Indian Muslimness holds, but important lessons must be learned from battle for soul of Islam in Indonesia

Tufail Ahmad
Halal fridges, halal jilbabs and halal hijabs have entered consumerist culture in Indonesia.

Former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani, recently in the Thai capital of Bangkok, observed: "Indian Muslimness still holds. Islam Nusantara (Indonesian Islam) is cracking up a bit." Let me cite an incident to shine a light on the first part of his comment. A few years ago, my sister Bushra Khatoon turned up in her office in New Delhi after marriage. I have lived away from my ancestral home for over three decades, but knew that she was dating a Muslim. Her colleague messaged me on Facebook: "She got married to a Hindu."

"This is her choice," I told him, though I was surprised to hear that she married to a Hindu. Out of curiosity, I asked him: "What makes you think so?" He said: "She has put a bindi on her forehead." This was revealing: There is a huge gulf between Hindus and Muslims about how we understand each other. I told him that women in my family always put sindoor in the parting of hair and bindi on forehead, which is how Hindu women too live in villages. This is the Indian Muslimness Haqqani spoke of.

But the second part of Haqqani's comment that Islam Nusantara is cracking up forced me to investigate further. I walked into the hotel room of Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani, a leading Indonesian scholar who was in Bangkok. About to go to bed, he was wearing a pajama which had images of elephants. In India, we are taught by Islamic scholars that photographs and images of living beings should not be made, printed or used, barring exceptions for passports and other ID purposes in unavoidable situations. This is the reason the Darul Uloom Deoband recently issued a fatwa against wearing jewellery with images of living beings.

I was shocked to see Burhani in a pajama with images of elephants, not because I am not used to seeing Muslims in such clothes, but because he is not merely an academic. Burhani leads prayers in mosques and is a practising religious scholar. He is also deputy chairman of the Department of Publication and Information, Central Board of Muhammadiyah €" one of the two leading religious organisations that influence the life of Indonesian Muslims. The other is Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest religious organisation in terms of membership.

Looking at the images on his pajama, I asked him: "Will you be allowed into mosque wearing this pant?" He was surprised. After I explained to him that such a pant will not be permitted by Islamic scholars in India, Burhani said: "In Indonesia, no one will object, in general. Even Muhammadiyah will not object." He also noted that both Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama will not object to such clothes with images of living beings. This is the Indonesian Islam that is facing a new set of conservative forces in Indonesia.

It is called Islam Nusantara, literally Islam of the Archipelago. "There are many definitions of Islam Nusantara, but the emphasis is on a kind of Islam different from the one portrayed by non-Muslims," Burhani said. He listed among the features of Islam Nusantara the following: peaceful Islam, tolerant Islam, an Islam friendly to non-Muslims, and an Islam that tries to blend with local Indonesian culture instead of removing and eradicating local practices.

Within the competitive context of Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama follows Islam Nusantara, while Muhammadiyah follows Islam Berkemajuan, or Islam with progress. Islam Nusantara and Islam Berkemajuan are not necessarily mutually antagonistic. While Nahdlatul Ulama is the largest organisation, Muhammadiyah is the richest in terms of wealth and properties. Burhani noted: "Followers of Islam Berkemajuan believe that the reason Muslims radicalise is because they are not strong in education, knowledge, politics and economy. The way to challenge radicalisation is to have centres of excellence in education, jobs, skills and other fields."

This idea may be sinking among some religious groups in India. Masjid-e-Ishaq€"a mosque in the southern city of Hyderabad€"opened its doors for health services in cooperation with the city-based NGO Helping Hand Foundation. It aims to serve as a referral link for 1.5 lakh people of all religions by providing information and guidance for admission to 30-plus government hospitals. Such a transformation of an Indian mosque, perhaps first of its kind, reflects what Islam Berkemajuan of Muhammadiyah stands for in Indonesia.

After the Indonesian government, Muhammadiyah owns the largest number of orphanages, schools, colleges and hospitals. Muhammadiyah runs 177 universities and over a thousand schools. Burhani observed that Nahdlatul Ulama looks inward, while Muhammadiyah looks outward. "Both these organisations are meeting new challenges of globalisation and Arabisation," he said, adding: "Our challenges are not coming (only) from the West and Western geopolitics, but also from West Asia." Muhammadiyah runs engineering and medical colleges which also teach Islamic religious education.

In eastern Indonesia, where there is significant non-Muslim population, 80 percent students and teachers are non-Muslims in Muhammadiyah-run schools and universities; and religious education courses are of academic nature, not aiming to preach Islam. Burhani pointed out that in this region, Muhammadiyah also organises Christmas celebrations. In India, both Hindu-run institutions and Islamic organisations can learn a lesson from Muhammadiyah by organising Eid, Christmas and Diwali celebrations. During my conversation with Burhani, I was surprised that Muslims and Christians bury their dead in the same graveyards.

In return, Burhani was surprised to know that Muslims in India do not share their graveyards with Christians or others. In fact, Bohra Muslims will not allow Sunni Muslims to bury their dead in their graveyards. Lower caste Muslims are marked separate areas in some graveyards of Mumbai. There are community-based Muslim graveyards in parts of Maharashtra. Amid such post-death segregation, the Indonesian practice of Muslims and Christians burying their dead in the same graveyard is exemplary. "But now, some places are having separate cemeteries for Muslims and Christians in Indonesia too," Burhani said.

So, the Indonesian Islam is indeed cracking up. There are marginal religious organisations that are exerting their influence: Majlis Mujahideen Indonesia, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, Jama'ah Ansarud Dawlah, Jama'ah Ansarut Tauheed (JAT). Of them, only Hizbut Tahrir was banned in 2017. JAT leader Abu Bakar Bashir is in jail for radicalising Muslims, but the organisation is not banned. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which seems to have enjoyed State support against anti-government forces in the 1990s, is another religious organisation that opposes dancing and discotheques, and engages in moral policing.

Burhani pointed out that after 2005, FPI expanded beyond the domain of moral policing into theological issues, declared Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslims and evolved positions against non-Muslim minorities of Indonesia, and in some regions forced candidates to sign pre-election agreements aimed at enforcing sharia rule after their victory. It is one of the major groups challenging the peaceful Islam of Indonesia, and claims to be part of Nahdlatul Ulama in terms of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and practices in prayer.

Dr Rumadi Ahmad teaches history of Islamic law at the State Islamic University in Jakarta. He is also head of the human resources studies and development, National Board of Nahdlatul Ulama. Interviewed in Bangkok, he said: "Islam Nusantara is about how to combine Islam and local traditions. Islam in Indonesia did not spread by war but through Sufism. Local traditions and Islam are in harmony, but a few puritan Muslims can create problems." Ahmad noted that some groups such FPI and Hizbut Tahrir object to the concept of Islam Nusantara and their mission is the Islamisation of Indonesia.

"Radical elements in Indonesian society were suppressed and underground. After 1998, they began to emerge and assert themselves. Over the past decade, radical elements have spread to different parts of Indonesia," Ahmad said, adding that Hizbut Tahrir is now banned, but the ban is on the organisation, thinking is not banned. He said that radical forces want more sharia and ask for the penal code of Indonesia to be adapted to sharia standards. For example, stoning is legal punishment in the province of Aceh.

While Islam had always been on the periphery of government institutions in Indonesia, Burhani said, there was an Islamic Turn in the 1990s lasting through 2005. President Suharto€"who ruled from 1967 to 1998€"began using Islam as an ally of his government to curtail the power of the military, but he still fell from power in 1998. During the Islamic Turn, devout Muslims, previously excluded from government institutions, became members of the Cabinet and council of ministers; and governors began going to Mecca for pilgrimage. This process can be called Islamisation in the Indonesian government.

After 2005, there are two types of Muslim political parties: Secular parties and Islamist parties. "Sharia-based policies and laws cannot be implemented in Indonesia without the support of secular parties," Burhani said, also pointing out that the term "secular" shouldn't be seen in its Western and atheistic meaning. He also noted that after 2005, the Islamic Turn gave way to the Conservative Turn which is seen incidents of discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims and non-Muslim minorities and implementation of sharia in some parts of Indonesia.

"Now private companies build separate housing societies for Muslims. Previously, no such thing existed," Burhani remarked. As he was speaking, my mind ran through Gujarat where the state government implemented and enlarged the scope of the Disturbed Areas Act (DSA) for over the past nearly two decades, thereby preventing Muslims from buying properties in Hindu areas and vice versa. Consequently, housing societies in towns across Gujarat do not have Muslims and Hindus living together. DSA is pushing Muslims into ghettos.

The Conservative Turn has witnessed a rise of trendy Islam. Halal fridges, halal jilbabs and halal hijabs have entered consumerist culture in Indonesia. "This sounds like commodified religiosity, a merger between capitalism and conservatism," Burhani said and added: "There is strong religious influence on Indonesian movies. Songs, music, novels are influenced by religion. Big movie stars wear short trousers, bear mark of worship on forehead, and have beards. Previously, movie stars were clean-shaved." Rumadi Ahmad concurred: "It is a crazy idea. There is a euphoria of halal. I don't know what halal hijab is." But the phenomenon does exist: there are halal swimming pools, halal taxis, halal makeup, and so on.

The presidential elections are due in April 2019. Indonesian president Joko Widodo has picked Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate. Amin, who belongs to Nahdlatul Ulama, issued a fatwa in 2005 declaring Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslims. In 2008, the Indonesian government issued multiple orders to enforce policies in line with the fatwa. While President Widodo is himself not a conservative, he is using Ma'ruf Amin to appeal to conservative voters, Burhani said.

Should Ma'ruf Amin's victory worry those who stand for the traditional Indonesian Islam? I asked Burhani and Ahmad which way Indonesian Islam is headed to after the elections. Ahmad said: "Conservative sections cannot become mainstream in religious organisations, but it depends on what kind of leaders take over these organisations." Burhani summed up: "The government is going beyond the dichotomy of Islam Nusantara and Islam Berkemajuan. The government is now promoting Islam Wasatiya (the Islam of Middle Path)."

The author is a former BBC journalist and senior fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, DC. He tweets @tufailelif

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