Liberalising Islam

Indonesian scholar Ulil Abshar-Abdalla says there's room for many interpretations of Islamic thought and teaching

Ulil Abshar-Abdalla. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Conservative, insular, sometimes radical -- these are some people's perceptions of Islam and its followers. The after-effect of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks intensified by the headline-grabbing surge of the Islamic State, the image of Islam sometimes sparks fear that results in waves of Islamophobia and even anti-Muslim policies in certain parts of the world.

Not many would associate Islam with the word "liberal". But Indonesian Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar-Abdalla believes Islam and liberalism can walk hand-in-hand.

"Islam, like other religions, is not monolithic. There's diversity within itself with many organisations, sects, denominations and groups. It's not a single entity. And there are many interpretations, understandings and schools of thought. Many would claim they're representing the true Islam. One says the other is not Islamic enough because they follow the wrong doctrine or ideology. That's something you see in Islam throughout history," said Abshar-Abdalla, of the Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL, or the Liberal Islam Network), a network of intellectuals and activists in Indonesia who believe in and advocate for the liberal interpretation of Islamic teaching.

"Liberal Islam is just one way of understanding Islam. It's an intellectual movement that promotes certain understandings of the Koran in a way that's not in contradiction with the modern ideas of democracy and human rights," said the 50-year-old.

JIL was founded in 2001 -- three years after the end of President Suharto's regime -- by a group of young scholars, one of them being Abshar-Abdalla, to counter the growing influence of radical Islam in Indonesia. The group viewed that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was posing a threat to the peaceful and tolerant lifestyle of Indonesians.

Reports have shown that several hundred Indonesians have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State or IS.

Islam is not a religion of violence, asserted Abshar-Abdalla. He believes that one needs to understand Islam correctly to find that Islam actually has no contradiction with human rights, gender equality, democracy, diversity, pluralism, economic justice and fairness.

The scholar acknowledged that some Muslims may believe differently, and he himself has been a subject of threats and attacks from those with different perspectives in the past. Over a decade ago, he received death threats from radical cleric groups after he wrote an article on Islamic liberalism in a national newspaper. An explosive device was also sent to the JIL's office in Jakarta in 2011, injuring four people. A witness claimed the package was addressed to Abshar-Abdalla.

Some would call Abshar-Abdalla a heretic, an infidel. At the same time, others praise him as a reformer. To this day, he is still safe and sound, sipping coffee serenely in Jakarta as we discuss the cultural complexity of his home country and its dominant religion. His Twitter account has more than 650,000 followers.

Islam, more intensely than other faiths, faces an internal struggle between the progressive and the traditional. Indonesia, where over 87% of the estimated 260 million population are Muslim, is a rich case study in that ideological struggle. While extremists keep their blades sharpened -- firebrand ulamas are common -- Indonesia has largely been successful with its display of moderate Islam. The country has two major Islamic organisations that promote the religion as a spiritual guidance that embraces tolerance, democracy and real-world understanding: Muhammadiyah was founded in 1912 and claims approximately 29 million members, while Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) has been around since 1926, and claims 40 million followers.

JIL would rest on the far end of the liberal ideological spectrum, and it's difficult to determine how many people share its beliefs. Its opposite includes the Front Pembela Islam (FIP, or Islamic Defenders Front), a radical Islamist group that is notorious for violence and hate crimes. One of its targets was the flamboyant singer and LGBTI activist Lady Gaga. Due to threats over security, the Indonesian leg of her Born This Way tour was cancelled in 2012.

Abshar-Abdalla said it was the "stupid, small and radical group" alone that went berserk against the singer. Most of the Indonesian people actually have no problem with Lady Gaga's show.

"The radical groups look big and strong in the media. In real life, they're not that strong. Their influence is limited. Still, they use the media smartly to promote and give the impression to people that they are bigger than they are," he said, adding that the media is partly to blame for putting a strong significance on radical groups, giving them a larger-than-life image.

Regarding the rights and existence of LGBTI in Muslim-majority Indonesia, the scholar noted that people are generally tolerant of them. Still, that tolerance doesn't amount to any legal protection. It's a generally known fact that gender diversity is not well received within Islamic communities.

There has been news of gay men being thrown off roofs by IS killers. In some Islamic countries, homosexuality is a sin punishable by death. Recently in Thailand, a Pattani gender group was accused by a Muslim scholar of preaching and promoting lesbianism to young girls. Homosexuality and transsexuality are both a subject of negativity, intolerance and even a taboo for some. But this is something Abshar-Abdalla disagrees with.

"Islam is a religion of justice -- and justice means justice for all," he said. "I believe that, as a Muslim, Islam cannot justify homophobia and homophobic attitude towards LGBTI." He acknowledged that the majority of Muslims would have a different opinion. Still, he is undeterred in his belief that Islam promotes justice for everyone, and not just regarding LGBTI issues either.

Abshar-Abdalla said he is not alone in the liberal ideology. It is a global concern. Eventually, the scholar hopes that Muslims can and should relate to other religions, faiths and practices in order to coexist peacefully with the modern world.

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