An Indonesian Muslim reads the Quran at the Al Makmur mosque in Banda Aceh on May 7 during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)
This article was first published on June 5, 2019
An Indonesian campaign to change the way Muslims and the rest of the world think about their religion is forging ahead, led by what the campaign refers to as “high-profile interventions” in Europe and the United States by Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organization and one that is committed to promoting a tolerant form of Islam.
Staquf’s latest win came with a joint platform with elements of British civil society who had been warning the British government not to adopt what they saw as a highly problematic definition of Islamophobia.
In contributing to debate at the highest levels of British society about how it should deal with the problem, Staquf won praise from the authors of a recent report — Sir John Jenkins, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Runnymede Trust; and historian Martyn Frampton.
The report, called “On Islamophobia” and produced by think-tank Policy Exchange, concluded that the British “government should embrace those voices who are determined to challenge both anti-Muslim hatred and Islamist extremism — recognizing the extent to which these two forces feed off one another, and together stand implacably opposed to a vibrant, liberal and successful multicultural Britain.”
Staquf has been active elsewhere, talking to groups including those normally considered right wing or even populist. His aim — in line with the position of NU — is the creation of a vibrant, liberal and successful multicultural global community.
That’s a tall order, with the bigotry of Islamic State and other hard-line Islamist groups on the one side and governments such as that led by Viktor Orban in Hungary who want to declare Europe an exclusivist Christian entity.
Within Islam itself, Staquf acknowledges that it will be difficult to affect change in a religion that has no hierarchical structure and therefore no single ultimate authority. There is no pope to declare what the faithful should think.
Islamic State and its allies persist in demanding the re-creation of a caliphate, and with it a caliph who would play the part of a pope, an insistence seen by most Muslims as unacceptable. Yet equally unacceptable to many is the argument proposed by Staquf and his allies that the Islamic texts should be edited to bring them into line with 21st century values that reject practices such as stoning sinners to death and beheading non-believers.
In an article in Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper, Staquf sets out the root of the problem: “Jihadist doctrines, goals and strategy can be traced to specific tenets of orthodox, authoritative Islam and its historic practice. This includes those portions of Shariah that promote Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity towards non-Muslims and require the establishment of a caliphate. It is these elements — still taught by most Sunni and Shia institutions — that constitute a summons to perpetual conflict.”
The British report states that Staquf urges Western politicians to “stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam. There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy … The West must stop ascribing any and all discussion of these issues to Islamophobia.”
In other words, face up to the realities of what’s wrong with Islam, a difficult pill for many Muslims to swallow.
Tolerant strain of Islam
The report condemns what it calls “a long-term, systematic campaign … being waged by an opportunistic alliance of Islamist supremacists, authoritarian Middle East governments, political activists and politicians to weaponize Islamic identity and induce Muslim communities to participate in the highly polarized and increasingly lethal culture wars roiling much of the West.”
These are the forces that Staquf and his allies are trying to fight in what must often seem a one-sided struggle. Staquf in the past has admitted that he’s engaged in a fight he does not expect to win.
He is motivated to join this struggle because of pressure at home on Indonesia’s own traditionally tolerant strain of Islam. NU states that “like many countries in the West, Indonesia is under severe threat from transnational Islamist movements that seek to revivify problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that enjoin religious supremacism and foster enmity towards non-Muslims.”
In a speech in Slovenia last December, Staquf presented two alternatives going forward. “Rather than pit one identity group against another, we urge people of goodwill of every faith and nation to seek common ground on the basis of our shared humanity,” he said. “The alternative is not only a breakdown of civility in the West and the undermining of liberal democracy but also the unleashing of tribal animosities not seen for generations in Central and Western Europe, but all too familiar to those who follow events in the Muslim world, sub-Saharan Africa, Myanmar, Xinjiang and on Europe’s own Balkan fault line.”
It can be argued that Indonesia’s recent election produced yet another resurgence of those same “tribal animosities” between supporters of a secular, tolerant Indonesia and those who demand a more vengeful rule by the clerics as part of a caliphate.
It is by now second nature for NU, led by figures such as Staquf and Ahmad Mustofa Bisri, to protect its traditions against infiltration by hard-line groups on its own territory. NU is also going further — with backing from the LibForAll organization, a movement backed by American philanthropist Holland Taylor — and taking its brand of relaxed, tolerant Islam to the rest of the world.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s intervention in countries such as Britain is integral to the strategy of the Humanitarian Islam movement, according to LibForAll. “The movement seeks to restore rahmah (universal love and compassion) to its rightful place as the primary message of Islam, while positioning these efforts within a much broader initiative to reject any and all forms of tyranny, and foster the emergence of a global civilization endowed with noble character.”
Western governments might be well advised to consider the messages being promoted by Staquf and his allies at NU rather than adopting small-minded policies that encourage enmity and divisiveness.
Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.