Bring Islam Down to Earth

SURABAYA, East Java ~ British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently visited Indonesia to promote better bilateral cooperation between the two countries. In addition to this agenda, his visit was also intended to encourage dialogue between the British government and Muslim leaders in Indonesia.

Dialogue between the Muslim world and the West is indeed necessary and has been gaining momentum since the 9/11 attacks. Blair described Indonesia as a “crucial partner” in ensuring greater understanding between people of different faiths. It isn’t only because Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, but also because both countries have suffered from terrorism and have a common interest in defeating it.

Indonesia is the first developing country that was blown over by the wind of global terrorism. Only one year after the 9/11 attacks, this country wept for the tragedy of the first Bali bombings. The country has also faced a rise in fundamentalism and the resulting intergroup or interpersonal conflicts since the birth of the Reformation Era in 1998, after president Suharto stood down in response to a wave of protests calling for democracy.

Realizing that the situation is critical, some Indonesian Muslim leaders and intellectuals shared their understanding of the roots of Muslim-Western discord at a recent seminar at Airlangga University, entitled Islam and the West: Building Inter-Civilization Dialogue. Achmad Syafi’i Ma’arif, the former chairman of Muhammadiyah – the large, Islamic non-profit organization in Indonesia – believes that existing conflicts between the Muslim world and the West are due to the former having fallen behind the West in “the race of civilizations,” or our post-Enlightenment global hierarchy. He adds, however, that a widespread misinterpretation of Islamic teachings is also to blame.

The Director of the Institute of Progressive Islamic Studies in Jakarta, Zuhairi Misrawi, maintains that the clash between Islam and the West can be traced back to stories and stereotypes derived from historical confrontations, such as the Crusades. He attributes this to a lack of knowledge about the fundamental theology and moral principles of both Islam and Christianity, and to an economic and political imbalance between the Muslim world and the West. These factors, says Misrawi, should in reality act as grounds for dialogue and for more assimilation between the two conflicting sides. And indeed, in today’s interconnected and therefore smaller world, it is difficult for Islam and the West to avoid each other. They can’t help but bump into each other.

Sit Down and Talk

Both Muslim and Western societies have contributed to any clash of civilizations they may be experiencing, and so both must contribute for a meaningful dialogue of civilizations to occur. But for dialogue to be an option, both parties must face and accept their differences. The West has no right to subject Muslims to its way of thinking or ideologies. And Muslims have no right to impose Islamic teachings on the West. If dialogue is going to happen, both parties need to learn how to sit and talk.

A similar challenge confronts Indonesia, where a debate is taking place over the implementation of Islamic law. There are two conflicting approaches. Those who do not support the implementation of Islamic law argue that Indonesia is a multi-religious and multicultural country, where each faith has different and unique values: for this group, only universal values that are shared by each religion, such as justice, empowerment and egalitarianism, must be maintained. The supporters of the implementation of Islamic law, on the other hand, want Islamic law to control and counteract the existing governing system, which has adopted a secularist, liberal-capitalist ideology.

Despite sharing the same goal, namely the realization of social justice, the approach can be very polarizing. One wants to achieve the goal by formalizing Islamic laws and the other cares more for the implementation of these laws in essence.

Demographically speaking, we Muslims may be “entitled” to more than others since we do represent the majority. Should we choose to, we could obtain what we wanted through a simple vote. However, in a multicultural society, such behavior would put non-Muslims in a precarious position. The question is: do we really want to do this?

Majority Rule

Unfortunately, there are many Muslim groups in Indonesia that feel that based on numbers alone, they should be able to implement the laws they choose. They tend to be “religious in statistics.” Many incidents demonstrate how “statistics” are exploited to demand things. Claiming to stem from the majority, these groups demand the formalization of Islamic laws, like the use of the scarf, for example. To some extent, one of the primary causes of various religious incidents in Indonesia begins with the superiority of the statistic.

But there are implications of this numbers-based approach. Groups can engage in what Pierre Bourdieu coined “symbolic violence” in his book Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1970). Symbolic violence occurs when a certain group forces its symbols and value systems (such as religion) onto another group. Legitimization of the majority is often an effective weapon of this effort, shifting the balance so that power relations are not perceived objectively, but as a natural order.

It is time for Muslims all over the world, particularly in Indonesia, to leave behind the numbers-based religious model and begin to demonstrate religiosity. This requires bringing Islam down to earth – upholding amr ma’ruf, nahi munkar (enjoying what is just, forbidding what is wrong): being polite, defending the oppressed, helping the poor, rejecting violence, fighting corruption and terrorism and spreading peace throughout their country, and the world.

The writer is executive director of the Institute for Religion and Social Studies in Surabaya, Muhammadiyah University of Surabaya lecturer in Islamic studies and writer of Socialist Islam and Multicultural Education.

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