Fri, 14 Feb 2003

Ulil goes against fundamentalism

Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Relatively small but vocal, Indonesia's Muslim fundamentalists are a thorn in the side to the country's majority of Muslim moderates. But recently, the hardliners are complaining of an annoying sting. It goes by the name Ulil Abshar-Abdalla.

A 36-year old intellectual from the country's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, he has broken the deafening silence of the moderate majority over the growing influence of fundamentalism here since Soeharto fell in 1998.

Now he confronts them wherever they are found: the Internet, radio, newspapers, television and face to face at debates.

"I prefer calling them revivalists," Ulil said in an interview on Monday.

Revivalists, because their ultimate aim is to bring back Islam exactly as it was practiced over 1,400 years ago. Ulil thinks this copy-and-paste approach is unrealistic.

He agrees that Muslims need to change, but in looking for that change Ulil urges them to leave no stone unturned.

He said the revivalists tend to stifle the options and limit the scope of debate for a solution. "If there is no balance, (against the revivalists) they could become a risk to free thinking."

Ulil helped found the Islamic Liberal Network (JIL), a loose alliance of intellectual Muslims that aims to stimulate debate on Islamic topics.

JIL was founded in 2001 and made its debut over the Internet as a mailing list. Ulil said JIL currently had around 500 members, mainly students, but also academicians, employees and housewives.

The mailing list's first topic, he said, was whether a secular state was acceptable under Islam. "The answers tended to be yes, and that a secular state was consistent with Islam."

JIL became a website then a radio talk-show, which Ulil still hosts at radio station 68H. The program is being aired on 50 stations throughout Indonesia.

And just as the country's current experiment with democracy gave fundamentalists the chance to rise and expand, it also allowed JIL's message to spread.

Soon JIL turned its attention toward institutions of higher education, suspecting that the academia had become hotbeds of Islamic reactionaries.

"So we go to the universities and institutes to provide different views on Islam," he said, adding that "we confront every effort to limit the field of discussion."

JIL blew threw the campuses like a fresh breeze. "For a long time students had felt there was a domination of a religious vision that was one sided ... an Islamic vision that was too fundamentalist."

Naturally, the schools became the support bases for many hardline organizations, even political parties. Among them the Justice Party (PK), which Ulil said he admired, but not for their fundamentalist religious vision. "Their vision is, in my view, not correct, it must be countered."

It was just a matter of time before JIL's blunt messages drew the ire of the reactionaries.

In August last year, a private television station scrapped a JIL info-mercial, which featured the phrase "Colorful Islam", -- essentially promoting diversity and tolerance -- because a hardline Muslim group, the Majelis Mujahiddin complained vociferously that the ad was an insult to Islam.

Ulil demonstrated what it was to be a liberal Muslim with a piece that appeared in the country's largest daily paper Kompas, last November.

In it, he posed questions about various obligations under Islamic law, or sharia, arguing that some things, like hacking the hands off of thieves, might not be applicable in this culture and this century.

A number of Muslim clerics were irate about the article. The Bandung-based Indonesian People's Ulama Forum (FUUI) called it an insult to Islam and warned that such a violation was punishable by death.

Asked what drove him to write the article, Ulil said, "I just felt the time was ripe."

He explained that the article was a summary of years of debates he had had with like-minded Muslims and with the revivalists.

Born into a family of conservative NU Muslims in the Central Java town of Pati in 1967, Ulil was educated until the age of 19 at an Islamic boarding school run by his father and grandfather.

He remains a member of NU and continues to head its human resource development research division.

He studied at the Institute of Islamic and Arabian Sciences and the Driyarka Institute of Philosophy.

Ulil's solid foundation in Islamic education and his NU affiliation lend him credibility when he discusses Islam. However, it also begs the question as to why he became critical toward the establishment.

Ulil said that Muslim organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah already had a long tradition of critical thinkers. In fact, he cited former NU chairman and president Abdurrahman Wahid as having inspired him to think differently.

Another influential figure he recalled was Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid whose progressive thoughts on Islam defied the mainstream opinion during the 1980s.

But when he first got interested doing something was when President Soeharto shut down the country's leading weekly magazine Tempo in 1994.

"I got really angry," he said. "Even though I wasn't connected with Tempo... I don't know, it just wasn't fair," he said, explaining he had enjoyed the magazine's frank articles at a time when political openness was rare.

He said he took part in protests against Tempo's closure, and this led him to join the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISA).

Established by noted Tempo journalist Goenawan Mohammad in 1995, ISAI promotes freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

Religion was not ISAI's concern at first, however JIL later took it up in the same spirit as ISAI. Said Ulil, "we feared the rise of religious radicalism could threaten the freedom of expression."

His work and ideas are an eye-opener for Muslims here. For too long, most people just thought that the revivalists were the only ones around offering a change, albeit change that would turn the clock back several centuries.