Sep 26, 2020 Last Updated 8:00 AM, Sep 25, 2020

Islamic liberalism

Published: Apr 14, 2007

R William Liddle

Reading Greg Fealy’s ‘A Conservative Turn’ (Inside Indonesia No. 87, July–September 2006) provokes three responses from me. JIL (Liberal Islam Network) is mainly a talking shop for intellectuals within a diffuse, and only modestly influential, liberal Islamic movement. Most important, JIL is not a cause of the conservative turn in Indonesian Islam but rather a reaction to it. Finally, foreign academics should minimise giving tactical advice to those we study, to maintain scholarly neutrality.

Greg cites three issues that have angered conservative Muslims: the 2002 publication by JIL’s star thinker Ulil Abshar-Abdalla of an article in Kompas on ‘Refreshing Islamic Understanding’; the attempt by Paramadina intellectuals to develop inter-religious jurisprudential codes; and changes in Islamic law proposed in 2004 that would have banned polygamy and established gender equality in inheritance and divorce law. Greg recognises that only the first of these controversies was sparked by a JIL member. At the same time, he calls JIL ‘the most prominent of contemporary groups’ and cites its ‘high profile’ due to syndicated newspaper articles, radio programs, website and internet discussion group. This exaggerates JIL’s influence. According to a national survey conducted by LSI (Indonesian Survey Institute) earlier this year, only 14 per cent of respondents had heard of JIL while 65 per cent had heard of MMI (Indonesian Holy Warriors’ Council), the loudest voice of conservative Islam.

Reaction to conservative turn

Second, the real ‘conservative turn’ began in the Middle East more than a century ago and came to Indonesia in 1912 with the founding of Muhammadiyah. Since that time there has been a struggle for the soul of Indonesian Islam. Indonesian modernism, with its back-to-the-Qur’an approach, is concentrated in Muhammadiyah. Nahdlatul Ulama and other traditionalists follow an Islam based on the Syafi’i jurisprudential school. Liberals and conservatives have also contended for influence within Muhammadiyah. Middle Eastern conservatism got a huge boost when the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the 1920s. Brotherhood influence has been spreading in Indonesia since the 1970s and now pervades university campuses. In the 1990s, President Suharto further enabled conservatism by encouraging both moderate and radical Islamists.

JIL and other contemporary liberal groups are a reaction to this conservative turn. They are also a continuation of the successful liberal movement led from the 1970s by Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid. Many of the themes in Ulil’s 2002 Kompas article, including the ‘refreshing’ of the title, echo Nurcholish Madjid’s famous 1970 speech. Nurcholish called provocatively for secularisation, meaning ‘distinguishing among the values that we consider Islamic those that are transcendental from those that are temporal.’ While Greg, of course, recognises this continuity, he doesn’t appreciate how radical were Nurcholish’s views nor how strong was the conservative backlash. Media Dakwah (Proselytising Media) labelled Nurcholish as a murtad, an apostate whose blood could be shed. Media Dakwah is the official publication of the influential DDII (Indonesian Islamic Proselytising Council), then chaired by Mohammad Natsir, former leader of Masjumi (an Islamic political party banned in the 1960s).

Finally, this seems a good opportunity to raise the thorny issue of the relationship of foreign academics to those we study. Greg seems a little quick to advise that ‘if liberal Islam is to regain the initiative, it will need greater tactical acuity and sensitivity to community attitudes.’ Implicit in that advice is Greg’s personal support for the larger goals of liberal Islam, an attitude that most foreign scholars probably share. The danger of that attitude is that we will oversimplify, distort and stereotype the goals and politics of the conservatives. A wiser course (although I know that pots should not call kettles black) is to commit ourselves seriously to conducting impartial research, which includes not giving advice to our friends about how to defeat our common enemies.

R William Liddle ( is a professor of Political Science at Ohio State University.

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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