Monday, August 14, 2006

Strengthening Moderate Islam in Indonesia

The Jakarta Post, 4 August 2006

Muhamad Ali

Who are moderate Muslims in Indonesia today? This question has been controversial and debatable depending on one’s political and religious perspective. It seems that most scholars and people at home and abroad share the conviction that most Muslims in Indonesia are tolerant and moderate, but many still find it difficult to identify who they are, what they actually do, and what their future is.

There is semantic issue in what the term implies, but more importantly, one’s perspective shapes his or her view on what moderate Islam is and who moderate Muslims are. For some, Islam is inherently moderate and all Muslims, without exception are therefore moderate in any time and in any place, there are no radical, no fundamentalist, no moderate no liberal. This aim is in contradiction with the plurality of the world naturally and culturally. This conviction is simply based on faith, believing that our faith is always true and good and therefore those who have this faith are automatically true and good, even the truest and best. In reality that is not the case. There are Muslims who are not moderate. But who are they?

In the United States (U.S.), for example, especially after 11 September 2001, defining moderate Muslims understandably is political. For many scholars and policy makers, moderate Muslims are those who are more or less like us, those who are not critical of and not blaming the US on particular world conflicts and issues. For example, Ariel Cohen, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation contended that moderate Muslims are those who do not view the greater jihad, holy war, as a pillar of faith or as predominant dimension thereof (American Journal for Islamic Social Sciences, 2005). A moderate, according to Cohen, is one who is searching for a dialogue and a compromise with people who adhere to other interpretations of the Qur’an, and with those who are not Muslims. Moderate Muslims respect the right of individuals to disagree, to worship Allah the way they chose, or not to worship. Interestingly, for Cohen, the famous Tariq Ramadhan, grandson of Hasan al-Banna, and Yusuf Qaradawi are not moderate Muslims because the former supports Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) and comes from that tradition and the latter is an anti-Semite and rationalizes the murder of children as Cohen understood.

But for John Esposito, defining who is a moderate Muslim depends on the politics or religious positions of the individuals making the judgment. For many, Esposito says, the litmus test for a moderate Muslim is tied up to foreign policy issues, for example, how critical one is of American or French policy or one’s position in regard to Palestine/Israel, Kashmir, Iraq, and so on. Esposito sees that many definitions of the moderate include a liberal reformer or a progressive, excluding conservative or traditionalist positions. According to Esposito, moderates in Islam, as in all faiths, are the majority or mainstream in Islam. The Muslim mainstream represents a variety of religious and socioeconomic positions. For Esposito, minimally moderate Muslims are those who live and work “within” societies, seek change from below, reject religious extremism, and consider violence and terrorism to be illegitimate. Some seek to Islamize their societies but eschew political Islam; others do not. Thus, according to Esposito, the moderates include those Muslims who join Islamic political parties, but they reject violence and illegal means.
The debate becomes more interesting when some Muslim scholars share their views and others do not fully. For example, Moqtedar Khan, sees critical reasoning (ijtihad) as the main concern of the moderates, not merely in its legalistic but more importantly in its comprehensive dimension. Thus, for Moqtader Khan, Chandra Muzaffar in Malaysia, Tarik Ramadan in Europe, Maulana Waheeduddin Khan and Asghar Ali Engineer in India, Khalid Abul Fadl and Louay Safi in the US, Karim Soroush and Muhammad Khatami in Iran and many more who are committed to their Jihad (struggle) to revive the spirit of Ijtihad, are all moderates. According to another Muslim scholar, Taha Jabir al-Alwani, to say that moderate Muslims do not believe that jihad is one of Islam’s pillars is incorrect. However, moderate Muslims see jihad in its complete and objective meaning within a framework of self-purification, family, society, the larger human family, and the Earth. On the other hand, says Al-Alwani, the other conservatives see jihad as limited to the jihad of the sword and divide it into offensive and defensive wars.

In Indonesia, debating moderate Islam is no less political. Many believe that Muhammadiyah (since 1912) and the Nahdlatul Ulama (since 1926) are moderates, because they accept the semi-secular state ideology of Pancasila and do not promote the formalization of Islamic law at the national level. They are also moderates because they condemn terrorism and the use of violence in promoting the good and forbidding the evil (amar ma’aruf nahi mungkar). Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama have been promoting interfaith and inter-civilizational dialogue, peace movement, and international co-operations. Muslim figures such as late Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, Harun Nasution, Azyumardi Azra, M.Dien Syamsuddin, Hasyim Muzadi, and many more are regarded as moderates. Although they are often critical of American foreign policies on particular issues, as many others in the world, they do not show anti-Americanism. Despite minor cases where members of these two organizations become radical such as Kahar Muzakkar during the 1960s and 1970s and other cadres in the 1990s onward who joined some contemporary hardliners, these two organizations have allowed the establishment of more networks, movements, and organizations which identify and promote themselves as moderates, progressives or liberals.

They are, for example, Perhimpunan Pesantren dan Pengembangan Masyarakat (P3M), Jaringan Islam Emansipatoris (JIE), LAKPESDAM NU (Lembaga Kajian dan Pengembangan Sumber Daya Manusia) Jakarta, Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial (LKiS), Paramadina, Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL), Jaringan Islam Progresif, Jaringan Intelektual Muda Muhammadiyah (JIMM), Gerakan Islam Transformatif (GIT), Generasi Santri Progresif (GSP), Gerakan Dakwah Islam Profetik (GARDIF), Jaringan Filantropi Islam (JIFI), Gerakan Praksis Kemanusiaan Madani (Gaprikima), International Center for Islamic Pluralisme (ICIP), Center for Moderate Muslims (CMM), elSAD (Lembaga Studi Agama dan Demokrasi) Surabaya, LKPSM Yogyakarta, Kaum Muda NU, Syarikat (Masyarakat Santri untuk Kajian Sosial dan Advokasi Rakyat), LAPAR (Lembaga Advokasi & Pendidikan Anak Rakyat) Makassar, Puan Hayati, Rahima, Lentera Hati, and still more. Those peoples and networks share the notion of moderates as the non-violent since they promote their Islamic interpretations through education, training, community development, publications, dialogue and co-operations.

The question remains: what about the silent majority? The silent majority can only be identified as moderates or not by making surveys or other methods of research. Several surveys indicate that many Muslims are intolerant in the sense that they do not like Christians, Jews, and Muslim sects, and even the liberals. Many want an Islamic state and the formalization of Islam Law at regional levels, although they do not want amputation of thieves or throwing stones of the sinners. Another survey implies also that particular Arabic books allow intolerant interpretation of Islam such as domestic violence (husband against wives, parents against children in certain cases). Some 190 million Indonesian Muslims do not speak nor write, but if organizations such as Muhammadiyah, NU, and hundred more are assumed as representatives of the majority, then we can safely argue that most Indonesian Muslims are indeed moderate.

However, the establishment of the active minority calling themselves moderates or progressive from the majority implies that there remain many who are not moderates (radicals, hardliners, or the intolerant). Therefore these non-governmental organizations have more seriously and systematically been promoting the values of moderation, tolerance, pluralism, civil society, democracy, human rights, and so forth at all levels, including the grassroots and the villagers.

If Indonesians have a common understanding about who the moderates are it would be easier for them to promote empowerment agendas. To define who the moderates are is not to divide Muslim community in negative and destructive sense. It is to strengthen the Islamic values compatible to the modern, realistic way of thinking and life. It is to establish broad networks of different communities in the country to solve inter-religious and inter-organizational problems such as poverty, backwardness, terrorism and violence, injustices, corruption, diseases, and more. To minimize and contend, if not eliminate the influence of the intolerant interpretation of Islam would also mean to educate and lead the silent majority into a moderate path. If the majority believes that Islam should be moderate, amidst the threat of extremism, then the moderate active minority such as the organizations, networks, and movements mentioned above should continue promoting and strengthening moderate interpretation and application of Islam in the public sphere of Indonesia and the international community.

Muhamad Ali is a lecturer at the State Islamic University Jakarta, a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He can be reached at

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