Thursday, May 31, 2007

From traditional Ulema to modern Intellectuals

Opinion and Editorial, The Jakarta Post (May 31, 2007)

Al Makin

Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni recently criticized Indonesia's kyai (Muslim clerics) for their deep involvement in politics at the cost of the quality of Islamic education. The minister voiced his criticism when opening a meeting of the Islamic Boarding Schools Association (RMI) in Jakarta.

"Some Muslim clerics prefer to be involved in politics rather than becoming educators ... and as a result, religion-based education in the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) has become somewhat disorganized," The Jakarta Post reported the minister as saying in its May 19 edition.
The government and political parties often use Muslim clerics for political purposes as they have big followings at the grassroots level. For the clerics, such relationships benefit them politically and, quite often, financially also.

One may venture to say that the traditional role of the kyai in setting moral standards have lately been overshadowed by their political involvement. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that their fatwas are often no longer divorced from political interests.

In addition, some of them have spent enormous energy in supporting certain political figures. If this involvement in the head-to-head politics continues, it will leave them with less energy to think about the development of their pesantren in facing up to competitive education in an increasingly globalized world.

Interestingly enough, the above remarks by Basyuni recall the same concerns expressed a long time ago by a former religious affairs minister under Soeharto, Munawir Sjadzali.
Sjadzali, however, was more worried about the decline in the number of ulema, and their intellectual capacity in facing up to the modern world. Therefore, he encouraged the emergence of what he referred to as ulema plus.

At the practical level, he responded, up to 1988 at least, in two ways: his pilot project setting up five special Muslim high schools, or madrasah aliyah program khusus (MAPK), and his determined efforts to send young Muslim intellectuals to study abroad. The first project has been discontinued, while the second one continued until recently.

In Munawir's vision, ulema plus referred to those clerics who were prepared, or able, to shift from performing the traditional role of a cleric to performing that of a modern intellectual, or even to combine both roles.

By doing so, Munawir broadened the meaning of ulama to include those educated in religious tradition and who have also mastered modern knowledge and science. It was expected that this type of cleric would be better capable of addressing modern problems.

The recent satirical comments by leading Indonesian novelist Ahmad Tohari are also relevant in this regard. According to Tohari, the mass migration of clerics to the political arena is also the result of the lack of modern skills possessed by the graduates of Muslim religious schools. As a result, they are unable to compete in the "real" sectors, such as the economy or professions. Joining, or even establishing, political parties to be a quick fix for such people as they strive to improve their financial and economic positions.

When discussing the roles played by Muslim clerics, it is also worth remembering that the meaning of the word ulama in Arabic is not restricted to those who have mastered religious knowledge, but also the secular sciences and skills.

Thus, in so far as a person provides guidance and a valuable contribution to society, he can also be categorized as an ulema.

Unfortunately, it is rarely that we come across clerics with the intellectual capacity to be included in the ulama plus category.

As regards Basyuni's criticisms, it remains to be seen what he will do to address the problem, and reduce the involvement of clerics in head-to-head politics. Hopefully, steps will be taken by his ministry to prepare a phalanx of young, educated and dedicated ulemas

The writer is a lecturer at the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of Yogyakarta, and a doctoral candidate at the Seminar fuer Sprachen und Kulturen des Vorderen Orients at Heidelberg University in Germany. He can be reached at

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pluralism, Politics and God?

I would present my paper in the following conference:
Pluralism, Politics and God?
An International Symposium on Religion and Public Reason
13-15 September 2007
McGill University, Montreal, Kanada

In his controversial Regensburg lecture, Pope Benedict XVI sought to re-frame the interaction of religious traditions on the principle that ‘not to act reasonably is contrary to the nature of God’. He also called on the universities, and on all partners in the dialogue of cultures, to rediscover this principle by engaging ‘the whole breadth of reason’ – appreciating its grandeur and repudiating reductionist approaches to reason.

This unabashedly hellenistic emphasis raises important questions about the relation between faith and reason, and about the role of religion in the exercise of public reason. Is religion necessary to sustain reason? Do different religions represent competing claims about reason and rationality as well as about revelation? Does religious diversity mean that public decision-making, even as regards moral or ethical matters or human rights, should seek to bracket the God-question? Or is that not possible without undermining the rational basis for deciding and acting?

Scholars from across North America and Europe will gather at McGill University to consider such questions, with presentations on a variety of related issues from Nicholas Adams (Edinburgh), Gregory Baum (McGill), Mark Cladis (Brown), Michael Ignatieff (formerly Harvard), George Smith II (Columbus School of Law), Janice Stein (Toronto), John Witte Jr. (Emory), and many others.
I will talk about the issue of:
Media Portrayals of Indonesian Public Sphere in Response to the Speech of Benedict XVI and the Visit of G. W. Bush
Al Makin is a lecturer of the State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta, while completing a Ph.D at Heidelberg University, Germany. He wrote a number of scholarly articles in in the field of Islamic studies and Op-Eds in Indonesian newspapers such as The Jakarta Post. His books include: Anti-Kesempurnaan, Membaca, Melihat dan Bertutur tentang Islam (Unfinished, Reading, Observing and Telling about Islam, 2002); Nabi Palsu, Membuka Kembali Pintu Kenabian (A False Prophet, Opening the Gate of Prophethood, 2003); and Bunuh Sang Nabi, Pertarungan antara Setan dan Malaikat (Kill the Prophet, the Struggle between Satan and Angel)
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Monday, May 07, 2007

Another Side of Israel

Opinion and Editorial, The Jakarta Post (April 28, 2007)

Al Makin

There are many Indonesian Muslim leaders who will certainly blow up the issue, with regard to the possible arrival of Israeli parliament members in Bali to attend the 116th Conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), from April 29 to May 4. A few have even declared that Muslims will take to the streets to protest the Israelis.

It is not hard to guess, however, who the main proponents of this idea are. To begin with, there are the leaders of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), such Hidayat Nur Wahid, who is currently speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), and Tifatul Sembiring, PKS president.

Fauzan Ali Anshori, a leader of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), subscribes to the same view. It is also reported that the head of the Council of the Indonesian Islamic Call (DDII), Kholil Ridwan, has made more or less the same threat in statements.
Let us set aside these voices for a moment to turn to Indonesia's and Indonesians misleading views of Israel and Jews.

It may be well that the negative views over Israel are primarily based on supposedly theological considerations. Many hold literal meanings of the numerous verses of the Koran, such as the story that is contained in chapter two of al-Baqarah and elsewhere. The Jews, according to the story, were always hostile to their own prophets, whom God had sent to guide them.
Others have also interpreted literally the story of the sinful acts committed by the tribes of Qurayza, Nadir and Qunayqa in classical Muslim literature. The story goes that these tribes betrayed the Prophet Muhammad, which brought about their expulsion from the city of Medina.
What concerns us here is that, according to these incorrect views, today's Jews are seen by some as no different from the past ones, in terms of their sinful acts, regardless of the distance of over a millennium and half between the time of writing of the classical literature and the present. This opinion, of course, begs for a revision, due to its erroneous historical ground.

There is also the complex context of each phase of human history during a millennium and half in which a simple generalization cannot be easily accepted. Can we judge today's people on the basis of their allegedly ancestors?

As regards the current issues related to modern Israel, these always seem too sensitive to be addressed in the public realm. This is due to the fact that public opinion seems to fail to catch any quick changes in Middle Eastern politics, and the dynamic attitudes embraced by some Arab leaders themselves. We seem merely to stick to the old prejudice that any Israeli elements should be rejected theologically and politically.

This view has often been justified by the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territory.

However, our understanding of the issue is, one can perhaps say, too limited, because we tend to have a one-sided perspective. Thus, we have always maintained that we stand with the Muslims, the victims, the oppressed -- against the others who have oppressed. In addition, we have never attempted to understand the issue from another perspective, such as Israel's.
In fact, a brave example has been given by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who offered real talks between Arab countries and Israel on the occasion of an Arab summit just few weeks ago. Although this has not been responded to positively by the Israelis, this attempt, without a doubt, deserves appreciation.

One may infer that mere antagonism has led us to nothing but more disaster. So why do we not try to sit down and talk? Why do we not try to better understand each other? As a rule, in an ideal reciprocal understanding, one party should understand the intentions of another and should accommodate its interests. Any prejudices against another should be discarded.
If King Abdullah himself has offered talks, is there any reason to prevent Indonesia from talking with Israeli? Can we set aside our old prejudices for a moment? At the least, can we see the issue from both sides, not merely hold our own version of reality?

It is noteworthy that attempting this would not reduce our solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinians.

What have we gained and how much have we helped the Palestinians by our current approach of antagonism and prejudice against Israel? Is that the best solution? It seems to be time to rethink the best role for Indonesians in the Middle East. Should we sharpen the conflict by ignoring one of the parties involved, or should we talk to both parties?

Nevertheless, let us just return to our main theme. At the government level, just accepting the Israeli MPs seems to be much less problematic, as the Indonesian foreign minister, Hassan Wirajuda, diplomatically put it, saying it is impossible to reject them. As mentioned earlier, a few parties will disagree and will protest this. However, the vast majority of Indonesians will watch TV and will enjoy the news while drinking a cup of coffee or tea.

The writer is a lecturer at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University in Yogyakarta and a doctoral candidate at Seminar fur Sprachen und Kulturen des Vorderen Orients at Heidelberg University in Germany. He can be reached at