Top Indonesian Muslim Scholar Says Stop Pretending That Islamic and Violence Aren’t Linked

First published on Time.com

Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, has a constitution that recognizes other major religions, and practices a syncretic form of Islam that draws on not just the faith’s tenets but local spiritual and cultural traditions. As a result, the nation has long been a voice of, and for, moderation in the Islamic world.

Yet Indonesia is not without its radical elements. Though most are on the fringe, they can add up to a significant number given Indonesia’s 260-million population. In the early 2000s, the country was terrorized by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a homegrown extremist organization allied with al-Qaeda. JI’s deadliest attack was the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people. While JI has been neutralized, ISIS has claimed responsibility for recent, smaller terrorist incidents in the country and has inspired some Indonesians to fight in Syria — Indonesians who could pose a threat when they return home. The country has also seen the rise of hate groups that preach intolerance and violence against local religious and ethnic minorities, which include Shia and Ahmadiya Muslims.

Among Indonesia’s most influential Islamic leaders is Yahya Cholil Staquf, 51, who advocates a modern, moderate Islam. He is general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama, which, with about 50 million members, is the country’s biggest Muslim organization. This interview, notable for Yahya’s candor, was first published on Aug. 19 in German in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Here are excerpts translated from the original Bahasa Indonesia into English.

Many Western politicians and intellectuals say that Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. What is your view?

Western politicians should stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam. There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy. So long as we lack consensus regarding this matter, we cannot gain victory over fundamentalist violence within Islam.

Radical Islamic movements are nothing new. They’ve appeared again and again throughout our own history in Indonesia. The West must stop ascribing any and all discussion of these issues to “Islamophobia.” Or do people want to accuse me — an Islamic scholar — of being an Islamophobe too?

What basic assumptions within traditional Islam are problematic?

The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, the relationship of Muslims with the state, and Muslims’ relationship to the prevailing legal system wherever they live … Within the classical tradition, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is assumed to be one of segregation and enmity.

Perhaps there were reasons for this during the Middle Ages, when the tenets of Islamic orthodoxy were established, but in today’s world such a doctrine is unreasonable. To the extent that Muslims adhere to this view of Islam, it renders them incapable of living harmoniously and peacefully within the multi-cultural, multi-religious societies of the 21st century.

A Western politician would likely be accused of racism for saying what you just said.

I’m not saying that Islam is the only factor causing Muslim minorities in the West to lead a segregated existence, often isolated from society as a whole. There may be other factors on the part of the host nations, such as racism, which exists everywhere in the world. But traditional Islam — which fosters an attitude of segregation and enmity toward non-Muslims — is an important factor.

And Muslims and the state?

Within the Islamic tradition, the state is a single, universal entity that unites all Muslims under the rule of one man who leads them in opposition to, and conflict with, the non-Muslim world.

So the call by radicals to establish a caliphate, including by ISIS, is not un-Islamic?

No, it is not. [ISIS’s] goal of establishing a global caliphate stands squarely within the orthodox Islamic tradition. But we live in a world of nation-states. Any attempt to create a unified Islamic state in the 21st century can only lead to chaos and violence … Many Muslims assume there is an established and immutable set of Islamic laws, which are often described as shariah. This assumption is in line with Islamic tradition, but it of course leads to serious conflict with the legal system that exists in secular nation-states.

Any [fundamentalist] view of Islam positing the traditional norms of Islamic jurisprudence as absolute [should] be rejected out of hand as false. State laws [should] have precedence.

How can that be accomplished?

Generations ago, we achieved a de facto consensus in Indonesia that Islamic teachings must be contextualized to reflect the ever-changing circumstances of time and place. The majority of Indonesian Muslims were — and I think still are — of the opinion that the various assumptions embedded within Islamic tradition must be viewed within the historical, political and social context of their emergence in the Middle Ages [in the Middle East] and not as absolute injunctions that must dictate Muslims’ behavior in the present … Which ideological opinions are “correct” is not determined solely by reflection and debate. These are struggles [about who and what is recognized as religiously authoritative]. Political elites in Indonesia routinely employ Islam as a weapon to achieve their worldly objectives.

Is it so elsewhere too?

Too many Muslims view civilization, and the peaceful co-existence of people of different faiths, as something they must combat. Many Europeans can sense this attitude among Muslims.

There’s a growing dissatisfaction in the West with respect to Muslim minorities, a growing fear of Islam. In this sense, some Western friends of mine are “Islamophobic.” They’re afraid of Islam. To be honest, I understand their fear … The West cannot force Muslims to adopt a moderate interpretation of Islam. But Western politicians should stop telling us that fundamentalism and violence have nothing to do with traditional Islam. That is simply wrong.

They don’t want to foster division in their societies between Muslims and non-Muslims, nor contribute to intolerance against Muslims.

I share this desire — that’s a primary reason I’m speaking so frankly. But the approach you describe won’t work. If you refuse to acknowledge the existence of a problem, you can’t begin to solve it. One must identify the problem and explicitly state who and what are responsible for it.

Who and what are responsible?

Over the past 50 years, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have spent massively to promote their ultra-conservative version of Islam worldwide. After allowing this to go unchallenged for so many decades, the West must finally exert decisive pressure upon the Saudis to cease this behavior … I admire Western, especially European, politicians. Their thoughts are so wonderfully humanitarian. But we live in a time when you have to think and act realistically.

The last time I was in Brussels I witnessed some Arab, perhaps North African, youth insult and harass a group of policemen. My Belgian friends remarked that such behavior has become an almost everyday occurrence in their country. Why do you allow such behavior? What kind if impression does that make? Europe, and Germany in particular, are accepting massive numbers of refugees. Don’t misunderstand me: of course you cannot close your eyes to those in need. But the fact remains that you’re taking in millions of refugees about whom you know virtually nothing, except that they come from extremely problematic regions of the world.

I would guess that you and I agree that there is a far right wing in Western societies that would reject even a moderate, contextualized Islam.

And there’s an extreme left wing whose adherents reflexively denounce any and all talk about the connections between traditional Islam, fundamentalism and violence as de facto proof of Islamophobia. This must end. A problem that is not acknowledged cannot be solved.

Marco Stahlhut is a Jakarta-based German academic and correspondent.

 

Ali Sina

Ali Sina is the author of Understanding Muhammad and Muslims.

4 Responses

  1. Walter Sieruk says:

    This message was keyboarded September 11, 2017. Now it’s been sixteen years since those Islamic terror attacks on Homeland America . Islam’s brutally cruel violent and murderous jihad may be seen on that day of the jihad of Islam in that heinous deadly affront against humankind and vicious jihad attack against the USA. As for example ,this month I’m reading a book by a former Muslim which is entitled THE ISLAM IS ISLAMIC TERRORISM .That title just about exposes it all about the actual essence of Islam. Therefore the following essay is ,of now, very appropriate to thus reiterate.
    Don’t let them fool you, the many apologists for Islam is will endeavor to set up a smokescreen to hide the reality of the truth about the violence and deadly essence of Islam by making the bogus claim that the al Qaeda operatives mass murderer on 9/11 were not real Muslims and that they were breaking the laws of the Qu ‘ran by their violence and deadly actions.” The apologists for Islam will further make the totally false claim that “Those terrorists on 9/11 were only criminals who hijacked the peaceful religion of Islam for Politics.” Those outrageously false claims are weak attempt of damage control for the image of Islam to the West. For the “holy book” of Islam the Qu ‘ran. For the Qu ‘ran instruct in Sura 9:111. Muslims who are engaging the jihad that “The believer’s fight in Allah’s Cause, they slay and are slain ,they kill and are killed “ That’s just what happened on September 11, 2001 the jihadists of al Qaeda “killed and were killed” in those 9/11 jihad attacks against both humankind and America. The Quran also teaches in Sura 9:123 to that jihad –minded Muslims behavior towards non-Muslims “let them find harshness in you…” Those Islamic attacks on 9/11 were indeed very “harsh.” As Sura 2:191 instructs “kill the disbeliever wherever you find them.” That’s a very strange kind of “peaceful religion” if there ever was one. Just to site one more out on many from the Qu ‘ran about the instruction of deadly violence is Sura 47:4. Which instructs “Whenever you encounter unbelievers strike off their heads until you make a great slaughter among them …” Let’s face it, using jet planes a missiles as those jihadist/ Muslims did of September 11, sure made a greater “slaughter among them” then sword can. Wake up West to the actual nature of Islam before it’s too late.

  2. Walter Sieruk says:

    The vicious and murderous jihadist/Muslim thugs who compose the brutal and deadly jihad entity ISIS are actually putting in to the practice, with all their ruthless actions, the violence and killing that is part of the teaching of the “holy book” of Islam, the Koran. Which contain the doctrine of extreme violent force for the advancement of Islam. As seen in the Koran, for example, 2:191. 4:89. 5:33. 9:5,111,123. 47:4. So in spite of the strong denials by many, ISIS is an actual Islamic organization. Likewise the malicious, bloodthirsty violence jihadists who make up ISIS are real Muslims. Nevertheless, there are some who might , understandably, wonder and then ask “Just how can those jihadists of ISIS ,being so very religious , also at the time also be so very malice-filled ,unfeeling and deadly ? “ The answer to that question is found in the Bible. For the Bible teaches that there are some people who are extremely heartless, cold, callous and dangerous because they have had “their conscience seared with a hot iron.” First Timothy 4:2. [ K.J.V.] In this case of the members of ISIS this “hot iron” is Islam.

  3. Walter Sieruk says:

    Many times the jihadist members of different Islamic terror entities, as those of ISIS, have gathered together and chanted the words “We love death, they love life.” Likewise those jihadist/Muslims don’t stop with those awful words; they carry through with jihad suicide/homicide attacks. Any sane person would ask “Why do those jihad –minded Muslims have such a mindset of murderous madness?” The answer is that they obtain the way of thinking and believing from the “holy book” of Islam, the Koran. As some people call it the Qu ‘ran. For example the Koran in Sura 9:111 instructs “The believers fight in Allah’s Cause, they slay and are slain, they kill and are killed.” Therefore it may be conclude that Islam is actually a death cult. In great and wonderful contrast to the death cult which is Islam there is Christianity which is centered on Jesus and His teachings. For Jesus did not teach killing and death but taught and gave life, a good peaceful well lived life and more. For example Jesus declared “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” John 10:10. [K.J.V.]

  4. Steve says:

    Summary – Muslims (and non Muslims) should be able to openly discuss the relationship between Islamic religious teachings and the behaviour of Islamic terror groups and criminal actions of Muslims. In just the same way as people can openly discuss – and criticise – Judaism and Christianity – and other religions and ideologies – without fear of violence, ostracisation , accusations of racism and legal penalty

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