Alternatives to Extremism: An Indonesian Travelogue

[UPDATE: I am adding a link to an online interview with Asma conducted while in Indonesia by the Liberal Islam Network. It’s in English.]In the aftermath of the London and Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, people with an unsophisticated view of current affairs as a clash of civilizations are again demanding that the ‘real’ Islam —the Islam that preaches peace and tolerance— stand up. In its seemingly innocent form, this demand seems to ask (à la Thomas Friedman) that moderate Muslims get their act together in curbing the despicable acts of their extremist evil twins. In its more insidious form, of course, the demand is a disguised charge that terrorism and Islam go hand in hand, and that all Muslims will look the other way and remain seated when the peaceful practitioners of the faith are asked to stand up. In both instances, it is important to keep in mind that a) moderate Muslims, while largely responsible for reclaiming the true principles of their religion from extremists, cannot single-handedly stop terrorism and extremism which have complicated political and social roots, not just religious; b) that extremism is a problem that exists in most religious faiths and secular disciplines, and thus must be tackled collaboratively by religious and secular peoples of the whole world; and c) that the media does not further the cause of anti-extremism by focusing on sensationalist portrayals of extremists in X or Y religion to the exclusion of more moderate strands.Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany my wife, Asma, on a trip to Indonesia. There, I experienced a kind of Islam that has very little to do with the extremist portrayals that we see on the media. In short, during our time there I saw a country where religion is practiced in a tolerant and relaxed way, women are active participants in society and religious affairs (even those who cover their heads, I might add to the shock of those who equate some forms of Muslim dress with oppression and subservience), Muslim identity is not limited to how closely it resembles 7th century Arab culture, and there is, for the most part, a respect for diversity. Granted, my experiences were brief, superficial, and probably left me with an overly simplified view of what is a more complex reality. But I thought I would share them not with the intention of providing an objective or comprehensive view of this very rich and diverse country, but in the interest of presenting a glimpse of an alternative to what is often seen on the Western media.  
Indonesian students attending a lecture by Asma

(click on any picture to enlarge)

That for the most part Indonesians are tolerant and peaceful Muslims would be merely anecdotal if it were not for the fact that Indonesia —not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan— is the largest Muslim nation in the world. Thus, if we are going to look for examples and generalizations of what the majority of Muslims think or do, we ought to look there.But let me begin with how we ended up going to Indonesia. Some time ago, an Indonesian publisher asked for permission to translate and publish Asma’s second book, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Readings of the Qur’an. Coinciding with the release of the Indonesian version of the book, an organization called the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) invited Asma to spend a couple of weeks as a visiting scholar. The mission of ICIP is “to build a network of Islamic Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and progressive-moderate Muslim activists and intellectuals, in South-East Asia, and eventually around the globe.” ICIP is funded by the Asia Foundation as well as the European Union, and is run by M. Syafi’i Anwar and a wonderful and committed staff (big hello and thanks go to Nur, Syafiq, Abubakar, Farinia and everyone else at ‘ee-chip’!).
Islamic State University, Jakarta
We arrived in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on June 16. After a brief period to recover from jet-lag, events started on June 18 with a workshop on Identity Politics with members of Komnas, a government agency concerned mostly with violence against women, which apparently is a big issue in Indonesia. We were immediately struck by the fact that a group of 15 or so ‘feminists’ of various religions (mostly Muslim and Catholic), ethnicities (representing various indigenous groups as well as Chinese), and socio-political orientations could sit down and have a meaningful and sophisticated dialogue about things like the role of the State in shaping identity. I compare this with our experiences in Pakistan and sometimes even in the U.S., where secular and religious ‘feminists’ will dismiss each other’s positions and very seldom have an honest dialogue with each other, much less agree to work towards a common goal.On that same day we visited the Istiqlal mosque with Nur, our patient and friendly companion from ICIP (who was also an indispensable translator during many of Asma’s presentations). Again, I was struck by many differences with other mosques I have visited since my conversion to Islam. Nur informed us that the mosque, the largest in Indonesia, was designed by a Christian architect, and is just across the road from the Cathedral of Jakarta. Obviously, there are no major hang-ups about keeping places of worship free from the influence of other religions of the Book. I was also surprised to see that although men and women have different places to do their ablutions before prayers, there is no strict segregation of the sexes before or after praying time. Men and women were sitting there chatting as if it was the most natural thing in the world! And the women’s section was right in the middle of the mosque, with the men’s sections to the side. Compare this with other mosques where the women are at the back, or relegated to another room altogether such as a balcony! Everyone seemed extremely relaxed, and there was no ‘informal’ police telling you how to pray, and not to talk to women, and that your trousers should really be this or that high (yes, Muslims can be as obscurantist as anyone else). I offered my salat and then sat with Asma and Nur for a while, observing an environment which seemed much more relaxed and conducive to prayer than, say, what I have experienced right in Ithaca, New York!
Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta
On June 19, we met with Lily Munir, head of the Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies. Pesantren are religious-oriented schools mostly located in rural areas. Muslims schools or ‘madrasas’ are often associated in the West with religious camps of extremist indoctrination. But Indonesian pesantren are not like that at all. Yes, students learn Arabic and to recite the Qur’an, but there is an accompanying curriculum based on regular subjects like math, science, etc. What makes Ms. Munir special is the work she is doing at her schools to teach girls and boys to expand traditional interpretations of the Qur’an with more ‘liberal’ ones, suited to their lives and contexts. Ms. Munir is a gentle and bright individual, and the meeting between her and Asma was very warm and informative (I recorded the whole thing with my iPod, and I may one day publish it online). It was encouraging to see that Asma’s work, which is sometimes criticized for being overly academic, is helpful to the work of educators and activists like Lily.On June 20 we visited our first State Islamic University in Indonesia, where Asma gave a lecture to undergraduate students (many of whom did not speak much English). I had been in an Islamic University in Pakistan, and again, the differences were remarkable. I remembered that in Pakistan as soon as we entered the University a ‘guard’ of some sorts rushed up to us and yelled at Asma to COVER HER HEAD!!! You would think that we were pornographers trying to sneak into the Vatican. I also don’t remember seeing a single female at that place of ‘higher learning.’ Here, girls and boys walked and talked freely. It’s true that every single woman I saw had her head covered (which is a pretty widespread phenomenon in Indonesia). But no one even asked Asma why she didn’t cover her head. It is as if they were respectful of her decision, as they expected us to be of theirs (respect for each other’s practices: what a concept!). The one problem we encountered is that Asma’s work has been associated strongly with the buzz word hermeneutics, and people expect that there is something magical about this methodology and call upon Asma to ‘get hermeneutical’ on this or that verse of the Qur’an. We would find this again and again throughout the trip, to the point where Asma would tell people that hermeneutics simply means a theory of interpretation. It was clear that to many, hermeneutics represented a Western concept that should be rejected simply because it comes from the West (more on this later).
Lecture to the Sharia Faculty at the Islamic State
University, Padang (above); and some students and faculty with Asma
after the lecture (below)
On June 21, Asma was supposed to be on a panel with French scholar Rachid Benzine (a student of Arkoun), who unfortunately could not make it at the last minute due to illness, and so Asma presented one of the papers she was carrying around. In the afternoon, we had a very lively discussion with some young activists from one of the two major Muslim political organizations in Indonesia, the Nahdatul Ulama (NU). The group happened to be all men, so they were promptly confronted by Asma about the fact. They were put on the spot, but they were rather good natured about it. On June 22, there was a discussion with young activists from the other group, the Muhammadiyyah, as well as a lecture at the Wahid Institute.In these meetings and all others, as well as in various interviews (the Jakarta Post, Kompas Newspaper, Liberal Islam Network), Asma was consistently asked about Amina Wadud and her leading of the mixed congregation prayers in New York City. We soon realized this was a litmus test to determine just how ‘radical’ Asma was. Many activists we talked to argued that although the actions might have been appropriate in the context of the U.S., they were seen as going too far too quickly in Indonesia, and were a set back to the cause of progressive Muslims because they allowed conservatives to say ‘You see? That’s what Western Muslims want to push on you!’ It was also interesting to see that the conservative discourse put Amina Wadud and George Bush practically on the same side, as agents of the corrupt and corrupting West. Ignorance and generalization works both ways, I guess. Asma’s response was to point out that no one forced the people who followed Amina Wadud in prayer to do so, that they chose their imam of their free will, and that only God can determine whose prayer is valid or invalid.
Some of the traditional
architecutre of Padang, Sumatra
June 24 was a big day, since it was the official launch of Asma’s book. Due to the rain and the unbelievable Jakarta traffic, we arrived about an hour and half late. This, however, did not seem to trouble the audience, who were very engaged throughout the event. At the end of another hour and a half of talking, they finally got a chance to come to Asma and have copies of the book signed by her. She did not refuse any request, even though it was late at night at the end of a very long day. It was wonderful to see all these young people interested in her work, although for some reason she refuses to act like a celebrity! ;-)After that we left Jakarta, and headed to Padang, on the island of Sumatra. On June 27, Asma delivered a lecture to an audience of more than 350 graduate students at the State Islamic University in Padang. The talk was sponsored by the Sharia (Islamic Law) Faculty. During Q&A, it became obvious that the audience had its share of conservative individuals, including some that questioned the appropriateness of using a ‘Western’ method (hermeneutics) to do textual analysis of the Qur’an, and others who point blank stated that the cause of all problems in Islam is the U.S. To this, Asma replied that, first, although hermeneutics has its own set of principles (principles that Muslims and other scholars have been applying since way back, although not referred to as ‘hermeneutics’), Asma’s methodology to interpret the Qur’an is derived from principles that the scripture itself provides (such as: reading it as a whole, prioritizing its clear verses over its allegorical ones, keeping the nature of God in mind when discriminating between best and worst readings, etc). Second, she replied that the U.S. is only a couple of hundred years old, whereas many of the problems among Muslims date to Islam’s beginnings, so it is ludicrous to blame the U.S. for every problem in Islam. Afterwards, some of the faculty said to me that Asma’s lecture had been an act of bravery.
Asma signing copies of the Indonesian version of her book
(pictured below) at the launch party.

We then left Padang and its wonderful cuisine and architecture and on June 29 Asma and I spoke at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta (back on the island of Java). On June 30 we had the opportunity to visit Borobudur, a spectacular Buddhist temple about an hour from the city. The place was packed with visitors, mostly Indonesian school children on summer vacation. While exploring the very intricate temple, structured to recreate the Buddhist cosmology and retell the story of the Buddha, it occurred to me that while the Taliban was engaged in the bombing of Buddhist sites, here was the largest Muslim nation celebrating its biggest archeological attraction: a Buddhist temple. Surely, tolerance enriches one’s life, while intolerance (fueled by political interests) produces illiterate fanatics.Our return home was complicated by a cold that Asma began to develop at the end of our stay in Indonesia, and we had to make an unexpected stop in Hong Kong for three days. I will only say that the rise of China as a superpower is evident to anyone who spends any time there. And to paraphrase Kent Brockman, I for one welcome our new Chinese overlords 😉
Borobudur, a Buddhist temple near Jogyakarta
I already admitted that this portrayal is bound to be quite superficial. To be sure, Indonesia is a country that also suffers from corruption, poverty, hunger, violence, pollution, urban sprawl, uneven economic distribution, the creeping up of extremism and terrorism, and all the other problems that plague the rest of the world. At the same time, we were happy to meet plenty of people —men and women, young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim— who love their country and are struggling very hard to make it a better place. I found the people of Indonesia to be friendly, good humored and polite for the most part. Plus, they have a strange obsession with dubbed Mexican soap operas (always a topic of conversation once they learned where I was from)! Meanwhile, I’ve developed an addiction to Indonesian coffee and clove cigarettes. How’s that for cultural exchange?Overall, I feel that we merely scratched the surface of a very rich and complex culture and a beautiful land. I also believe that Indonesians have a lot to offer in terms of sharing alternative models to the strict and intolerant distortions of Islam. I look forward to going back, God willing.
View from the ferry of Hong Kong

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