Saturday, 12 May 2012

AFTER IRSHAD MANJI: FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN INDONESIA

Irshad Manji
The controversies surrounding the visit to Indonesia by the Uganda-born Canadian journalist and activist Irshad Manji has thrown into sharp relief the growing antagonism between Islamists and proponents of liberal and progressive reinterpretations of the Islamic heritage in the world's largest Muslim nation-state. Manji was in Indonesia to promote the Indonesian version of her latest book Allah, Liberty and Love.

On two occasions, Manji's appearances were disrupted. On Friday, 4 May, Manji's talk at the Salihara Cultural Centre in Jakarta was stopped by the police, acting at the behest of the Islamic Defence Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI).This led immediately to critical reactions. Yenny Wahid, the daughter of the late President Abdurrahman Wahid, deplored the police intervention. Other commentators expressed their concern over the excessive influence the FPI appears to be able to exercise. The question were raised whether the FPI was not merely beyond the law, but even able to intimidate the police. One MP, Eva Kusuma Sundari, stated that the police is simply 'powerless' against the FPI. A member of the national parliament's human rights committee, Sundari is not stranger to controversy herself -- earlier this year she was persecuted by Islamists for speaking out in favour of the constitutional rights of Christians in the name of religious pluralism.

Irshad Manji is taken away from Jakarta's Salihara Centre
Meanwhile, a formal complaint against the way the police handled the whole affair was lodged by the organizers of the event at Salihara, a cultural foundation established by the leading public intellectual Goenawan Mohamad, the founding editor of the respected weekly current affairs magazine Tempo.

MMI activists destroying Irshad Manji's book
Then on Wednesday, 9 May, members of the Indonesian Mujahedin Council (Majelis Mujahedin Indonesia, MMI) attacked an injured Manji, her assistant and several participants during a discussion session of the book at the Institute for Social and Islamic Sciences (LkiS) in Yogyakarta. In response, to this experience,  The Jakarta Post ran a piece under the title Irshad Manji is having second thoughts on Indonesia, in which she noted that -- in comparison to her earlier visit in 2008 -- it appeared there were “more conservative groups in the country this year”. Earlier, the same newspaper reported she was also considering writing a book about Indonesia.

Anti-JIL campaigner
A few days later the same newspaper ran an Op/Ed on the state of affairs in the intellectual debate on Islam in Indonesia. In this article Amika Wardana, an Indonesian research student at the University of Essex, highlights the polarization that has been affecting the Indonesian Muslim scene for quite a while, pitching the proponents for a literalist interpretation of the Indonesian doctrines, such as the FPI, against the advocates of more liberal readings, propagated, among others, by the Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal, JIL) . Earlier this year, the protagonists and antagonists in what is becoming an increasingly confrontational encounter over the place of religion on both public and private life in Indonesia, have launched initiatives to battle each other -- largely online -- under the headings 'Indonesia without JIL' and 'Indonesia without FPI'.

Anti-liberal Islam demonstrators
Whereas the former are mobilizing to free Indonesia from liberal Muslims, the latter reject the FPI's monopolization of what 'real Islam' is, and condemn the front's frequent recourse to thuggery and violence. On the back of the Irshad Manji controversy, 'Indonesia without FPI'  are now threatening the national police with a lawsuit, accusing them of siding with the FPI. The anti-FPI campaign does not only consist of Muslims holding different opinions, in February this year, the Asia Times published an article under the title 'Secular Revenge', reporting on indigenous Dayaks from Kalimantan (Borneo) preventing a visit by FPI leaders to Palangka Raya in the province of Central Kalimantan . Apparently emboldened by this act of valiance, anti-FPI sentiments spread quickly to the Javanese cities of Surabaya and Jakarta.

Anti-FPI rally
The clash between different interpretations of Islam in Indonesia can be traced back to the opening up of the public space after the collapse of the military-dominated New Order Regime led by General Suharto, in the wake of the latter's resignation in 1998. Whereas the ensuing Reformasi Era presented Indonesians with unprecedented opportunities for pursuing their democratic rights, including the exercise of free speech, the other side of that coin also meant that Islamist activism, including its radical, militant, and violent variants, was also able to enter the public arena too. The first signs of growing religious antagonism can actually already be traced to the mid-nineties when the first riots and pogroms flared up as the ageing president began losing control of the political system.

JIL founder
Ulil Abshar-Abdalla
The watershed event was the fateful fatwa no. 7, issued in 2005 by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) in which this body, dominated by conservative religious scholars, condemned the principles of pluralism, liberalism, and secularism as 'un-Islamic' (The full text in Indonesian is available here. For an analysis in English, click here). This pronouncement was not only directed against JIL, its founder Ulil Abshar-Abdalla and his intellectual mentor Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005).

It is also a barely veiled rejection of some of the key principles of the Pancasila state doctrine which has governed Indonesian politics since independence. Moreover, it was taken by organizations such as the FPI as a license to go after fellow Muslims they deemed as deviants. Since then, liberal and progressive Muslims have been pushed into the defensive. As Amika Wardana observed:
There are at least two major obstacles undermining Muslim intellectualism: The lack of political will and the inability of public officials to preserve the freedom of religion and free speech; and the silence of the majority — moderate Muslims — toward intolerant and violent actions perpetuated by Muslim thugs. [...] In short, while we may lose hope in the current regime tackling the current intolerant and repressive actions campaigned by Muslim thugs, we have to approach the majority of moderate Muslims to stand up against them. 
Only by winning the hearts and minds of the majority will we envisage religiously tolerant environment of exuberance for Islamic intellectualism.

No comments: