Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:26 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:26 | SYDNEY

Islam, liberalism and Indonesia culture wars

14 May 2012 10:05

A liberal Muslim writer on a book tour has angered hardline Islamist groups in the latest round in Indonesia's culture wars. 

Irshad Manji, a Canadian feminist writer and activist, has provoked the wrath of Islamists for promoting a tolerant, critical, version of Islam in her latest book 'Allah, Liberty and Love'. Islamist mobs have blocked her speaking events and attacked her entourage, while hotels and a university have turned her away over security fears. Hundreds of members of the Majelis Mujahidin Council (MMI) attacked Manji and her associates with clubs and sticks at a discussion in Yogyakarta on 9 May, breaking down doors and beating bystanders

'In my new book, I describe Indonesia as a model for the Muslim world. But things have changed,' Manji said on Twitter. 'Indonesians tell me their police and govt are capitulating to thugs.'

The tensions reflect a global debate within Islam: what role and identity will Muslims take on in the 21st century? 

Conservative and hardline groups prefer a literal interpretation of the Koran and a state based on Islamic laws. Manji and her allies in Indonesia are seeking to redefine how to practice their faith. Manji's new book, translated into Bahasa Indonesia, discusses the restlessness she says Muslims feel across the world. 'Allah, Liberty and Love' lays out a blueprint for Muslim reformation modeled on the US civil rights movement

Manji's messages resonate with liberal groups here such as the Liberal Islam Network (JIL), which has been struggling with militant Islam for years. Like Manji, JIL and its leaders, such as Muslim thinker Ulil Abshar Abdalla, call on Muslims to draw on traditions such as itjihad, or critical thinking and interpretation, rather than rigid dogma.

Most of Indonesia's 203 million Muslims practice a moderate version of the faith. Indonesia's 1945 constitution prescribes a secular state and religious freedom for five major religions. But orthodox and hardline Muslims, including groups such as MMI, have made progress since the country began a tumultuous journey to democracy in 1998, when President Soeharto, who brutally repressed Islamist groups, stepped down. Islamist parties have since won seats in parliaments across the country.

Manji's support of gay rights – she is an open lesbian – has alarmed some Muslims here, who believe homosexuality is a sin. Other critics say Manji has become a Muslim poster-child for the Western media, an 'acceptable' face of Islam, to contrast with villains such as Osama bin Laden. The critics claim her views cloak a Western liberalism, which has imperialism, particularly of the Middle East, as its agenda. 

The attacks on Manji have also cast light on police willingness to turn a blind eye to hardline Islamist activities. The week before last, Indonesia's most notorious militia, the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), demanded Manji's book launch be disbanded, and police said the gathering at the Salihara Arts Center would have to end due to 'objections from nearby residents and mass organisations.'

 Wikileaks claims FPI has received funding from the police, who allegedly use the group for their own ends. The national police have acquired a reputation for allowing the FPI to rampage and attack civil society groups with impunity. Lawmakers have demanded to know why the police are willing to tolerate such violence.

National Police spokesman Saud Usman Nasution denied the police were afraid of the FPI, saying the police would use 'persuasive dialogue' with the FPI, but preferred to arrest the smaller group – the focus of FPI's anger — to prevent a larger problem. 'It doesn't mean we lose against the larger group,' he said. 'We realise that someone wants us to stand against the FPI. But we don't want to do it because that would not solve the problem.'

The 'problem' is going to be part of Indonesia's long-term political landscape. Moderate Islam has been ingrained into Indonesia's social fabric since the faith took hold in the 13th century and blended with local religions, including animism. Hardliners feel Indonesia has not been properly Islamicised, even in 800 years, and are working to finish the job.