Monday, October 03, 2005

Terrorising Indonesian Religion

With every bombing in Indonesia, it is tempting to agree witb the usual statements of fear-mongers. They hate us. They are out to kill us. They need to be stopped. They are jealous of our liberties.

But who are they? And who are we?

Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation on earth. It is also our closest neighbour. This in itself is enough to send shivers down the spines of those who claim Indonesian Islam is the problem. The same people will talk about shutting down madressas, about tightening immigration requirements for Indonesias. Perhaps even about demanding refunds on tsunami aid dollars.

But anyone who knows something about Indonesians and their Islam will know Islam itself isn’t the problem. I have never been to Indonesia, but I have met a few Indonesians in my time.

One Indonesian I met was Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh, an academic lawyer and executive member of the largest Islamic organisation in the world known as Nahdlatul Ulama (Arabic for “The Council of Scholars”). He visited Australia and New Zealand in 1992 as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS).

Falaakh made some points during his Sydney lecture which startled many in his conservative audience. He said that election results since the 1950’s show that the popularity of political Islam is dwindling in Indonesia. He also gave a 5-point summary of Sharia law which showed it to be almost perfectly consistent with the highest aspirations of any liberal democrat.

Those 5 Sharia principles were centred around protection of certain individual and social rights. These rights included: religious freedom, life, mental health and sanity (known in technical Sharia terminology as “hifzul aql” or “protection of reasoning faculties”), property and economic assets, and marriage and family.

Perhaps those committed to fighting Islam in the name of some allegedly coherent vision of conservative Judeo-Christian ethics could show which of these values conflicts in any way with what most Australians hold dear.

If we were to ponder over Falaakh’s list, it should not surprise us that Indonesia is at the forefront of the war against terrorism. It should also not surprise us to learn that perhaps the biggest factor in the election victory of Indonesian President SBY was his commitment to get tough on terror.

Indonesians – Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist – are all victims of terror. For every 1 Western victim, at least 3 Indonesians die. Indonesia’s fragile economy and nascent democratic institutions are under attack.

And understanding Indonesian Islam will perhaps give some indication of how committed Indonesians are to the fight against terrorism. No army brought Islam to this part of the world. Islam was first introduced by Yemeni traders some 7 centuries ago who practised a form of orthodox sunni Islam grounded in the spiritual traditions of Sufism.

Indonesia was then a mix of various tribes who spoke different languages and dialects and whose cultural connection was expressed in trade. Yet Indonesians had no common script, system of numeracy or method of resolving disputes (apart from the use of weapons).

The Yemenis are believed to have introduced a common accounting system based on the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals. More importantly, the Yemenis introduced Sharia, a word which literally means “the way to a watering place”.

Wells and watering places were traditionally places of rest during the long desert journeys in the Arabian peninsula. For the Indonesians, Sharia meant a basic procedure for resolving commercial disputes based on conciliation and an understanding of how merchants think. Sharia commercial law was less about right and wrong, and more about watching the bottom line.

For this reason, Falaakh mentioned in his CIS lecture in Sydney that for Indonesian Muslims, Sharia is less about chopping hands and stoning adulterers as it is about resolving commercial disputes, non-interest banking and financial products.

Indonesian Islam has been tarnished by the recent terrorist attacks. But more than that, Indonesian Muslims have been offended and affronted. The recent attacks took place during the sacred Islamic month of Sha’ban, hardly a few days before the sacred Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. During these months, all forms of war and shedding of blood is strictly forbidden.

Ramadan is a month of fasting, generosity and meditation. The Prophet Muhammad, a direct ancestor of the Yemeni traders and of many Malays and Indonesians (including former President “Gus Dur” Wahid), is reported to have said that God shackles Satan and the lesser devils in chains during this month.

But now, it seems the devils of terrorism are being let loose. And as always, Muslims are the victims. In this case, the innocent Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Catholics and Protestants that inhabit world’s largest Muslim country are victims.

The ideology of terrorism bears little resemblance to mainstream Indonesian Islam. Though terrorists may use religious rhetoric and symbols in their war on Indonesia, we should resist the temptation to attribute blame to the faith that brings peace to the lives of millions of our closest global neighbours.

The author is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Macquarie University.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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