Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Impossible ideal?

Impossible ideal?
Published: Jan 27, 2014

Julian Millie

An exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2013, Jemma Purdey

Cosmopolitanism might appear to be a concept tailor-made for Indonesian conditions. Diverse peoples have lived side by side in the region for ages. Linguistic difference is a feature of everyday life. In many communities, religious diversity is also a normal part of routine social life. All these realities suggest Indonesians have long supported one of the central principles of cosmopolitanism: that the interests of one’s own group should at times be sublimated for the good of the greater whole.

But some of the ideas that cluster within the broader concept of cosmopolitanism in fact meet with express disapproval in contemporary Indonesia. Much of this opposition is founded on religious rationales and, for those who cherish cosmopolitanism as an ideal of universal relevance, this opposition is a salient reminder of the impossibility of that ideal.

A war of ideas

Cosmopolitanism and its constituent ‘isms’, such as pluralism, are foremost amongst the concepts employed in a war of ideas. In this war, one side argues that concepts for social harmony derived from western models are valuable for Indonesia; the other side argues that Islamic belief is the normative resource upon which a prosperous Indonesia can be built. This war is not new in Indonesia but has increased in intensity since the liberalisation of public expression after Suharto.

For many Indonesians, both these positions are perfectly acceptable and do not conflict with each other. But in some regions, many people believe the incompatibility is unavoidable and should not be overlooked. A recent survey highlighted such a region, namely the pesantren (religious school) communities of rural West Java. A team of researchers from a Jakarta-based think tank, the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP), set out to establish how the kyai (pesantren leaders) viewed concepts such as pluralism and multiculturalism. To do this the researchers conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with the kyai of some of West Java’s most conservative pesantren. Their final report was published in a book entitled Pluralisme, Sekularisme dan Liberalisme di Indonesia.

The survey was partly motivated by the 2005 fatwa of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), which had forbidden Indonesian Muslims from supporting the concepts of secularism, pluralism and liberalism. According to the fatwa, these were contrary to aqidah (Islamic belief). The MUI is an organisation consisting of religious scholars that purports to represent the interests of Indonesian Muslims. Many Indonesian Muslims respect the MUI as the highest and most representative deliberative Islamic body. Apart from the 2005 fatwa, it has made a number of other fatwa that declare certain minorities to be outside of Islam. The survey was intended to find out whether these fatwa were in fact representative of the opinions of religious elites in rural West Java.

About 97 per cent of the population of West Java province is Muslim. In terms of religion, it is one of the most homogenous provinces alongside Aceh, West Sumatra and a few others. In these provinces, many people live in communities where everybody is and, it seems always has been Muslim. For this reason, cosmopolitanism and its related concepts, including pluralism, might not seem so important to people in these communities.

The interview team found that most religious leaders, even the more conservative ones, were supportive of the substance of cosmopolitanism. But the leaders were quick to assert that one did not need to adopt western concepts to justify the notion that people should be respectful of difference. Muslims could follow Islamic precedents, they argued, that had almost the same effect.

They pointed out, for example, that when the Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina after fleeing Mecca he had to deal with a diverse community. He confronted practical problems such as creating harmony between the supporters who had arrived with him from Mecca and the long-time residents of Medina. Furthermore, Medina was a religiously diverse environment, and was riven by genealogically based social hierarchies. The prophet successfully established his community in Medina by avoiding an exclusive religious attitude and paying respect to the status quo.

The respondents pointed approvingly to another example set by the Prophet: he introduced a social order that in fact freed the residents of Medina from hierarchies that had trapped them in positions of inferiority. In this sense, the Prophet appears as an exemplar of progressive social reform. For the Muslim communities of rural West Java, here is a precedent for tolerance and harmony that bears the authority of the Prophet’s own experience.

Pluralism versus plurality

But many of the kyai drew a line at pluralism. They contrasted pluralism with plurality to illustrate an important point. Plurality was a reality of Indonesian life, they pointed out. Acceptance of diversity in Indonesia was a practical necessity, given the realities of the country.

But pluralism was a concept that many kyai leaders could not accept. This concept implied that all religions were equal and in the eyes of many West Javanese kyai this implication was contrary to Islamic teaching. In their interpretation, Islam obliges people to believe that it is the only true means to salvation. This belief, they argue, is a non-negotiable aspect of aqidah.

Large populations in West Java are open to this view, especially when it is supported by a kyai who they look up to. For many West Javanese rural communities, the kyai is the most dependable authority, a stabilising presence in the region for centuries. Many people live in financial hardship, receive little benefits from Indonesia’s recent economic growth and are buffeted by fluctuating economic conditions. Things have always been so for these communities and the kyai has always been present to provide inspiration and stability.

Apart from that, many rural Muslims consider Indonesia’s mainstream culture, with its pronounced western influences, something to be wary of. An increase in consumption-related media has brought with it advertising images showing independent, individualistic lifestyles. These urban images are disconcerting for people trying to live an Islamic lifestyle, and the kyai provides an alternative message.

Of course, this does not mean that all of West Java’s Muslims live puritanical lives under the watchful eyes of their religious leaders. West Javanese rural areas hold some of the most enthusiastic audiences for dangdut, Indonesia’s sexy dance music. This brings a sensuous tension to everyday life: everyone respects the word of the kyai, but at the same time, few can resist the rhythms of dangdut!

Against this background, aqidah gains a special importance. Although it consists of abstract formulations expressed in religious ideas, it forms a sort of public good in rural West Java. Through the mediations of religious leaders, aqidah has been a nourishing principle for these communities for centuries. Not surprisingly, many Indonesians in rural West Java believe correct aqidah is essential to the formation of a community that is orderly and prosperous, and to the maintenance of the values their ancestors upheld. They are ready to believe their kyai when he assures them that pluralism and multiculturalism are western values that pose a threat to aqidah.

More than symbolism

Most of the pesantren leaders who opposed pluralism also expressed opposition to violence and discrimination against minorities. They cited the Prophet’s example in support of this position. It might seem, therefore, that the rejection of pluralism has symbolic meaning only. After all, the level of religion-based violence and discrimination in West Java is quite low. It might seem only a matter of semantics but the survey team found otherwise. They found that the widespread condemnation of pluralism, and the MUI fatwa condemning minorities, had in fact brought about substantive change.

The MUI fatwas made a difference by providing legitimacy to vigilantism. West Java has always had a relatively small number of Islamic groups that have ideological motives for taking vigilante actions against minorities. The MUI itself does not encourage violence, but its fatwa are a gift to the vigilante groups. They now have a strong justification for their actions: the country’s highest ranking religious body agrees with the position they take on difference, so their actions are in fact being made for the good of the public. The moral dimensions of violence committed against innocent minorities are obscured.

The violence has not been widespread, but nevertheless, a number of small outbreaks have had severe consequences. One vigilante attack on a minority in 2011 in Banten resulted in the deaths of three people (see the four articles in Inside Indonesia 107: Jan-Mar, 2012). This and other less serious cases indicate that the ‘battle’ between an exclusive perspective on aqidah and cosmopolitanism is in fact more than symbolic.

The conflict goes back to long before the most recent skirmishes, and is most likely intractable. The supporters of cosmopolitanism and related concepts often work in Jakarta-based NGOs. It is widely known that they receive foreign funding. This complicates the situation for some religious leaders see these funding arrangements as proof of the west’s determination to replace Islamic concepts with western ones. One leader of an association of pesantren once famously forbade the association’s members from receiving western funding in any form.

In fact, the ICIP itself, whose name declares its orientation so clearly, was the subject of a smear campaign identifying it as a corruptive influence. The survey, as well as some workshops the centre held on pluralism, were funded by the Australian government. The ICIP was accused of spreading the ‘sepilis’ virus. Sepilis is an acronym for secularism, pluralism and liberalism – its resemblance to ‘syphilis’ is no accident. It might appear that feelings about cosmopolitanism and pluralism have become so highly charged that there can be no future for these terms in West Java.

Not surprisingly, even those West Javanese Muslims who support the western terms have suggested that changes need to be made in order to break the impasse. So what is the way forward? The West Javanese painter and poet, Acep Zamzam Noor – the son of a famous kyai – offers a solution:

'When our ancestral values are reworked into new terms like pluralism, people who have become accustomed to religious homogeneity will see them as a kind of virus that needs to be opposed. Especially when the new term contains ‘-ism’, something which reminds people of Zionism, Marxism, communism, socialism, secularism, liberalism, capitalism, colonialism and so on. But if one fights the radical groups, nothing good will come of it. If one wins, one will not be highly regarded, and to lose is also embarrassing. Even more so if one is beaten up in the street. Activists like the young NU [Nahdatul Ulama] people need to quickly find new terms that are more intimate and broadly acceptable, for the communities [of West Java] are not made up wholly of intellectuals or educated people. The same goes for the methods used to spread or promote a new discourse to society. It needs more than enthusiasm and courage. Creativity is also required. Just like an art project, this struggle also needs intuition and imagination. It needs creativity.'

Who will reopen the cultural dialogue in Indonesia with a new word for cosmopolitanism that also satisfies the aqidah?

Julian Millie (Julian.Millie@monash.edu) is senior lecturer in the Anthropology program of the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}

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