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Indonesian group reinterprets Islam to snuff out terrorism

Muhammadiyah organization works to wrest back Muslim concepts from hardliners
Indonesian group reinterprets Islam to snuff out terrorism

Indonesian Muslims hold prayers to mark the start of the holy month of Ramadan at the Al Akbar mosque in Surabaya on June 5, 2016. (Photo by AFP) 

Published: September 06, 2016 05:11 AM GMT
Updated: October 20, 2016 06:18 AM GMT

In recent years hundreds of Indonesians have left to join extremist groups in the Middle East leading mainstream Islamic organizations to look for ways to prevent radicalization by influencing global discourse on Islam and violence.

One such organization, the Muhammadiyah, stands out from more conservative Islamic organizations seeking to do this by applying the teachings of respected elders whose rulings are firmly embedded in a particular interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh.

Muhammadiyah, however, rejects this traditionalism and is not confined to any one reading.

Fiqh is the ongoing interpretation of the Islamic principles guiding Muslims in their daily lives.

While Sharia is based on revelation, fiqh is based on human reasoning and much more practical.

It addresses a wide range of topics, from how to perform ablutions or prepare food, selecting a leader or going to war.

Muhammadiyah claims 50 million members and, besides mosques, schools and universities, it runs hospitals and charities across Indonesia. The organization stresses the need to return to the Quran and the exemplary conduct of the Prophet Muhammad.

They are pro-democracy and want to use human rights as a tool to fight terrorism. The organization's young activists are looking to reinterpret concepts within fiqh to wrest control over their faith's tenets back from hardliners, but the idea has its detractors.

"There is no comprehensive intellectual product in Indonesia which explains … how the Quran perceives terrorism," said Fajar Riza Ul Haq, Chairman of the Maarif Institute, an NGO founded by a former Muhammadiyah chairman.

"Many terrorists, for example ISIS or Boko Haram, act on [the idea of] Islamic jihad … we must confront them through the Quran and Islamic understanding [and create] a counter-narrative."

Political hardliners tend to disregard fiqh because it complicates their goal of rallying the faithful behind a one-dimensional cause.

Contrastingly, the goal of anti-terrorism fiqh is to reinterpret Islamic doctrines that have been misappropriated by radical theorists, like the concept of the caliphate.

"There is the concept [in the Quran] of people being tasked with a prophetic mission – that ayat [verse] exists," Haq explained.

"But the caliphate as a political system does not exist in the Quran … this is misunderstood by ISIS and like-minded groups."

"If the hard-liners use fiqh for their own terror, we must act like them — we must use similar terms but with different meanings," he added.

Not surprisingly, not everybody believes it would be useful to re-interpret Islamic jurisprudence in order to cleanse the world of terrorism.

Ismail Yusanto, spokesman of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), said that fiqh is not the problem but the bigger picture of global injustice.

Even though HTI's stated goal is the establishment of a caliphate ruled by Sharia law, Yusanto says the organization has from the start rejected ISIS.

"The declaration by ISIS [of a caliphate] was not in line with Sharia," Yusanto said. He was quick to add, however, that Hizbut Tahrir also doesn't agree with intervention by the US and its allies. "According to John Hopkins University, 1.4 million Iraqi people died because of the American invasion. Yet is George [W] Bush called a terrorist?"

"If you want to fight terrorism, you have to be consistent," Yusanto continued. "If you aren't, you cannot blame Muslims for perceiving the war on terror as a war on Islam."

Indonesia also needs to make sure that people who return from Syria are not automatically labeled as terrorists or criminals, he added.

Indonesia is a battlefield, the spokesman explained. "In the country 120 people have been murdered by Detachment 88 [Indonesia's anti-terrorism unit] in the name of fighting terrorism."

Muhammadiyah insists on respect for the rule of law and human rights when combating terrorism and Abdul Mu'ti, the general secretary of its central leadership board, has gone on the record with criticism of Detachment 88, telling media that his organization rejects its overly militaristic approach.

Muhammadiyah does not reject Western approaches if it can use them to further the goals of Islam, such as a Western school system and even democracy.

"Democracy is a Western concept," said Mu'ti. "Its values can be found in the Quran but not the form…. It can be adopted or adapted. We can accept every concept as long as it is beneficial and does not contradict Islam."

Its roots as a reformist movement suggest Muhammadiyah is open to change, but this huge organization also has a long-term perspective that ensures adjustments will be gradual.

So even if the concept is adopted, the Maarif Institute's anti-terrorism fiqh program will likely play second fiddle to a tried and tested rights-based approach aimed at curbing the excesses of the government's anti-terrorism drive.

According to the senior Muhammadiyah functionary, terrorism in most cases serves a political goal and religion is used merely to legitimize the violence.

"Religion is being abused in the interest of power," he said.

One of the problems in tackling terrorism is that some people muddy the water by consistently conflating such terms as Wahhabism or Salafism, or even just extremism with terrorism, said Mu'ti.

"In reality the Wahhabis strongly support the [concept of] government, and if you follow the fiqh of Ibn Taymiyyah you'll see that he believed it is better to have a strong non-Muslim as a leader than a Muslim who is weak."

For Haq, the institute's director, the long-term goal is an Indonesia based on truly Islamic values. He wants to create Islamic communities without an Islamic state, and without people pledging allegiance to leaders fighting for an un-Islamic cause in un-Islamic ways.

Asked about a possible backlash against the anti-terrorism fiqh project that is meant to bring his dream one step closer, Haq did not appear too worried. "So far we haven't received any threats," he said. "But we do expect to encounter some cynicism on social media."

Bastiaan Scherpen is an analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting. He holds a Masters in Religious Studies following studies at the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University. This was originally written for clients of Concord and has been edited for space constraints.

Editor's note: This analysis was updated Oct. 20.



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