Monday, January 22, 2007

Indonesia, Islam & Cultural Integration

Not far to look for a beacon of Islam we can embrace

I WAS CLEANING out my library the other day when I came across a book I hadn't seen for some time. Titled Islam Versus the West, it had been written by a conservative Pakistani senator from the conservative Jamaat-i-Islami party.

Like our own conservative politicians who love preaching (but rarely practise) Judeo-Christian values, the JI (no relation to Indonesia's fringe Jemaah Islamiyah) constantly reminds Pakistanis of the need to establish Islamic values. Yet JI's version of Islam always contrasts it to the conventional Western values.

Like many Muslims growing up in Australia, I had to learn Islam from books. Few imams could speak English, and most books we received were printed in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Many were published by JI and other groups linked to the Saudi religious establishment. The premise of almost all these books was that Islam and the West are almost always on a collision course.

It took years to learn that mainstream orthodox Islamic theology and its authorities regard such isolationist views as heretical.

Saudi-style Islam has hardly been with us for long: in fact, only since 1744, when Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab (founder of the Wahabi cult) entered into an alliance with a tribe of desert pirates led by one Muhammad bin Saud.

The Wahabi cult would have remained a fringe sect even after it became the state religion upon the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The cult's teachings and influence spread far and wide in Muslim communities across the world, with petrodollars bankrolling Wahabi religious foundations.

In some cases, Saudi religious authorities have repeatedly declared Shi'ite Muslims to be apostates, and their rhetoric has inspired Iraqi and Pakistani Sunni groups to engage in sectarian massacres. Yet perhaps most dangerous has been Saudi-style Islam's influence in Western Muslim communities, especially among youth.

This teaching emphasises differences between Islam and other faiths, reinforcing in young Muslims' feelings of alienation, of not being part of the cultural mainstream.

Recently, Britain's Channel 4 screened an investigative program, Undercover Mosque. A British Muslim agreed to record in secret the lectures of Wahabi preachers and Saudi scholars. I took the chance of watching the program (via a link from a Sydney newspaper editor's blog) and was not surprised at what I saw.

This kind of fringe Islam poses enormous challenges for Muslim communities. Its spread could lead to generations of young home-grown Muslims alienated from the broader community.

Thankfully, the solution could lie closer than we think. In the coming months, a delegation of young Muslims will be visiting Indonesia on an exchange program organised by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and financed by DFAT.

Indonesia is a fascinating Muslim country for a variety of reasons. First, it is a thriving liberal democracy, perhaps the most truly free country in Asia. Second, Indonesians have a truly open culture. The language, Bahasa Indonesia, frequently borrows words from other languages. Most important, Indonesia has a history of adopting and adapting Islam. Islam came to Indonesia through trade with Yemen and other parts of the Muslim world.

Indonesia's indigenous culture is a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist influences. Instead of seeking to replace or Arabise this culture, the Yemeni traders and their Indonesian hosts used existing cultural symbols to communicate Islam. Indonesian tradition says that Islam was spread across Java by nine Sufi saints. One, known as Sunan Kalijaga, adopted classical Javanese Hindu symbols of shadow puppetry (wayang) and orchestral music (gamelan) to communicate Islamic ideas.

Far from imposing itself as an alien force, Islam was adopted by Indonesia on indigenous cultural terms. It is now the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. It is also one of Australia's closest neighbours and a strong ally in combating terrorism.

Allegedly conservative politicians and commentators enjoy alienating Muslims by repeatedly insisting they integrate. Yet on our national doorstep, in the largest Muslim country in the world, Islam long ago proved its ability to integrate.

Having attended last year's Muslim exchange program, I can certainly attest to the impact of such programs in helping inoculate young Australian Muslims against the isolationist Islam they are frequently exposed to in Saudi-style literature.

If Indonesian Muslims can adapt their faith to their indigenous Asian culture, there's no reason why Australian Muslims cannot express their faith through Australian cultural symbols. Such exchange programs are far more effective than the alienating rhetoric of integration.

(First published in the Canberra Times on 22 January 2007.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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