A trip to Indonesia home to more than 200 million Muslims reveals a faith that hardly resembles the one Americans have come to know in the blood-soaked years since 9/11.
Courtesy Stephen Prothero, USA Today
[Stephen Prothero is the chair of the department of religion at Boston University and the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know And Doesnâ€™t.]
After the 9/11 attacks, Americans put out a call for moderate Islam. Many Muslims answered that call, but few Americans heard them. Early this month, I traveled to Asia to see what Islam looks like on the ground there, and to listen to what Muslims themselves have to say about their religion, terrorism and the United States. What I found surprised me.
I went to Asia because Islam is by no means a Middle Eastern phenomenon. In fact, Asia is home to most of the worldâ€™s Muslims. I focused on Indonesia because there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in any other country roughly three times as many as in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
But what makes Indonesia strategically important to the United States is not simply its huge Muslim population (roughly 200 million) but the fact that Indonesian Muslims are by no means anti-Western.
There are fundamentalists in Indonesia, to be sure, but they account for roughly one in every 10 citizens there. The overwhelming majority of Indonesiaâ€™s Muslims are moderates, and about one in five are progressives.
Fundamentalists typically want to see their countries follow the path of Saudi Arabia or Iran in instituting an Islamic legal code referred to as shariah.
Moderates and progressives typically favor the separation of mosque and state, and they enthusiastically affirm democracy. Progressives distinguish themselves from moderates by speaking out more forcefully for religious pluralism and equal rights for women, and by drawing more generously on the thinking of intellectuals from Europe, Latin America and the USA.
The fringe, not the core
Although scholars might quibble about these definitions and the portion of the Indonesian public to assign to each, what is plain is that in Indonesia fundamentalism is fringe. A survey released in May by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute observes that â€œIslamist parties have failed to attract votesâ€ in Indonesia, which â€œtoday has one of the worldâ€™s most successful track records in combating terrorism.â€
The Muslims I spoke with during my visit to Yogyakarta, a cultural and intellectual center of this vast island archipelago, came from both the moderate and progressive wings. All are eagerly adapting Islam to local circumstances, mixing its ancient traditions with those of their own. They see no conflict between Islam and civil society.
During my days in Indonesia, I did not see a single woman covered from head to foot in the chador so characteristic of Iran, and in the rural areas I visited many women did not wear any head covering at all. According to â€œWho Speaks for Islam?â€ a Gallup poll of Muslims worldwide released earlier this year, 88% of Indonesians believe that a woman should be allowed to do any job for which she is qualified. In Indonesia, I heard about female imams (prayer leaders) and about marriages between Christians and Muslims. Repeatedly, I was told that Muslims reject any coercion in religion, that they view not only Jews and Christians as fellow â€œpeople of the bookâ€ but Hindus and Buddhists as well.
Religious pluralism, especially, seems a key concept here, where the influences of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity have wafted across Indonesiaâ€™s 17,000-plus islands for centuries. Why did God create the world? According to the principle of an Islamic school in Yogyakarta, itâ€™s because God prefers multiplicity to unity because â€œdifference is good.â€
The Muslims I encountered scoff at any notion of a â€œclash of civilizationsâ€ between Islam and the West. Any clash of civilizations that exists, they tell me, is between fundamentalists of all faiths and their liberal and moderate opponents. And in that clash, the vast majority of Americans are in common cause with the vast majority of Indonesians.
During my visit to Indonesia, Muslims pointed out many important commonalities between our two countries. Both are huge geographically. Both have ethnically and racially diverse populations. Both provide constitutional guarantees for religious freedom.
Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party nomination while I was in Indonesia, and everyone I met wanted to talk about him. Indonesians are rooting for Obama not because he is some secret Muslim (they know he is a Christian) but because he spent some of his formative years in their capital city of Jakarta. One of my Indonesian interviewees, citing a local tradition of how family networks can be extended not only through marriage but also through political regimes, went so far as to suggest that if Obama is elected, Americans and Indonesians will become kin.
During my interviews, I always asked what Indonesians would like to convey to Americans about Islam. Repeatedly, my interlocutors returned to the question of war and peace. â€œIslam is not about violence,â€ they told me. â€œIslam is not terrorism. Islam is peace.â€
Justice. Equality. Democracy.
This did not surprise me. What did surprise me was how American all these people sounded. I heard repeatedly about equality and democracy and humanitarianism and tolerance and reason and human rights, as if I were speaking with 21st century reincarnations of Americaâ€™s Founders. When I asked Zuli Qodir, an intellectual of a highly popular moderate group called Muhammadiyah, what Islam is all about, he began with, â€œIslam is justice. And equality. And democracy.â€
Just before I left, a progressive student activist in Yogyakarta went so far as to assert that in some respects, â€œthe American people are more Islamic than the Indonesian people.â€ While political corruption is endemic in Indonesia, he explained, Americans respect the rule of law, viewing such corruption as something to be rooted out rather than something to be tolerated.
Americans have good reasons to be apprehensive about Islam. Islamic radicals bombed two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002, killing 202 people. And the men who hijacked three jets on 9/11 shouted â€œAllahu Akbarâ€ (â€œGod is greatâ€) as they steered those planes toward their targets.
But jihadists are one thing, and ordinary Muslims are quite another.
Americans of good will know this. What we also need to know is that in the fight against Islamic radicalism, one of our key allies could be Islam itself.