A Journey to Understanding: Reflections from Indonesia
By Dr. Amineh Ahmed Hoti
Society for Dialogue and Action
At Lucy Cavendish College
Cambridge University, UK

 

The author (fourth from left) is seen with Dr Akbar Ahmed (second from left), Hailey Woldt
(extreme right) and a group of Indonesian artists

Today we live in a world that is struggling hard to maintain its natural as well as its socio-religious balance. Polemics and academic debates never fail to raise the alarm about the ever-growing threat of the clash of civilizations. A few contend that the recent series of natural disasters (hurricanes, tsunami, and earthquakes) that have wiped out human lives in such large numbers are the signs of the wrath of God.
As a Muslim woman on my journey through this particularly imbalanced world I am grappling with debates and current questions of identity: what does my religion say about other people, other religions, and humanity as a whole; what does Islam say about the sanctity of life in the face of so much human loss?
The quest for understanding has drawn me to a part of the Muslim world that is not fully appreciated and included in debates about Islam. This is Indonesia.
I have come to Indonesia to join “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam”, Professor Akbar Ahmed, according to the BBC, on his last stop of his journey to ten Muslim countries. His journey is being filmed for Sky’s Raj TV (Channel 187). This journey is part of a project, which is in partnership with Brookings Institute, and PEW Forum, and is called “Islam in the age of globalization”.
Sharing a parallel anthropological passion as Professor Ahmed’s, and joining him while he was inducted into Anthropologys Hall Of Fame at King’s College Cambridge by Professor Alan Macfarlane (see the Anthropological Ancestors website), and now in the field with him, I seek to gain insight into this part of the Muslim world, so little known in the West. Consider some facts: Indonesia is located in South-Eastern Asia, between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and neighbors East Timor, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. With a population of 245,452,739, Indonesia has an 88% Muslim population, 5% Protestant, 3% Roman Catholic, 2% Hindu, and 1% Buddhist and others. Indonesia is a polyglot nation with people speaking many languages. Unemployment, corruption, an inadequate infrastructure, unequal resource distribution, poor level of foreign investment, and a fragile banking sector characterize the economic nature of the country. In December 2005, the Indian Ocean tsunami took 131,000 lives causing an estimated $4.5 billion dollars in damages and losses. Terrorist incidents, in Bali for instance, where we made our last stop and where the project came to an end, have been a major blow to tourism. Such a climate is fertile for the conversion of angry unemployed and frustrated individuals into hard-line suicidal extremists according to a moderate Muslim academic Dr. Syafi’i Anwar whom we met in Jakartha. Dr. Anwar has been threatened with his life by extremists for talking about inter-faith dialogue and for running an organization promoting understanding and dialogue. Dr. Anwar, like other middle-path believers (the moderates) across the Muslim world, maintains that dialogue is the essence of Islam and the message of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and it is the only way forward to avoid the clash of civilizations.

Indeed, let us set the likes of Dr. Anwar in a wider context. It may be argued that there are three general models of contemporary Muslim thought and expression: the extremist, the middle-path believers (or the ‘moderates’), and those inclined towards the West (sometimes labeled as ‘the Westernized’). Drawing upon Professor Ahmed’s conclusions of his journey across the Muslim world and after discussions with his American students, I gathered that they had identified three Muslim models from South Asia. I will explore my argument in the context of these models. The first model is Deoband – this is hard-line extremist and its expression is often in the form of confrontation or clash. Yet on a closer look even with this model there is a range and some here may be persuaded to engage in some form of dialogue. This model has come to drive the common Muslim all around the world (examples of organizational expressions of this model are Hamas, The Taliban, Hizbut Tahrir, etc.). This is also the only model that the West and the media in general talk about and therefore are engaged with, albeit in a negative way, through war, with little or no dialogue.
The second, little known model, is Ajmer which emphasizes synthesis or the Islamic notion of Sulh-e-Kul, Peace With All: as in multi-faith India the shrine of the saint at Ajmer Sharif draws crowds from not only the Muslim community but also the Hindu and others – all are welcome; all are heard; and all are at peace, in an ideal world. The third model is Aligarh based on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s University: it is progressive Islamic yet willing to engage with, learn, and adopt from the West. It is the modern Muslim metaphor and Pakistan is the consequence of those who believed in this model.
The fact of the matter is that both the latter models that practice inclusiveness and acceptance have become marginalized with the first model — the hard-liners — in a characteristic confrontational manner taking the spotlight. As a result we have the hardliners in the forefront bringing to the world-stage their own stringent interpretation of Islam. Leaving people like Dr. Anwar who talk about inter-faith dialogue at the periphery.
The situation may not be helped if some Western governments and the media allow the spotlight to fall only on the hardliners. To expand on Dr. Anwar’s point, frustrated, unemployed, and angry viewers watching extremists on television may mimic their pattern of behavior causing a snow-ball effect of extremism. The other middle-path groups must especially be brought to the fore – there should be more dialogue with those willing to engage in dialogue. Positive contact between the Muslim and outside world should also be highlighted. There are plenty of examples here that can be explored.3 In this very trip to Indonesia, for example, I saw how one of Professor Ahmed’s 19 year-old female American students, Hailey Woldt, who we considered like a valued member of our family, had shifted ground. She told me how she had “changed and become a better person” after her journey to the Muslim world. She also told me that she realized how little Americans generally know about the Muslim world. This journey had allowed her to understand Muslims better and to see Islam in a more sophisticated light. The point is that a balanced, more complex view of the world, especially the Muslim world, is what is needed; not just shades of black and white.
The dwindling moderates and growing extremists is a dangerous and challenging development that lies not only on the Muslim side, ordinary people in the West I have spoken with hold many negative and often false perceptions of Islam, Muslims, and Muslim women. Being Arab for example is immediately associated with being Muslim and Muslim with being Arab. Yet the present Bishop of Jerusalem in a fascinating talk at Cambridge pointed out that he was an Arab Palestinian Israeli Christian and that Jesus himself was not a blonde blued-eyed Hollywood looking figure but that he originated from the Middle East.
Similarly, Dr. Anwar in Indonesia pointed out that Indonesian Muslims are a diverse community. Indeed, I would agree with him: Islam is inclusive and accepting of others and it shares many common beliefs with Christians, Jews and other monotheistic faiths; Islam gave human rights to men and women as early as the 7th century; all life is sacred in Islam and suicide or murder is haram (absolutely forbidden); Muslims have many colors, faces, and behaviors; women are given many benefits, sometimes more than men. This is what needs to be recognized. Not accepting to recognize the positive side of Islam and the diversity of Muslims only fan the flames of the rising population of the extremists who also need to recognize and respect their connectedness to their fellow citizens of this world. The important point is that Muslim Indonesia – about the length of Europe with almost as many people as the United States — is “a sleeping giant” in Professor Ahmed’s words that, I believe, should not be stirred or provoked towards any clash of civilizations.


 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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