Fri, 05 Sep 2003

Radicalism a typical of Indonesian 'pesantren'

Lily Zakiyah Munir, Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies (CePDeS), Jakarta,

Five years ago in a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in the small city of Jombang, East Java, amid the tranquil light of dawn, a congregation of male santri (pesantren students) performed their prayers in the mosque. While absorbed in the ritual, a Dutch Catholic priest -- who had spent the previous night at the school -- observed them. Sitting cross-legged at the edge of the mosque, he patiently waited to talk with some of the santri.

Indeed, later that day, the priest engaged in warm and friendly conversation in Arabic with the kyai (teacher and leader of the pesantren) on various religious and humanitarian issues.

The priest -- upon returning to his country -- wrote that his stay at the pesantren and his talks with the students and their kyai was one of the most beautiful moments in his life. He thanked them for their hospitality and warm welcome.

Three years later, the pesantren hosted a multireligious delegation from a Norwegian-based interfaith organization, that came to Indonesia to see how religious pluralism is internalized and practiced here. The dialog between the delegation and the santri was genuine, open and punctuated with laughter.

The santri, especially the teenagers, enjoyed stories about far away life and the opportunity to practice their English. They were not prejudiced against the delegation, moreover because the group leader was a "veiled" Norwegian Muslim woman. The santri and the European guests exchanged perspectives on various topics, including the lives of Muslims and Christians in Europe.

These stories illustrate the activities of many pesantren in Indonesia, including Jombang, which is known as the city of 1,0000 pesantren. Countless Western and non-Muslim researchers and activists have visited and lived in the schools for different purposes.

Some of them have conducted anthropological studies using the popular method of participant observation; others taught English, still more were interested in a deeper knowledge of Islam. This direct contact with "outsiders" has been invaluable to the santri, nurturing awareness and appreciation of differences and diversities.

Not surprisingly, the pesantren in Indonesia have produced broad-minded and tolerant personalities and alumni, such as Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholish Madjid, two out of many Muslim intellectuals and scholars, widely reputed for their religious pluralism.

When questioned on the religious justification for their openness to outsiders -- including non-Muslims -- santri immediately refer to the Prophet Muhammad's saying, that whoever believes in God and in the hereafter must respect his guests.

This prophetic saying (hadith) is a strong basis indeed for the santri's hospitality and does not limit such inclusion to Muslims only. A limitation applies only in terms of time -- three days -- whereby if a guest stays longer than this period, the host is not obliged to treat them specially.

The teaching of "brotherhood" in santri -- that is prevalent among members or followers of Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU, (literally "the resurgence of ulema") the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia -- can also be referred to.

The teaching advocates three levels of brotherhood that should be embraced in the pursuit of the peaceful coexistence of humankind. First is brotherhood among Muslims (ukhuwwah Islamiyah); second, brotherhood among people of the same nation (ukhuwwah wathoniyah), and third, brotherhood among all human beings (ukhuwwah basyariyah) -- regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or nationality.

These indications of tolerance and pluralism in pesantren might jar with the emerging stigmatization of such schools, particularly in the aftermath of the JW Marriott Hotel bombing. The alleged suicide bomber, Asmar Latin Sani, was reportedly an alumnus of the Al-Mukmin pesantren in Ngruki, led by cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir.

The association of a suicide bomber with pesantren disables the image of moderate and tolerant santri.

But pesantren may actually be divided into two categories quite contradictory in nature. From the outside -- indicated by the names or physical appearance -- these two types of pesantren look alike. But in terms of teaching and moral values they are like night and day.

In pesantren like Ngruki, dialog with "the other" (people with different interpretations of Islam or those who are non-Muslim) is not possible. These people are regarded as kafir (infidels) and thus, there is no point in communicating with them. Their blood is even considered halal, meaning that it is allowable to shed their blood.

So, there are moderate pesantren, but there are also radical pesantren. There are as few as five, according to Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group.

One unique characteristic of moderate pesantren, enabling them to produce tolerant and pluralistic people, is their balance in teaching Islamic legal aspects (fikih) and spirituality (sufism).

This approach derives from the nine saints (wali songo) who spread Islam in Java. The spiritual dimension is probably what is missing from radical pesantren that prefer to stand in a binary position: Right-wrong, halal-haram, me-the other, heaven-hell, etc. As a result, they produce Muslims with an exclusionary stance, who see the world as black and white and who lack a sense of the beauty of religion: Peace, tolerance, respect, love and care for others, and other esoteric and humanitarian traits.

This type of radical Islam is not typical to Indonesia. Islam in Indonesia has been known as tolerant, pluralistic and adaptable to local culture. But the last three decades have witnessed the growing phenomenon of this Islamism. Moderate pesantren should take note.