Indonesia's Liberal Islam Network

Interpreting Islam in its Social Context

In Indonesia, eight months before September 11 2001, a small group of Muslim intellectuals got together with the aim of forming a progressive counterbalance to the conservative Islamist movements in their country. Christina Schott reports

Ulil Ashbar-Abdallah (photo:
Ulil Ashbar-Abdallah on Islam: "The universal values have to be translated into particular contexts – Arabian, Malay, Central Asian and so on."

​​Ulil Ashbar-Abdallah, coordinator of the Liberal Islam Network: "We must use ideas to combat the ideas behind violent radicalism"

Along with the democracy that found its way into Indonesia in the wake of the resignation of former dictator, Suharto, in 1988, freedom of speech too has been flourishing again in the country that is home to the world's largest Islamic population. But that there is a down side to everything has been shown by the fact that a minority of Islamist radicals have also been making themselves loudly heard since then.

"We had been discussing a liberal Islam organisation for a long time", explains Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, coordinator of the Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal, JIL). "We then witnessed a revival of radical Islam in Indonesia after the 'reformasi' and realised that it was time to act."

Although the movement is relatively small it is considered to have a great deal of influence, while for conservative Muslims it is seen as highly controversial. Most of the organisations founding members were educated in madrassas (Islamic religious schools) before going on to take up Islamic Studies. For them, the liberal Islamic universities in Indonesia opened up a whole new world of interpretation with regard to religious doctrine and philosophies of life.

Preserving Indonesian Islam

Nowadays the group spends much of its time speaking out against "literalist" Islam, the tendency to an overly literal interpretation of the Koran. A literal interpretation would, they believe, be immensely destructive to Islam. And it is exactly that that they see as the biggest problem of the fundamentalists. Their interpretation is non-productive, exclusive and old-fashioned. The Islamic teachings need to be looked at in the context of the changing times and society.

For the most part, Islam in Indonesia is still very moderate, particularly with regard to the way it blends with the many local traditions and the remains of older cultures and religions. "Such syncretic forms are something I tend to view as positive, because they help to preserve the particular character of Indonesian Islam and to hold off the increasing encroachment of Arab influence", says Ulil.

"We, however, emphatically do not do not represent traditional Islam, it has very conservative roots and can easily be abused by radical movements."

Against the oppression of minorities

There is a great deal of common ground between the JIL and the teachings of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the moderate Indonesian mass organisations which, between them, represent round 70 million Muslims. The group, however, does criticize certain points as too backward, such as the lack of equal rights for women.

According to JIL, any oppression of minorities is contradictory to the principles of Islam. So the network lobbies for religious freedom and freedom of speech as well as for the rights of women. Its aim is to help strengthen democracy and create a fairer, more human politics with social structures.

"Our original objectives have not significantly altered since September 11 and the Bali bombing. Those events shocked us, but we were not surprised. We had already foreseen something of the kind and had been trying from the beginning to prepare ourselves", says Ulil, who is also director of Jakarta's Freedom Institute.

"Of course, violent radicalism must be punished by the state. But the ideas that lie behind this must also be fought against with ideas. We have taken up this fight, though it is very painful at times."

Death fatwa against scholars

Just how painful this can be is something the group coordinator has experienced personally. In response to an essay by Ulil, published on November 18 2002 in Indonesia's largest circulation daily newspaper Kompas, the ultra-conservative Indonesian People's Ulama Forum from the city of Bandang in West Java issued a death fatwa against the scholar and supporter of progressive Islam.

"We need an interpretation of Islam which allows us to distinguish those teachings which reflect Arabian cultural influence from those which don't", is how he puts it in the aforementioned essay. "The universal values have to be translated into particular contexts – Arabian, Malay, Central Asian and so on. But any aspects of Islam which are merely expressions of a local culture, for instance, are not binding for us."

Ulil did in fact succeed in provoking a broad public debate through his article which attacked the fundamentalists and their persistent clinging to the Islamic (sharia) law, while he also defended people who chose their religion themselves.

"Islam represents generic values which can also be found in Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Taoism, or in local religions and beliefs. It may even be that there is 'Islamic' truth to be found in the philosophy of Marxism", he continues in the same essay.

I no longer look at the form, but rather at the substance. Islamic beliefs and practices which are merely 'put on' as formal dressing are not of importance. What is important are the values behind the form."

The People's Ulama Forum later denied that they had ever called for a death fatwa. Nevertheless, the JIL coordinator and his family continue to live in fear of their lives.

Interfaith dialogue in Islamic countries

None of this, however, has stopped Ulil Abshar-Abdalla and his colleagues from continuing to publish their ideas with the help of all the relevant media in Indonesia. The JIL itself maintains an active presence on the Internet as well as publishing books on the topic.

The group also organises regular discussions and a weekly radio talk show. The Liberal Islam Network has not only succeeded in building up a considerable international network of contacts to liberal Islamic groups in other countries, but also to organisations representing other religions.

"An interfaith dialogue has become relevant in connection with the West's resentments toward the Muslim world since the series of terrorist acts committed by certain extremist groups. This dialogue should be intensified in the cause of interfaith tolerance, not only in Europe and the USA, but also in Islamic countries", he said to the Jakarta Post on the occasion of the election of the new Pope.

Christina Schott

© 2005

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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