An Indonesian Antidote To ISIS

The defeat of Jakarta’s Christian governor (Ahok) on April 19 after an ugly campaign, featuring mass rallies by hardline Islamists and a trial for blasphemy, revealed the extent to which Saudi-inspired Salafis have made inroads into Indonesia.

Yet a delegation of Indonesian religious leaders held a series of public events in Manhattan on April 21 and 22 to make the case that Indonesia’s traditionalist form of Islam remains one of the world’s best resources in combating Islamist extremism. These events were designed to seek partners in promoting an Islam that supports democracy, human rights, and harmony among the world’s religions. 

The delegation included Jakob Tobing, a Christian who served for thirty-five years as a member of the Indonesian parliament. In 1998-2002, Tobing chaired the committee that rewrote the Indonesian constitution to restore Indonesia to democracy. The delegation also included leaders from the two largest Muslim organizations in the world, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, both based in Indonesia.

Roberta Ahmanson, a sponsor of the events, said, “Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, with 250 million people, 88% Muslim and around 10% Christian. Indonesia has comparatively little violence against religious minorities. The record is not perfect, but it is strikingly different from that of the Middle East.”

Sufi evangelists and Arab traders brought Islam to Indonesia peaceably from the thirteenth century. The country has always been a melting pot of ethnicities and religions. Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, with over 17,000 islands. In 1667, the British traded one of these - the Indonesian island of Run - to the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan. 

Professor Amin Abdullah, formerly head of the Islamic State University in Jogjakarta, explained that, unlike Middle Eastern countries, Indonesia is a country of islands and ports, whose towns have always blended people of different races, creeds, and languages. Whereas continental countries can build walls to promote homogeneity, island peoples have to learn to live with a diversity of beliefs and cultures. 

In 1924, when the Wahhabis acquired Mecca and Medina, they banned Sufis from the holy sites. In response, Indonesian Sufis sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to appeal to the Saudis to reconsider. The Saudis refused. In response, Indonesian Muslims took a stand against Wahhabism when they founded the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). 

Today, NU, with 50 million followers, is the largest Muslim organization in the world.  Professor Alwi Shibab, who is a leader in the NU, described the many ways that NU is a bulwark against Islamic extremism. NU has developed theological texts that promote Indonesia’s flexible brand of Islam as a model for Muslim countries that are being torn apart by sectarian tensions.   

NU is also currently involved in a global-media campaign to counter radicalism. It has produced a 90-minute film that attacks the Islamic State’s interpretation of the Quran and hadith. The film, entitled “The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam,” has been translated into English and Arabic for global distribution. 

“We are directly challenging the idea of ISIS, which wants Islam to be uniform, which means Arabized” Dr. Shihab said. “We will show that this is not the case with Islam. ISIS mistakes the Quran and changes the face of Islam from being a peaceful Islam into an angry Islam about fighting, killing, and destroying.” This is partly a result of a “strict, literal interpretation of the text that refuses to take context seriously.” 

ISIS has its roots in Wahhabism, which takes as normative those verses that express hostility to Jews and Christians while ignoring the many verses that express admiration for the “people of the book.” Indonesian Muslims read these verses contextually. Whereas the Wahhabis interpret literally verses about cutting off hands of thieves, Indonesian Muslims read these verses to mean that we should be uncompromising in purging the sin from our lives. 

The moderation promoted by Indonesian theologians is paying off. Professor Azyumardi Azra notes that the United Kingdom, with 2.5 million Muslims, has had 1,000 of its young people join ISIS. Indonesia, with 200 million Muslims, has only had 500 ISIS recruits. 

But the delegates acknowledged that moderate Muslims face serious disadvantages, even in Indonesia. Wahhabis are well funded and are determined to wrest Indonesians away from their colorful local traditions.

Jakob Tobing said that the defeat of Governor Ahok is an ominous development. The “hands of the radicals” helped determine the outcome of the election. This means that Indonesia is not immune to the pathologies that infect Arabized Islam. “The soil is present for the emergence of extremism,” said Tobing.

Robert Carle is a professor of theology at The King’s College in Manhattan. Dr. Carle is a contributor to The American Interest, The Public Discourse, Society, and Human Rights Review.

Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, Senior Fellow at the Leimena Institute, Jakarta, and the author of many books on religion and politics, including Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide. Marshall is also a member of TMP's board of directors.