Saturday, October 22, 2005

Liberal Islam in Indonesia

Lily zag Munir is a leading Indonesian Muslim human rights activist. She is the director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Pesantren and Democracy Studies that works with the ‘ulama and students of Indonesian Islamic boarding schoolsor pesantrens. In this interview speaks about her work andher vision of an Indonesian Islamic liberation theology.


Q: In recent years, particularly after the events of 11 September, 2001 and therise of numerous anti-American Islamist groups in Indonesia, there is much talkabout ‘liberal Islam’ flourishing in Indonesia. Some institutions seeking topromote ‘liberal Islam’ are now being liberally funded by certain conservativeWestern organizations, some of which are known for their close links with theAmerican administration. How do you look at the ‘liberal Islam’ project thatthese groups seek to promote?

A: I share many liberal values myself, and of course I am opposed to extremism and narrow understandings of religion. My answer to your question would be that the liberal Islam project as it is developing in Indonesia today is not a homogenous one. It is characterized by considerable diversity and hence it isdifficult to make generalizations about it.

My point is simple. If liberal Islam aims at protecting the rights of the poorand the marginalized then I welcome it. But if, as in the case of some foreignagencies that are now funding certain ‘liberal’ Islamic programmes in Indonesia,the underlying agenda is to create space for liberal free-market economics andthe exploitation of our country by multinational corporations and dampen anycritique of imperialism and neocolonialism, then I cannot agree with it. If itremains silent on the corruption of local and global elites and, instead, trainsits ire only on the Islamist extremists, as is sometimes the case, I think thisis a very one-sided approach. We have to be balanced in our critique. You cannotcriticize and oppose only the radical Islamists while ignoring the oppression ofthe elites, Western imperialism and neocolonialism and the global system ofcapitalist exploitation.

Q: So would you say that the ‘liberal Islam’ project is largely an elitistventure?

A: In some ways, yes. Funding for such projects generally comes from Westernagencies, and goes to Indonesian NGOs, which are mostly led by middle-classactivists. This is not emerging as a spontaneous movement from among themarginalized. This elitism is also reflected in many of the causes that several‘liberal Islam’ groups take up and the issues that they ignore. So, they usuallyfocus on countering extremist Islamist groups and also take up issues such asgender, pluralism and democracy. I don’t say these issues are not important. Ofcourse they are, but what is equally significant is that in the process othervital issues are, deliberately or otherwise, often left out, issues such asimperialism, unbridled capitalist exploitation, the World Bank-IMF-led form of‘development’ that is only further widening inequalities and increasing povertyin Indonesia, and the growing influence of Christian fundamentalism globally andso on. And to add to this we have this terrible cultural invasion coming in fromthe West, spreading crass consumerism and hedonism and mindlessly mimickingAmerican pop culture, in the process destroying our rich local cultures. Theseare equally major challenges as is radical Islamism, but I find few advocates of‘liberal Islam’ taking up these issues as well. When they talk of democracy, itis limited generally to procedural or formal democracy—the one person one votesystem of bourgeoise democracy—which, as we know, is not sufficient to bringabout genuine economic and social democracy and social justice. This sort offormal democracy does not really challenge the established elites and theWestern-dominated global system of exploitation. So, we need to talk aboutsubstantive democracy, democratic values such as social justice and protectionof human rights from violation not only by radical Islamists but also by thestate and by the dominant Western countries.

Another issue that I would like to draw your attention to is that some ‘liberalIslam’ groups that get funds from certain Western agencies seem to have boughtinto an elitist free-market discourse. For instance, the support given by someof them to the recent scrapping of the oil subsidy in Indonesia under WorldBank-IMF pressure that has hit the poor the most.

So, this sort of ‘liberal Islamic’ discourse that is today being very vigorouslypromoted by certain conservative, even right-wing Western agencies in Indonesia,and perhaps elsewhere, too, is carefully tailored to suit the interests of theWest and of local elites, because the poor hardly fit into their scheme ofthings. My own position is that yes, we need to be critical of Islamistextremists but we also need to simultaneously critique and oppose Westernimperialism, Christian extremism and so on.

Q: So, what you are saying is that the basic agenda behind many Western agencieswho are today sponsoring ‘liberal Islam’ projects in Indonesia is to stave offthe challenge of anti-Western Islamist groups, and not to really bring about anystructural changes?

A: Exactly. They certainly won’t sponsor any projects that might challengefree-market capitalism, multinational corporations that have such a strangleholdover the Indonesian economy or American hegemony! You won’t find them fundingprojects to critique hedonism and consumerism! Now, since it is unfortunatelydifficult for most Indonesian NGOs to get local funds, they generally rely onWestern agencies that have their own agendas. I think we really need to becareful that when taking foreign funds we don’t serve an anti-people agenda. Itreally is up to our own conscience how we use the money. There is always thedanger that idealistic youth who really want to change the system and dosomething concrete for the poor might get co-opted, with access to foreignfunds, trips abroad and foreign jaunts organized by NGOs funded by Westernagencies. And once that happens it is rare for them to speak out against thestructures that generate poverty and exploitation and the domination of localand global elites.


Q: In the writings and activities of certain Western-funded ‘liberal Islamic’groups in Indonesia Islamist radicalism is seen simply as an ideological‘deviation’ whose genesis is located in ‘deviant’ interpretations of Islam,rather than in concrete social structures. Do you agree?

A: Yes, I agree with you to a large extent. The issue of Islamist radicalism isoften seen in a sociological vacuum, as if it comes out of nowhere. The fact,however, is that Islamist radicalism cannot be understood without situating itin the context of the broader political economy, and as resulting from certainlocal and global social, economic, cultural and political structures andprocesses of domination and exclusion. There can be no smoke without fire. So,unless these structures and processes are tackled, how can you expect radicalismto disappear? Focusing only on the phenomenon of radicalism and ignoring itsunderlying structural causes will only exacerbate the problem and delay andfurther complicate its solution. Of course, dominant elites, both in Indonesiaand in the West, do not want to recognize this as they themselves are deeplyimplicated in these structures that give rise to the phenomenon of radicalism asa reaction or response, and that is why you will find that many among them wouldinsist that Islamist radicalism is a result simply a deviant understanding ofIslam and that it has nothing to do with exploitation, predatory capitalism,western consumerist culture, or imperialism and so on. And then one must alsoremember that extremism and terrorism are not easily defined, and it all dependson who does the defining and why. So, one must ask, how and why does SaddamHussain come to be defined as a ‘terrorist’, while America’s brutal invasion ofIraq and Afghanistan (where I just spent six months), which has resulted in thedeaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, does not qualify to be called anact of terror?

Q: Being associated with several socially engaged Muslim groups in Indonesia howdo you look at the question of interfaith relations?

A: My own understanding of Islam leads me to believe in the necessity ofpromoting interfaith dialogue and harmony. Several moderate Islamic groups inthe country are actively involved in trying to promote better relations betweenMuslims and people of other faiths. Often, interfaith dialogue work takes theform of religious leaders meeting with each other and discussing theirrespective faiths and trying to discover their commonalities. Now, while that isimportant, I think the interfaith agenda needs to be broadened, so that peopleof different faiths, inspired by their own religions, can work together forcommon social goals, such as for social justice for all, or critiquing all formsof religious extremism or struggling together against the exploitation of localand global elites.

Unfortunately, for some Muslims—and the same can be said in the case of othercommunities as well—religious identity is sought to be constructed in oppositionto or even on the basis of hatred for the religious ‘other’. I think this is avery wrong and un-Islamic approach. In this regard I would like to mention thevery different position adopted by a leading Indonesian scholar, the late Kiai‘Abdullah Siddiq, who used to talk of three levels of ‘brotherhood’ or ukhuwwah:ukhuwwah islamiya or Islamic brotherhood, ukhuwwah wataniya, brotherhood basedon common nation, and ukhuwwa bashariya or brotherhood based on the fact ofbeing creatures of God, which includes both Muslims as well as all others. So,what he stressed was a consciousness of being fellow creatures of God despiteour different religions. This is related to the Qur’anic statement that God hascreated us into different nations so that we can know each other and that thebest among us is he or she who does good and devotes himself or herself to God.And what happens when, as the Qur’an exhorts, we begin to know each other? Webegin to shed our hatreds, which then turn into mutual appreciation and love.And if you don’t get to know each other, then you go the Taliban or the Zionistway and begin to hate each other, which is against God’s Will.

This understanding of interfaith relations requires a fundamental transformationin the way in which we understand our own religions. Unfortunately, many of usunderstand them simply as a bundle of rituals and doctrines and make anunwarranted rigid distinction between the ‘religious’ and the ‘mundane’, as ifthe two were opposed to each other. While rituals and doctrines are undoubtedlyimportant, equally so is the ethical imperative that the different religionscontain of struggling for social justice, and eliminating poverty and suffering.These are important not only in themselves, but also for a proper religiouslife. If you are materially secure you can be at peace with God and with otherhuman beings. So that is why I think religious activists must also work forsatisfying people’s basic needs. This is why Muslims generally pray to Godasking Him to bless them in this world as well as in the Hereafter.

Q: In contrast to my own country, India, I find Indonesian Islamic scholars farmore willing to relate Islam to modern concerns. I think the Indonesian case hasno parallels elsewhere in the Muslim world. What do you feel?


A: Yes, I would agree, albeit with some qualifications. Today, we have a growingnumber of Islamic intellectuals as well as traditionally-trained ‘ulama who areseriously discussing a range of contemporary issues, from gender justice andreligious pluralism to democracy and extremism. You also have some scholars whoare talking about ‘social fiqh’, offering new perspectives on a range of socialissues, such as education, women’s rights politics and economics that go beyondthe understanding of Islam as being limited simply to rituals. However, I mustadmit that only a few of them have any awareness of political economy, of issuessuch as global capitalism and imperialism or the politics of culture orconsumerism. Also missing is a sufficiently grounded critique of the state andthe international system. Many of our scholars continue in the sametraditionalist mould. So, for instance, they would answer that the solution toour economic woes is simply by instituting the zakat levy or by banninginterest, although obviously that is hardly sufficient to mend the ills of theglobal economy.

Another problem is that in recent years many ‘ulama, including from theorganization with which I am associated, the Nahdlatul ‘Ulama, the largestIslamic organization in the world, have taken to politics. I am not saying thatthis is bad per se, because with political power you can influence politicaldecisions, but there is always the danger of getting cut off from the concernsof the masses. Instead of caring for the poor or doing serious intellectual workthey are looking out for political positions. And, to make matters worse, youhave ‘ulama who have been co-opted by the system, who love their big cars andhouses, who buy into the logic of consumerist capitalism, and have no criticalperspective on it. So all that also severely impacts on the level ofcontemporary Islamic discourse in Indonesia.

Q: Some Indonesian scholars have also made interesting contributions to theongoing debates on the status of Muslim women. What are your views on this?

A: Yes, a number of our ‘ulama have taken up this issue and have made someinteresting developments in the direction of gender justice, although manyremain wedded to the patriarchal notions. My own position, as an advocate ofgender justice, is that what we should be seeking is substantive, as opposed tosimply formal, equality. So, let men lead the prayers in the mosques, but letwomen’s role in shaping the family be recognized. I am not concerned with theform of family leadership but its substance. So, today, we have a number offamilies whose principal bread-earner is the woman, and so, some argue thatlogically she should be regarded as the head or at least the co-head of thefamily, because, they say, male leadership is conditional on providing for thefamily and is not categorical. I support this stance, and this demand was putforward to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which, however, struck it down.

While we are today witnessing the emergence of new and more progressiveunderstandings of Islam on the gender question we still have to contend with thechallenge of patriarchal notions that are sought to be given an ‘Islamic’ guisein the name of revival of tradition, as exemplified, for instance, in the agendaof the radical Islamist groups. For them, the hijab becomes a symbol of Islam,not men’s beards, so they demand that women don the hijab while they remainsilent on men wearing jeans and T-shirts, not seeing this as threatening Islam.I myself wear the hijab, but I resent the way in which some Muslim groups reduceit simply into a meaningless symbol. For instance, there was this governmentofficial who issued an ordinance that women in his town had to wear hijab andlater organized a ‘Muslimah Fashion Show’, with hijab-clad women parading on theramp. Or, for instance, this other government official who imposed hijab on allMuslim women in his area, and whose wife, who usually wore fancy Western clotheswhen traveling outside, went around distributing hijabs to poor women. This manwas later arrested for massive corruption! And you also have the development ofa fashion industry centred on the hijab that caters to the elites, with fancyand exorbitantly priced hijabs on sale in special boutiques, which really robsthe hijab of its essence as a social leveler. I think this tendency to reduceshari’ah to the hijab is really pathetic. This obsession with the form, asdistinct from the spirit, of the shari’ah often ends up missing out on basicissues of economic and social justice.

A contemporary understanding of the Qur’an and the shari’ah would entailfocusing on their underlying spirit rather than simply going by their letteralone. Using this approach one could argue for changes in certain laws relatedto what is called the mu’amilat or social transactions, though, of course, therecan be no change in religious rituals (‘ibadat). So, for instance, someIndonesian feminist Islamic scholars believe that women and men should haveequal inheritance rights. They recognize that the Qur’an prescribes fordaughters half the share of sons, but they argue that this law has to be seen inthe context of seventh century Arabia, when not many women engaged in economicactivities outside the home and when men were the principal bread-earners. Bygiving them a share of the inheritance the Qur’an sought to provide women withjustice. That means the underlying intention of the inheritance rules must bejustice, and today, if we are to do justice to women they should get the sameshare as men, because many women now work outside the home and contribute to thehousehold expenses. This means that by sticking to the letter of the Qur’an andignoring its underlying spirit we may not be able to fulfill the intention ofthe Qur’an, which is justice. This calls for

Another startling difference between Indonesia and many other Muslim countriesis that here you will find women working in almost every sector of the economy,including even hijab –clad women. The majority of the Indonesian ‘ulama allowfor this, even in cases where unrelated women and men work together, providedthey maintain their modesty. This is not a problem at all for most of them,unlike in some other Muslim countries.


Q: How do you see the demand being made by radical Islamist groups in Indonesiatoday that Indonesia should be declared a formal Islamic state and be ruledaccording to the shari’ah?

A: It really depends on what one means by the shari’ah. Many people think ofshari’ah as cutting off the hands of thieves or forcing women to veil and men togrow their beards. Now, that is a mechanical, literalist and textual approach toshari’ah, which does not take into account local context. How can you cut offthe hands of people who steal because of poverty when you have not fulfilled theIslamic mandate of eradicating poverty and establishing social justice? Thissort of approach will only alienate people from Islam. I have seen this inAfghanistan, from where I have just returned, where the Taliban, in theirmisplaced zeal, banned girls from school, killed scores of Shi’as, outlawedchess and kite-flying, all because of their rigid approach to traditional fiqh,with little or no appreciation for the underlying spirit of the Qur’an, whichteaches love, compassion and social justice. By focusing only on the externalsymbols of the shari’ah, the extremists miss out on its spirit, including one ofits basic concerns, social justice.

I think when many people say they want shari’ah rule what they mean is that theywant an alternative to the present corrupt and sternly hierarchical andiniquitous order. They may not necessarily also support all the laws that areassociated with the historical shari’ah. This is why I think we need to make adistinction between shari’ah, as divine path, and the historical shari’ah orfiqh, including laws developed by the ‘ulama over time, many of which are humanproducts and amenable to change according to changing contexts. For this wereally need a contextual understanding of the Qur’an, so that we can developmore appropriate ways of implementing its underlying value system, which maydepart in some significant respects from traditional notions, such as on women’srights or inter-community relations.

That said, I must also say that I understand some of the reasons that lead somepeople to radicalism, although that does not mean I condone it. They rightly seegrowing social inequalities, unemployment, Western cultural invasion and so onas menacing threats, but they resort to violent means to end these, while Ibelieve these should be countered through generating mass awareness, throughdemonstrations or through the media. It is, however, important not to exaggeratethe strength of radical Islamist groups in Indonesia, as some Western reportersdo. In actual fact, as the election results show, they do not command thesupport of more than a very small minority of Indonesians.


Q: The literalist and traditionalist understandings of fiqh that you talk aboutwere developed in the Middle East, in a very different cultural context. Do youthink it is possible to develop new ways of understanding fiqh suited to theIndonesian cultural context?

A: Certainly. Islam is a universal religion and is not an Arab religion, andhence its appeal transcends a particular culture. Unfortunately, some ‘ulamatend to conflate Islam with Arab culture, which is wrong. We need to distinguishIslam, as a religion of surrender to God and social justice with a universalappeal and message, from Arab culture. To be a Muslim one does not have toblindly adopt every aspect of Arab culture. I see no harm in adopting oradapting to local cultures provided they do not go against any Islamic beliefs.And this is precisely what the first Sufis who came to Indonesia sought to do.

I think it is important for progressive Muslims to enter the shari’ah debate andnot allow extremists to monopolise it. We need to expand our understanding ofthe shari’ah from mere symbol to substance, from the letter of the law to itsunderlying aims or what is called in Arabic the maqasid-i shari’ah, whichinclude such fundamental issues as equality and social justice and strugglingagainst oppression and injustice. We need to think of ways of incorporating thequestion of social and economic justice into contemporary shari’ah-baseddiscourses. This draws inspiration from the central notion of Islam of tauhid orthe oneness of God, which suggests that only Allah is the Master, and that noone else can be your master. This calls for a tauhidi society, a society wherethere is social and economic equality. Islamic equality is meant not just in themosque, but in the economic, social and political realms as well, which means aburning concern for the rights of all of God’s creatures, men and women, Muslimsand non-Muslims. This understanding of Islam then helps lead you on to immerseyourself in the struggle for social justice, and you begin to question theritualistic understandings of Islam that many of us have. You now begin to askhow is it that Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, isalso among the most corrupt, when corruption is definitely un-Islamic? Or, then,you begin to ask, how is it that economic inequalities in Indonesia are one ofthe most extreme in the world, when Islam preaches social equality? In otherwords, what we need today is an Islamic theology of liberation that is sensitiveto the context of contemporary Indonesia.

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