The Jakarta Post
One of the main reasons the 'Islam Liberal' project is a total failure is that its advocate, the Liberal Islam Network (JIL), is doing a terrible job at marketing itself.
Islam Nusantara, the new propaganda stick launched by Nahdhlatul Ulama (NU) to contest the upturn of Salafism/Wahhabism, must learn from JIL's mistake, as it is facing a similar problem: It is a hard sell.
Consider JIL. I have no doubts its activists have the intellectual authority to write and speak about Islam, but there is no question the name Islam Liberal merits a PR disaster. It's probably a cool name for an elitist intellectual circle; an interesting topic for discussion in university colloquiums. But it is too much to swallow for the average Ahmad, the Muslims on the street.
A Muslim? But ' liberal?
Does not Islam mean submission to the will of God? If that's the case, does not the term liberal Islam sound like an oxymoron? JIL will have no problem refuting this argument, but who will listen?
Religion for the masses should be like pop music: easy to digest, simple and sweet. JIL is prog-rock. It's all harmony and poetry for the snobs; it's tedious and befuddling for the rest of us.
More than a decade after JIL cofounder Ulil Abshar Abdalla wrote his combative op-ed piece, 'Menyegarkan Kembali Pemahaman Islam' (Refreshing Islamic Understanding), people are still highly suspicious of the group.
Its infamous acronym is often spoken in the same sentence as the PKI, the acronym for the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party.
This is bad, because the PKI ' historical correctness aside ' is public enemy number one, the big bad wolf in the nation's collective paranoia, an easy scapegoat for all kinds of calamity.
Even so, the PKI is actually still better than JIL at self-promotion. The party got its notoriety after decades of massive and systematic propaganda by the New Order regime.
The governments after Soeharto had nothing whatsoever against JIL. That the group is now being equated with the PKI tells us a lot of how inept its proponents are at winning the hearts of the Muslim population.
The JIL brand is so unpopular that Islamists are using it to smear Islam Nusantara, and that is enough to make people uneasy about it.
JIL activists, of course, openly support the NU initiative. So they made it too easy for the Islamists to label the concept as nothing short of 'JIL incarnate'.
To be clear, I believe JIL stands for the kind of Islam that is best for Indonesia. Islam that promotes democratic values: pluralism, civil liberty and secularism. The challenge is how to embed these values into society.
We have learned that the term Islam Liberal has become a liability not only for the group itself but also the overall liberal Islam movement, which was launched by Nurcholish 'Cak Nur' Madjid in the early 1970s and over the years supported, at least tacitly, by a number of elite clerics and intellectuals within NU and Muhammadiyah.
Compared to Islam Liberal, Islam Nusantara is definitely more benign. But it is still problematic for a number of reasons.
First, it is still considered a new thing. In Islam, or any religion for that matter, novelty is always looked upon with suspicion. Its supporters need to make clear there is nothing really new about Islam Nusantara.
If anything, it is merely a new way most Indonesian Muslims could identify themselves. It does not represent a new Islamic denomination, or a new school of thought.
As a matter of fact, as historian Azyumardi Azra points out, it denotes the centuries old mainstream interpretations and practices of Islam in the country (the Shafi'i school of law, the Ash'arite theology and Ghozalian Sufism). It's the type of Islam that made Indonesia what it is today ' a secular nation based on Pancasila.
But that is not an easy job, especially in the age of social media where every second, hoaxes are spreading like wildfire, and facts and common sense are drowned out by a cacophony of millions of online comments.
Second, it reeks of inconsistency. Theoretically and historically, Islam Nusantara is open to local and foreign influences. It accepts differences in how Muslims everywhere express and practice their beliefs. But its exponents often come off as anti-Arab to the point of being racist and xenophobic.
I'm aware that many supporters of Islam Nusantara are in no way anti-Arab and in fact fluent in Arabic, but their strong criticism of Salafism/Wahhabism often turns into an opposition to or excessive distaste of anything Arab.
This runs counter to what Islam Nusantara stands for, which is moderation and inclusivity.
Supporters of Islam Nusantara must walk the talk.
Third, most people are intuitively obsessed with 'the one true Islam' that is beyond time and space, let alone national borders. Many Indonesians are not even aware they are a Shafi'i or a Ghozalian. They only know that they are Muslim, with no additional adjectives.
To say they are Muslim Nusantara is odd if not redundant. This is why the Islam Nusantara concept is a hard sell. This is why the Islamists, be they Salafists or Qutbists, have little problem in selling their ideology, which they claim as 'the one and only true Islam'.
If simplicity is an important factor that makes an idea marketable, Islam Nusantara obviously has a little marketing problem here. But time will tell whether this brand will last and finally take a deeper root in Indonesian society. Its emergence is highly relevant and worthy of support today as the country is facing a huge tide of religious extremism and violent sectarianism.
Certainly, the Islamists will attack the concept relentlessly on social media, while average Muslims are still skeptical if not suspicious of it.
That said, its proponents must work hard to unspin the spin and to clarify misconceptions about Islam Nusantara.
They should remember that their main goal is not to win a pointless debate with the Islamists, but to get the support of the whole Muslim community. They can only do this by engaging them and affirming their tolerant beliefs and not alienating them by unnecessarily issuing incendiary statements or belittling their understanding of Islam as superficial and unsophisticated just because they grow a beard and dress like an Arab.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.
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