Liberals and Hardliners: Islam at War with Itself

The founder of the Liberal Islam movement in Indonesia, Ulil Abshar Abdalla, frequently receives death threats from Islamists who accuse his movement of being designed by America and "the Jews" to destroy Islam.

However, amongst the educated elite in Indonesia, Liberal Islam's supporters tend to be growing. It actively disseminates its ideas through a website (, through national broadsheets, a network of FM radios and even through Facebook.

The growth of liberal Islam was obvious when Islamic scholar Dr. Siti Musdah Mulia was recently awarded a prestigious human rights award in Jakarta. Dr. Mulia controversially accepts gay Muslims. Supporters of Liberal Islam feel that it is a way to express Islam without being in conflict with their common sense and modern values.

Meanwhile, hardliner Islamism is also growing through mass organizations that reach down to the village level through madrasahs and rallies. Recent surveys in West Java revealed that up to 80 percent of Muslims believe that Sharia law should be implemented by the state. Every problem, they believe, no matter how complex, can be solved by the implementation of Sharia law.

The current global financial crisis has supplied fresh ammunition to the jihadi propagandists. Indonesia's chapter of the trans-national Islamist party, Hizbut Tahrir, for example, recently published a letter from a party member living in the United States, describing the crisis as a disaster of consumerism and proof of the damage and suffering caused by the absence of an Islamic Caliphate. This simplistic way of thinking becomes particularly attractive when it is presented by someone perceived to hold religious authority.

Indonesia not only has the largest Muslim population in the world, it also has the liveliest debate on issues related to Islam. The country holds a uniquely strategic position in the ideological battle against literalist Islamism. Historically, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), was founded in 1926 as a reaction to the Wahhabi takeover in Arabia. Most contemporary Indonesian scholars and activists of Liberal Islam were educated in NU schools, and many of the brightest amongst them are currently studying on American scholarships at Ivy League universities. The debate within Islam can be seen in a growing gap within NU between the educated elite and the village level: recent studies revealed a literalist and anti- pluralist trend among NU affiliated madrasahs in villages.

To decisively end the debate and bury Islamist terror forever, the United States, and particularly American Muslims, must aid the efforts of Liberal Islam activists in Indonesia, but not through moves that will be dismissed as a ‘scholars-for-dollars' program. This debate is not only a war of ideas; it is also a battle of charisma. Though charisma alone will never suffice to deal with the task at hand, without charisma, there can be no spiritual leadership.

To keep and nurture a following, a scholar must be careful about where he or she receives funding. American Muslims must produce not only Islamic rap and Islamic youth novels. They need to nurture Islamic scholars who are educated in the classical subjects of Islam but who can also independently offer an Islamic way of life that is compatible with and beneficial to the global village of the 21st Century.

Islamist terror did not begin with perceived injustices committed by the United States; it started with ideology. Islamists respond violently to the perceived injustices of America's foreign policy because their ideology demands it. Islamists have plenty of charismatic scholars whose works glorify their thirst for violence. Often these scholars lived through a time of profound suffering, such as Ibn Taimiyyah, who experienced the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate to the Mongols in the 13th Century.

Islamist ideologues see the Muslims' predicament as punishment from Allah for not adhering to religion. In what can be seen as an inferiority complex, they feel compelled to purify the expression of Islam in their societies by word and by sword. The enforcement of a total acceptance of Islam is the main theme of all Islamist ideologues. The total acceptance of Islam requires a state that implements Sharia law expressed through the adoption of 7th Century customs of Arabia.

In a way, Islamdom today faces a situation similar to the time when Islamist fundamentalism was born in the ideas of Ibn Taimiyyah. While he faced the destruction of the Muslim community at the hands of the grandson of Genghis Khan, currently, mankind faces obliteration by the failure of states, nuclear wars, and natural and man- made environmental breakdowns.

The problem is that the Islamists' responses to current issues are stuck in the 13th Century. The Mongols have become the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies. Muslims and the world need a new, relevant, expression of Islam, one that can stand up to the militancy and the desperation of the jihadi Islamists. It must be an expression of Islam that is true to the spirit of the Qur'an and the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, but it must also contribute towards the humanism and ecological awareness of the 21st Century.

American (and Western) Muslims are the best equipped to produce this desperately needed expression of Islam. Traditional Islamic scholars are not well educated on current environmental issues, and do not relate to modern humanistic concepts such as gender equality and democracy. Islamic scholars brought up in the West have a much broader understanding of the issues facing mankind today.

Could these scholars now please stand up and speak?

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