LITERAL and Liberal Islam in Indonesia

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asif khan
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Joined: Mon Apr 16, 2001 4:01 am

LITERAL and Liberal Islam in Indonesia


Unread post by asif khan » Mon Oct 28, 2002 2:27 pm

Subject: Literal and Liberal Islam in Indonesia

JAKARTA POST (March 2002)


'Liberal' and 'Literal' Islam must sit and talk together, JAKARTA POST

Santi W.E. Soekanto

Unbeknownst to many, a deep conflict is taking place between two Muslim groups. This intellectual ``war'' looks set to drag on indefinitely because the people involved have not indicated any willingness to confront each other civilly and simply talk.

No, they are not Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. That's pass,. Their decade-long inability to see eye-to-eye over religious and political matters is no longer a concern to many; it has reached the point where one simply sighs and bears with the other.

The current conflict is one between the ``Liberal Islam'', whose activists believe they are fighting a just war against ``extremism and fundamentalism'', and the ``LITERAL Islam.'' However, the latter has not called it as such--its activists subscribe to the belief that Muslims should be complete or kaffah because Islam encompasses all aspects of life and a totally Islamic outlook on all aspects of life is what they strive for. The Liberal Islam has been known to state they are seeking refuge to Allah from this drive to be ``complete Muslims.''

Liberal Islam, a fairly new movement, was initiated by intellectuals such as Ulil Abshar Abdalla and Luthfi Assyaukanie. Now known as ``Islib'' and declared in late 1999, the movement was the child of discussions among the intellectuals at Jl. Utan Kayu 68H,East Jakarta, about what they believe was the need to renew the Islamic mainstream thinking. In March 2002, they established the Jaringan Islam Liberal or the Liberal Islam Network which disseminates their perspective through the media.

Not only have they established an Internet campaign (, they have also been given a Sunday column in Jawa Post daily and its 40 regional newspapers. Their talk show is broadcast every Thursday by the Radio 68H, relayed by 15 other radio stations across the country. They also have the Liberal Islam Writers Syndication, and they publish booklets on controversial issues such as jihad, the the sharia, and discussion about the establishment of worship houses.

The term Liberal Islam is apparently inspired by Charles Kurzman's Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. Their website banner proclaims issues on its agenda such as secularization, emancipation, power relations, pluralism, gender, democratization, tolerance, and human rights. For
the Liberals, this conflict is a battle between their thoughts and the ``puritan'' LITERAL Islam over those issues.

The term LITERAL Islam was coined by the Liberal Islam to draw a line between its activists from those who, for want of a better expression, puritanically refer their thought and movements to the Koran and as-Sunnah. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Liberalists equate the Literalists to fundamentalists, and radical extremists.

There are at least four organizations that the Liberalists have categorized as LITERAL Islam groups: The Laskar Jihad (Jihad Force), Front Pembela Islam (Front of Islam Defenders), Partai Keadilan or Justice Party and Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Islamic Da'wa).

1)Laskar Jihad, a Muslim militia, was born a year after the eruption of the Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, Maluku, which started on Jan. 19, 1999. Outraged by the government's inaction that led to the spreading of unrest to the whole of Maluku, ulema and students of Islamic boarding schools formed the Laskar Jihad. They sent out some 3,000 youths to Ambon after the bloody Ramadhan incident in North Halmahera where 800 Muslims were wiped out almost overnight. Its
commander, Ja'far Umar Thalib, also leads a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Yogyakarta.

2)Front Pembela Islam is an organization of mostly Jakarta native youths, established shortly before the 1999 general election. Its main concern is the rampant gambling and prostitution--two vices that Islam deems as serious violations and which, according to the prophetical tradition, would lead to even greater social ills if unchecked. Its leader is yet another traditional ulema, Habib Rizieq Muhammad Shihab.

3)Partai Keadilan is a political party set up less than 10 months prior to the 1999 general election. Many of its leaders, young intellectuals and professionals, are educated in European, American and Middle East universities. Their power base is university campuses where, for over most of the 32 years of Soeharto's New Order regime, they had nurtured students' spirituality and Islamic thinking. Its first leader was Nurmahmudi Ismail, a graduate of the A&M Texas University who later became Abdurrahman Wahid's minister of forestry.

4)Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia is a da'wa (Islamic propagation) organization set up in 1968 by former prime minister Mohammad Natsir. It ultimately represented a resistance toward Soeharto's regime. Strangely, Natsir was one of the two Indonesians whose writings were included in Kurzman's book. The other Indonesian was Nurcholish Madjid, whom many have described as the father of Liberal Islam activists.

The ``LITERAL Islam'' activists believe that all Muslims should actually be ``literal'' because the Koran instructs that Muslims be ``complete''--just as a Catholic is expected to be a complete Catholic, or a Hindu to be totally Hindu.

This is one reason why the Literal Islam activists see Liberal Islam as mere evidence of its activists' struggle for an identity in the whirlpool of global social and political competition. The former sees the Liberal Islam as a movement of Muslims who wish to practice Islam their way, rather than what the teaching has instructed them to do. The revivalists (as the Literal is also known) see the Liberal Islam
as secular people with intellectual vanity amid confusion in their grapple with religious matters.

The revivalists treat this new conflict as one between the secularists and those who are earnest in their struggle to really be Muslim.

The pattern is not novel. It goes back to the above scholar Nurcholish, who has campaigned for secularization since the 1970s, and his long-simmering tension with the late Prof. H.M. Rasyidi, a Masyumi leader and Indonesia's first foreign-educated doctor of philosophy, and, later in the early 1990s, with Muhammad Daud Rasyid, an expert on the narratives on the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith).

Among examples of that tension was when the February edition of Suara Hidayatullah, a magazine of the revivalists, ran articles on Liberal Islam which included a fictionalized account of the doom facing Uzil Bashar Afdhalla (which, of course, was a parody of Ulil Abshar Abdalla). The Liberal Islam activists were outraged enough that some called, in some of their email messages among themselves but which
somehow were leaked out to other mailing lists, the Literal Islam activists as ``damned'' Muslims.

It is clear how seriously both sides treat this new tension--enough for each to each pray for Allah's help in fending off the other. But no real attempts at discussion have materialized.

It would have been lovely to see Nurcholish sit together and really talk with Daud Rasyid in an honest, illuminating discussion before the public. And Ulil Abshar with Anis Matta of Justice Party maybe?

Then perhaps some misunderstanding could be cleared among Muslims, and the more pressing problems--such as poverty--could be handled with enough resources being pooled together.

Copyright 2002 JAKARTA POST all rights reserved as distributed by WorldSources, Inc.