Agam's Gecko
Saturday, December 31, 2005

he former president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid has written a very stimulating essay for the Wall Street Journal -- "Right Islam vs. Wrong Islam." Long identified with the moderate Muslim organisation Nadhlatul Ulama (said to be the largest Muslim organisation in the world) of which he is a former chairman, he is more commonly known in his country as Gus Dur -- a sort of affectionate honorific. I've always liked him a lot, and not only because we share a birthday. He has been a moral anchor for Indonesian people since the Suharto regime period, and his election as president by the People's Representative Assembly in 1999 (in competition with Megawati Sukarnoputri) was a complete surprise to almost everyone. His ouster in mid-term, and replacement by Vice President Megawati over a trumped up corruption scandal (to this day never validated), was in my opinion totally unconstitutional and set a terrible precedent.

Gus Dur writes of the situation of Islam in the world today -- the continuing struggle for the hearts of Muslims, between the violent and intolerant fanatic's vision of the future, and the moderate, tolerant and modernist vision which is still the mainstream in his own country. That's not to say this struggle is not going on in Indonesia -- it is, and the outcome there is of crucial importance to the broader struggle. This struggle, he says, is "nothing less than a global struggle for the soul of Islam."

And supplying the context today, in the wake of our great relief that Christmas Eve passed peacefully for Christian Indonesians last weekend, terrorists have once again attacked them in the tortured city of Palu, in Central Sulawesi province. Very early this morning a public marketplace was bombed. There is little doubt the sole intent was to kill Christians. On New Year's Eve morning when people would be buying food for evening celebrations, and this market being the only one in Palu which sells pork, the bombers knew exactly how to maximise Christian casualties. This market was apparently not a regular daily one, but was normally set up in advance of special occasions. The bombing comes only a few days after an interfaith meeting of religious figures in Palu. MetroTV is reporting this evening that eight people were killed in the blast, the device being packed with nails.

Gus Dur says that all of us need to see ourselves as being in this struggle together. No matter which countries we come from or how remote we may feel from the treat of Islamist extremism, we are all involved:
News organizations report that Osama bin Laden has obtained a religious edict from a misguided Saudi cleric, justifying the use of nuclear weapons against America and the infliction of mass casualties. It requires great emotional strength to confront the potential ramifications of this fact. Yet can anyone doubt that those who joyfully incinerate the occupants of office buildings, commuter trains, hotels and nightclubs would leap at the chance to magnify their damage a thousandfold?

Imagine the impact of a single nuclear bomb detonated in New York, London, Paris, Sydney or L.A.! What about two or three? The entire edifice of modern civilization is built on economic and technological foundations that terrorists hope to collapse with nuclear attacks like so many fishing huts in the wake of a tsunami.

Just two small, well-placed bombs devastated Bali's tourist economy in 2002 and sent much of its population back to the rice fields and out to sea, to fill their empty bellies. What would be the effect of a global economic crisis in the wake of attacks far more devastating than those of Bali or 9/11?

It is time for people of good will from every faith and nation to recognize that a terrible danger threatens humanity. We cannot afford to continue "business as usual" in the face of this existential threat. Rather, we must set aside our international and partisan bickering, and join to confront the danger that lies before us.
He says that the problem is a crisis of misunderstanding which grips Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It's not really very noteworthy to say that many non-Muslims misunderstand Islam, but he also says that too many Muslims fail to grasp Islam as well, and fall too easily under the sway of demagogues who pervert Islam into a "dogma of intolerance, hatred and bloodshed." The "warriors" who conduct attacks from Asia to the Middle East to Europe and North America, are only the tip of the iceberg. He outlines the strengths of this worldwide movement:
1) An aggressive program with clear ideological and political goals;
2) immense funding from oil-rich Wahhabi sponsors;
3) the ability to distribute funds in impoverished areas to buy loyalty and power;
4) a claim to and aura of religious authenticity and Arab prestige;
5) an appeal to Islamic identity, pride and history;
6) an ability to blend into the much larger traditionalist masses and blur the distinction between moderate Islam and their brand of religious extremism;
7) full-time commitment by its agents/leadership;
8) networks of Islamic schools that propagate extremism;
9) the absence of organized opposition in the Islamic world;
10) a global network of fundamentalist imams who guide their flocks to extremism;
11) a well-oiled "machine" established to translate, publish and distribute Wahhabi/Salafi propaganda and disseminate its ideology throughout the world;
12) scholarships for locals to study in Saudi Arabia and return with degrees and indoctrination, to serve as future leaders;
13) the ability to cross national and cultural borders in the name of religion;
14) Internet communication; and
15) the reluctance of many national governments to supervise or control this entire process.
Quite a list. Yet the counterstrategy he proposes has a number of strengths at its disposal as well, if only they could be utilised in a more conscious and effective way:
1) Human dignity, which demands freedom of conscience and rejects the forced imposition of religious views;
2) the ability to mobilize immense resources to bring to bear on this problem, once it is identified and a global commitment is made to solve it;
3) the ability to leverage resources by supporting individuals and organizations that truly embrace a peaceful and tolerant Islam;
4) nearly 1,400 years of Islamic traditions and spirituality, which are inimical to fundamentalist ideology;
5) appeals to local and national--as well as Islamic--culture/traditions/pride;
6) the power of the feminine spirit, and the fact that half of humanity consists of women, who have an inherent stake in the outcome of this struggle;
7) traditional and Sufi leadership and masses, who are not yet radicalized (strong numeric advantage: 85% to 90% of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims);
8) the ability to harness networks of Islamic schools to propagate a peaceful and tolerant Islam;
9) the natural tendency of like-minded people to work together when alerted to a common danger;
10) the ability to form a global network of like-minded individuals, organizations and opinion leaders to promote moderate and progressive ideas throughout the Muslim world;
11) the existence of a counterideology, in the form of traditional, Sufi and modern Islamic teachings, and the ability to translate such works into key languages;
12) the benefits of modernity, for all its flaws, and the widespread appeal of popular culture;
13) the ability to cross national and cultural borders in the name of religion;
14) Internet communications, to disseminate progressive views--linking and inspiring like-minded individuals and organizations throughout the world;
15) the nation-state; and
16) the universal human desire for freedom, justice and a better life for oneself and loved ones.
I've quoted quite a bit here from Gus Dur's piece, but there is a lot more to his argument than this. Please read the whole thing.

Gus Dur's personal website is here, and the Libforall Foundation of which he is the patron and advisor is here. Also see this online symposium on jihad in Indonesia, featuring Rohan Gunaratna, Badrus Sholeh, Andrew Cochran and Walid Phares.

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