islamic world view and the ‘negative theology’ described above.
A survey of reading material dealing with matters of religion from a number of Islamic schools, for example, reveals an absence of any attempt to understand religion in the context of a rapidly changing, contemporary society. In its place such schools promote material specifically reflecting the ideology of the particular mass organisation associated with the school. This situation breeds exclusive and sectarian attitudes and makes it difficult for students to accept different understandings of Islam. This tendency to cast the teaching of Islam in schools in an ideological light also has the effect of strengthening the exclusivity of religious identity, rather than encouraging a pluralistic and diverse sense of ‘being Indonesian’. It also sows the seeds of intolerance and religious radicalism in society.

The role of Islamic mass organisations

Fundamentally, religion is ambivalent in character: it can be gentle or it can be ferocious, merciful or harsh, peaceful or warlike. The leadership, or religious elite, which includes the kiai (revered teachers and scholars) and the heads of religious-based social organisations and political parties, play an influential role in channelling community sentiment: either in the direction of consensus, compromise, moderation and harmony or towards controversy, mutual distrust, conflict and violence. When acts of violence and anarchic attitudes are justified in the name of religion, as occurred in the Cikeusik incident, the religious elite shares some of the responsibility.
It may well be the case that organisations like NU, Muhammadiyah, Persis, MUI, FUUI and PUI have played a major role in building harmonious religious communities. They have made a significant contribution to the development of people’s character and religious understanding in society, most notably through the variety of educational institutions they have established, from kindergartens to tertiary institutions. They have also been very active in educating their communities through organisational activities and Koranic recitation classes (pengajian). In addition, through associations formed in conjunction with the government, such as the Forum for Inter-Religious Harmony (FKUB), they have promoted the importance of living in harmony and at peace with other religions, in a climate of mutual understanding and a respect for plurality.
In connection with the Cikeusik incident, they have issued strong joint statements condemning the anarchic actions of sectors of the community. However, there is still the question of whether these Islamic organisations have done enough to calm tensions in religious life as a whole. Why is it that members of the Ahmadiyah community have seen the role of these organisations in precisely the opposite light, finding no positive contributions from Islamic organisations towards resolving the conflict?
Leaving aside questions about the role of Islamic organisations in the past, there are in my view a number of steps that need to be taken by these organisations in moving towards the future. Firstly, they need to develop a religious world view that is multicultural in outlook. By this I mean a religious paradigm that promotes and strives to implement the values of diversity, the idea that diversity (in culture, language, ethnicity and religion) is a universal fact of nature.
The guiding principle of this multicultural religious paradigm or world view is that all cultural groups must be treated equally, with honour and respect. Within Islam, such a principle resides within the fundamental doctrine of the oneness of God (tauhid). According to the Pakistani poet and scholar, Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), the essence of tauhid as a working principle is equality, fraternity and freedom. This interpretation not only has implications for our understanding of the undivided unity of God, but it also relates to the unity of humanity and the unity of creation. It means that all forms of discrimination – whether they relate to race, religion, sex, status, wealth, or intellectual or physical capability – are in fundamental contradiction with one of the most basic principles of Islam.
This vision must be promoted right down to the grassroots. Up till now, progressive religious thinking has been confined to the elite levels of Islamic mass organisations. At the grassroots level, religious discourses and attitudes tend to be aggressive (arousing hatred of particular groups or communities), intolerant and sectarian – as can be seen in print media such as the bulletins issued by mosques at the Friday congregational prayer. In this context, the use of information technology and telecommunications (TV, mobile phones, internet, teleconferencing, printed media etc.) will be crucial.
Secondly, Islamic organisations need to develop a model for formal education and religious study that is more oriented to progressive, inclusive and tolerant attitudes towards difference. The type of education that has been pursued up till now has bred a religiosity that is exclusive, intolerant and sectarian. For example, the material used in the teaching of theology, jurisprudence and exegesis has been excessively defensive of Islamic belief, resulting in a perpetuation of a negative theology, a theology of hatred and hostility towards outsiders.
The type of education that has been pursued up till now has bred a religiosity that is exclusive, intolerant and sectarian.
The teaching methods have been passed down through generations, and resemble indoctrination more than an appeal to philosophical reason and the development of wide-ranging perspectives, especially in relation to the growth of a multicultural and multi-religious contemporary culture. The development of a progressive, inclusive, welcoming and tolerant teaching model would be a significant step towards minimising the potential for acts of violence, religious radicalism and anarchism.
Thirdly, Islamic organisations need to develop a religious orientation that identifies with the interests of the weak and marginalised sectors of society. They need to show how Islam, as a body of teaching that derives from divine inspiration, can take a critical stance towards social inequalities. They must become a vanguard in defending the interests of those who are impoverished, marginalised and whose rights have been violated. These types of circumstances oblige Islamic organisations to develop a ‘transformative theology’, or what has recently come to be called a progressive Islamic theology. This means a religious paradigm based in praxis, the struggle against injustice and the defence of the poor.

Defending the poor

Many Indonesians live in difficult material circumstances and must struggle to fulfil their basic needs for food, clothing and a place to live. So it is perfectly understandable if these people are like tinder, easily ignited by the fires of emotion and prone to the type of brutality and anarchic acts that can be directed at religious communities. In fact, violence in the name of religion can be especially brutal, because it is driven not only by material need but also by ideological conviction. It is these circumstances that make it imperative for religious organisations to orient themselves to the weak and marginalised, because it is among these sectors of society that the seeds of emotionalism, radicalism and anarchism can so easily spring to life.
Fourthly, Islamic organisations must be consistent in strengthening their position in their dealings with broader society, and especially the institutions of government and the market, which together exercise hegemony over all aspects of life in Indonesia. Without isolating themselves from the state and the market, they must develop a critical stance towards both, aligning themselves with the public interest. The position of Islamic organisations as players in civil society has been severely weakened by the power of politics and the market, to the point where they have been powerless in the face of a number of issues relating to politics and the economy. In West Java, a number of Islamic organisations still function as mouthpieces for the government, political tools and ‘servants’ of those who wield the power of money. As a result, they need to strengthen their position by reconfirming their place in networks and coalitions with other elements of civil society.
Religious world view plays a critical role in motivating acts of violence. In the Indonesian context, and particularly in West Java, the religious world view concerned is that of minimalist and puritanical Islam. This type of religious world view gives birth to a negative theology of non-compromise, non-consensus and non-negotiation in relation to difference and pluralism. To re-establish the harmony of religious life, these Islamic organisations have a very significant role to play.
The steps I have outlined above will help to strengthen the cohesive capacities of religious harmony, and ultimately help to reaffirm national integration and the consolidation of a mature democracy in Indonesia. It is a task that will require the involvement of many different players, both at the local-national level and in the regional-global context.
Hendar Riyadi ( is a lecturer at the Sunan Gunung Djati State Islamic University (UIN), Bandung, and is involved in the Muhammadiyah Young Intellectuals Network (JIMM). He visited Australia as a guest of Monash University and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.
This article was translated by Keith Foulcher and is part of a series that presents reflections by prominent West Javanese Muslim intellectuals one year after the Cikeusik tragedy. 

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