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Both in scholarly works and in popular discourse, many people argue that Islam in Indonesia is inclusive and tolerant, unlike that of, say, Pakistan or Afghanistan.
A combination of the strong mystical dimension of Islam in Indonesia and its peaceful penetration in the early period are among the most cited explanations to justify the argument.
Theodor Friend (2011), for instance, divides the modern Muslim world into five different “cultures” where Indonesia represents the smiling face of Islam in contrast to the angry radical and literalist Saudi Wahabis. Amid the rise of global Islamic radicalism, therefore, Indonesian Islam is just the right answer. Many Indonesian Muslims would proudly agree.
This kind of perspective, however, has a fundamental problem.
Is Indonesian Islam better? In what way? If it is tolerant and inclusive because of its strong Sufi dimension, whereas some orientalists argue that Sufism is not originally Islamic, does it mean that Islam basically is intolerant and Indonesian Islam is less Islamic? How would we explain the recent increasing intolerance of Muslims in Indonesia, as reflected in the recent acts of terrorism in the name of religion, the Sampang Shiite tragedy, the rise of extremism among young Indonesian Muslims and the negative evaluation by the US Department of State in its 2011 International Religious Freedom Report? If this intolerance is seen as foreign influence, wasn’t Islam itself a foreign religion in the beginning?
Islam has never been a monolithic body since the time of Prophet Muhammad in Arabia until today in Indonesia, Western Europe or elsewhere.
Therefore, comparison between Islam in Indonesia and Morocco as conducted by Clifford Geertz (1968) is epistemologically problematic.
Geertz, to follow Daniel Varisco (2005), is entrapped in the Weberian “ideal type” and his own symbol minded definition of religion. Both Friend and Geertz slip into essentialization and totalization of a particular Muslim culture.
How would we justify that if there were only one unchanging type of Islam in Indonesia, Morocco, Iran,
Historically speaking, it is acceptable to argue that mainstream Islam in Indonesia has been characterized by inclusiveness and tolerance.
However, it does not mean that there is no intolerant form of Islam in Indonesia. Firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir-like individuals have been around in Indonesia for centuries.
Great inclusivist figures such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi and others emerge from every corner of the Muslim world. In different degrees and levels of power, both the inclusive and exclusive, tolerant and intolerant Islam coexists throughout Islamic history.
We cannot argue that any act of violence committed by an Indonesian Muslim is an anomaly, an exception, or due to foreign influence. That would be dishonest and would only prevent us from properly digesting and eventually overcoming the real problems.
The rigid Wahabism in Saudi Arabia today is not the same face of Islam there during the time of Imam Malik in the eighth century. The violent character of Muslims in Baghdad today is completely in contrast to that of their fellow Baghdadi Muslims when the city was a center of civilization under the Abbashid caliphate. We always find differences of Islam across time and geographical location, just like the case with other religions.
In Indonesia, from the very beginning, different strands of Islam have been vying with each other for dominance. Imam Bonjol’s radicalism in the 19th century cannot be explained as the mere foreign influence of Arabs. It is more accurate to say that Wahabism he found in Mecca further shaped his militant potential. We cannot just make a scapegoat of anything bad as a foreign influence while claiming our own as always good and right.
Intolerance and Islamic radicalism should be rejected, not because it comes from the outside world but because it is against the very essence of the Islamic faith. It may come from outside, it may result from an interpretation by Muslims. We should not cover up anything bad but aim to get rid of it. Other religious communities encounter the same problem.
In this relation, the claim of tolerant and inclusive Islam in Indonesia is correct when understood especially as a performative instead of informative statement. Since Islam in Indonesia is always plural, only when those who promote tolerant Islam consistently fight for their ideals will tolerant and inclusive Islam in Indonesia remain the mainstream.
Indonesian Muslims are tolerant as long as they are able to prove, rather than just be informed. Otherwise, intolerant Indonesian Muslims will take the lead.
Furthermore, the promotion of tolerant Islam to the wider world would be more effective when it is not geo-culturally constrained to a particular society. Besides, it also might lead to chauvinism.
Inclusive and tolerant Indonesian Islam has been part of the right interpretation of Islam throughout history and location. It is against all forms of intolerance, either in the name of Islam or otherwise.
In the past, many Indonesian Muslim scholars gained global recognition exactly because they were part of global Muslim umma and not confined by geo-cultural location. As recorded in the Hijaz Charter drafted by Hasyim Asy’ari and others, Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia, for instance, was born as a local product, among other things, to respond to the aggressive rigid Wahabism and its global consequences for the Muslim world.
Only when we can present the cosmopolitanism, not parochialism, of tolerant Islam in Indonesia, may we once again a make significant contribution to the Muslim umma and to the global community at large.
The writer is former president of Nahdlatul Ulama Community in North America.