Liberal Islam in Indonesia

Promoting Pluralism

Conservative Muslims and moderate Islamic organizations in Indonesia are arguing about who is responsible for interpreting their religion. A coalition of moderate Muslims is emerging in opposition to the increasingly intolerant Islamists. Joanne McMillan reports from Java

KH Maman Imanulhaq Fakieh (photo: Al-Mizan Pesantren)
Conservative Islamists accuse KH Maman Imanulhaq Fakieh (pictured here) of propagating a dangerously liberal agenda

​​It is a sweaty April afternoon, and the community hall in Cangkol, a fishing community on the outskirts of Cirebon on Java's north coast, is packed to the gills. People have come to see former first lady, Ibu Sinta Nuriyah Wahid. Ibu Sinta, the wife of former president Abdurrahman Wahid, is touring halls like this around the country ahead of the 2009 election, listening to ordinary people talk about the problems they face in their everyday lives.

Today, however, there are some technical difficulties in hearing those voices. The sound system is playing up, and while technicians fiddle, the MC, a popular and charismatic young kyai, an expert of Islam, KH Maman Imanulhaq Fakieh, keeps the crowd entertained.

The captive audience presents a perfect opportunity for him to push his favourite issue of the moment: freedom of religion, a hot topic in Indonesia thanks to recent attacks on Ahmadiyah mosques and calls to outlaw the sect.

Cheerful anti-violence propaganda

"Is Islam a religion of violence?" he cries, raising his fist in the air. "No!" The crowd, largely comprised of jilbab-wearing housewives, responds with enthusiasm. "Does Islam permit violence by anyone?" "No!' "Towards anyone?" "No!' "On any grounds?" "No!" "Do we want the government to uphold the rights guaranteed in the constitution?" "Yes!"

Kyai Maman addresses a local congregation (photo: Al-Mizan Pesantren)
Kyai Maman, seen here speaking at a community meeting in Java, is a proponent of a liberal and tolerant interpretation of Islam

​​Kyai Maman, 35, is the spiritual leader of Al-Mizan Pesantren in Jatiwangi, West Java. Outside Indonesia, thanks to coverage of terrorism cases, Indonesian pesantren, or Islamic boarding schools, have earned a reputation as extremist havens where young students are indoctrinated in fundamentalist teachings and groomed to become terrorists.

While it is true that many pesantren teach conservative, literalist interpretations of Islam, only a tiny number have links with terrorist organisations and in fact the pesantren world is the source of some of the most progressive Muslim voices in Indonesia and indeed the Muslim world.

The best known progressive kyai is former president Abdurrahman Wahid, but surrounding Wahid are a number of increasingly vocal and influential progressive pesantren leaders. Kyai Maman is a protégé of a group of kyai and pesantren alumni in West Java that includes KH Syarief Usman Yahya, head of Kempek Pesantren and KH Husein Muhammad of Dar al-Tauhid Arjawinangun Pesantren.

The late KH Fuad Hasyim of Buntet Pesantren and KH Yahya Masduki of Babakan Ciwaringin Pesantren were role models for this group. They preach values of pluralism and encourage their students, or santri, to reread religious texts contextually. The vision of Islam that they promulgate is grounded in the Qur'an, Sunna and classical Islamic texts and advocates justice for all human beings.

Muslims protecting Muslims against Muslims

Earlier this year, the Ahmadiyah issue became a rallying point for progressive Muslim leaders. While fundamentalist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), along with many moderates, called for Ahmadiyah to be outlawed, progressive kyai, including Kyai Maman, were organising community events with Ahmadiyah in order to emphasise a message of tolerance and pluralism.

FPI activists (photo: AP)
Radical message of intolerance: the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) called for Ahmadiyah to be outlawed

​​When police and local government failed to protect Ahmadiyah from increasing incidents of vandalism and violence, progressive kyai offered paramilitaries recruited from Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organisation, to protect Ahmadiyah mosques and homes.

For those like Kyai Maman who defended Ahmadiyah, the issue was never really about Ahmadiyah, but about upholding the rights of citizens, guaranteed in the constitution, to practice their respective religion and beliefs. The issue also had the potential to set a precedent for the religious beliefs of the majority to become the basis of laws that discriminate against other groups.

This potential looked set to be realised when in April 2008, a government-appointed body of prosecutors, religious scholars and government officials recommended that the government outlaw the sect, declaring that its members "had deviated from Islamic principles".

Peaceful rallies in support of religious freedom

Whether Ahmadiyah members have deviated from Islam is not the point, argues Kyai Maman: "I have never defended Ahmadiyah's teachings," he says. "What we are defending is their rights as citizens, as set out in the constitution. I would defend FPI if they were being oppressed and terrorised. This issue is not about Ahmadiyah but about people whose rights as human beings, as citizens, have been denied."

For their defence of Ahmadiyah's rights, progressives have themselves become targets of violence by extremist groups. The most high profile incident occurred at the National Monument (Monas) in Jakarta on 1 June last year, the anniversary of Sukarno's famous 1945 speech where he formulated Indonesia's state ideology, known as pancasila. With the government's decision regarding the fate of Ahmadiyah due to be handed down any day, dozens of demonstrators, among them Kyai Maman, held a peaceful rally in support of religious freedom.

"We came to Monas for two reasons," Kyai Maman explains. "One was to celebrate pancasila, our national philosophy, which is all about living in a plural society. The second was to urge the government to uphold the constitution."

Violent zealots

"We were just about to get started," Kyai Maman recalls, "when suddenly a group of people wearing white robes and carrying FPI banners arrived, shouting 'Allahu akbar!' (God is great)".The FPI supporters attacked the demonstrators with sharpened bamboo stakes and stones. Nineteen people were injured, some seriously. Kyai Maman was among the most badly hurt.

He recalls being beaten on the head with bamboo stakes until he fell to the ground where he was repeatedly kicked and stamped on by at least ten people. He was hospitalised with concussion and head wounds.

Muslims breaking the fast during Ramadan in Denpasar (photo: AP)
Most of Indonesia's 191 million Muslims live peacefully alongside other religious communities; in recent decades, however, radical Islamists have become more active and are making their presence felt

​​The incident shocked many in the Indonesian public. The attack on Kyai Maman in particular was significant in swaying public opinion because FPI had, deliberately or unwittingly, dared to attack a kyai, the moral equivalent in Muslim Indonesia to attacking a priest or a nun. In the days after the incident, calls to disband Ahmadiyah were replaced in the headlines by calls to disband FPI. Fifty-seven members of FPI, including leader Rizieq Shihab, were arrested following the incident, and the group is now seriously weakened.

The government's eventual decision on the Ahmadiyah case was neither an outright victory for anti-Ahmadiyah campaigners nor a win for pluralism. The joint ministerial resolution, released on 9 June, did not "ban" Ahmadiyah per se but demanded that they stop practising their beliefs and strongly encouraged them to "return to mainstream Islam".

Kyai Maman sees the decision as an excessive and ambiguous form of intervention by the government, designed to get them out of a difficult political situation. "The government's job is to guarantee freedom of religion," he argues, "not to meddle in matters of belief."

From puritan to progressive

Kyai Maman has not always defended the values of pluralism. There was a time when he supported, rather than opposed, violence in the name of religion. Kyai Maman grew up in a puritanical pesantren where he mixed in narrow circles and studied only traditional religious texts. His understanding of the world, he explains, was black and white, and anyone different from himself was a sinner. Just seeing a church or a Christian cross, he confesses, would make his blood boil.

He was involved in militant groups that participated in "cleansing" gambling and prostitution dens in the Majalengka area. In 1998, he stood by while members of his congregation destroyed churches, shops and houses belonging to Chinese Indonesians in Jatiwangi. "At that time," he says, "I thought that there was only one truth: only we were right and everyone else was wrong."

Burning church in Ujungpandang on the island of Sulawesi (photo: AP)
A burning church in Ujungpandang on the island of Sulawesi: Christians have repeatedly been the focus of violent attacks at the hands of Islamist extremists not only on Sulawesi, but also in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago

​​But the violent events of 1998 proved a turning point in his life. Witnessing the effects of violence perpetrated by Muslims convinced him that there had been something wrong with his readings of religious texts. The texts, he explains, always refer to Islam as a blessing for the whole universe, not just for Muslims. The goal of Islam, he reasoned, could not be to make people afraid of it.

On this basis, he says, he decided to start listening to the voices of "the other". He began inviting leaders of other religions to his pesantren – priests, pastors and Buddhist monks – for inter-religious dialogue. He also invited them to come along to religious and cultural ceremonies at his pesantren, and even to teach classes to his pupils. It was a move that initially met with disapproval in his community and in his own family.

"My father didn't like me associating with non-Muslims," says Kyai Maman. "They were dirty unbelievers. But eventually my family began to see that, 'Oh, it turns out priests are cool, and Buddhist monks are cool.'"

He also began to read from a variety of sources including philosophy, socialist thought and Christian liberation theology, and mixed with artists, writers and musicians. He dabbled in writing his own poetry. In his view, art has values that are congruous with religious values, such as freedom from contamination by worldly power or earthly desires. "From art," he says, "people can understand how to live a more harmonious life, not just see in black and white."

Politics and public image

Despite having what he claims is a fundamental disinterest in politics; Kyai Maman has recently become an active member of the National Awakening Party (PKB). "I was invited [to join the party] by Gus Dur [Abdurrahman Wahid], so I decided to see whether politics could be made into a tool to fight for pluralism." Certain goals, he realises, can only be achieved through parties and through policy:

"We must take steps that push our friends in the legislative assembly to ensure that pluralist values continue to be upheld and defended." The Ahmadiyah case, he says, has reinforced this conviction in him.

The Istiklal mosque in Jakarta (photo: AP)
A peaceful image of Islam: "When Maman saw the effects of the violence perpetrated by Muslims, he realized that he must have been mistaken about the way he had been interpreting the religious texts."

​​However, he continues to see his main work as being at the grassroots level. This is not just a matter of seeding pluralist values, he maintains, but about improving people's welfare. "Who can be influenced or provoked by radical groups?" he argues. "Usually they are people who have trouble making ends meet, so our job is not to oppose those groups with violence but to try to create community prosperity and end poverty."

The Ahmadiyah case and his own brush with celebrity following the Monas incident have also taught him the power of the media in shaping public opinion. "The failure of progressive Muslims, in my opinion," he says, "is that we don't dominate the media. Maybe this is a problem with the media itself: you know 'bad news is good news'. So it means that if a priest eats in my pesantren, or I break my fast in a church or a monastery, that will never get in the newspaper. But if a priest beats me up, or if I poison a priest's altar wine, that's the kind of thing that makes the newspaper."

Joanne McMillan

© Inside Indonesia 2008

Joanne McMillan works as a translator and editor for Fahmina Institute in West Java and is currently completing a Masters of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development at the Australian National University.

Photos courtesy of Al-Mizan Pesantren

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