Friday, January 27, 2006

PESANTREN COMMUNITIES 'UNABLE' TO ACCEPT PLURALISM, TOLERANCE

First published in The Jakarta Post, January 26, 2006

PESANTREN COMMUNITIES 'UNABLE' TO ACCEPT PLURALISM, TOLERANCE

Alpha Amirrachman,
Jakarta

The recent research conducted by the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP), the Indonesian Islamic Boarding School Association (BKSPPI) and AusAID, in which I was involved, shows that many pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), both traditional (salaf) and modern, in West Java reject pluralism as they perceive this as an acceptance of the relativity of religion -- or rejecting the notion that Islam is the absolute truth.

For the folks at the boarding schools, pluralism is ideologically unacceptable, and they wholly support the controversial fatwa issued by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) which bans secularism, pluralism and liberalism.

According to Diana L. Eck (2001) in her influential book A new religious America: How a 'Christian country' has become the world's most religiously diverse nation, "Pluralism is not an ideology, not a leftist scheme, and not a free-form relativism. Rather, pluralism is the dynamic process which we engage with one another in and through our very deepest differences." She also explains how Islam is growing rapidly and freely in the United States, side by side with Judaism and Christianity.

It follows that pluralism does not mean an abandonment of principles; we merely accept others' differences. Is that not beautiful? But why do the pesantren communities reject pluralism? Why has the spirit of intolerance strengthened among them? We could not really find a complete answer during the research.

A noted Indonesianist, Prof. M.C. Ricklefs of the National University of Singapore recently held the Indonesians in attendance, during a seminar to discuss the ICIP research finding, spellbound, not only because of his deep knowledge of the history of pesantren in Indonesia back to the 1800s, but also because of his eloquent Bahasa Indonesia. However, I could not help but notice that some of the Indonesian faces in the audience began to show anxiety when Prof. Ricklefs proposed that all education here become fully secular.

He argued that multiculturalism had been a success in Australia because many religious schools in the country, including the Protestant schools where he sent his children, adopted a policy of 90 percent secular education and only 10 percent religious education (he later admitted that the percentage is actually speculative as he did not do research on it).

Some of those in the audience politely rejected his proposal, and also refused his notion of liberalism as they misunderstood it as an "uncontrolled freedom". Even though Prof. Ricklefs stated during his presentation that liberalism means giving freedom "as much as possible" to people to develop their potential with appreciation of the rights of others.

Clearly there was problem of understanding terminology -- something that is fittingly addressed by Prof. Machasin of Islamic State University Sunan Kalijaga of Yogyakarta who reawakened us as to why many Muslims rejected the ideas of pluralism, liberalism and secularism.

He argued that there is a strong tradition in Islam of always referring to the texts, rather than to concepts first. He shared his experience during the congress of Nahdlatul Ulama when he proposed that the study of hermeneutics should be include in the recommendation. But others rejected this, arguing that such a term comes from "the West" and it was used by the West to deconstruct their Bible. He lamented the fact that if he had used the word tafsir , which translates as hermeneutics, he would have had not problems convincing the audience.

Islam, actually has a rich history of pluralism as it spans a long period of time and an abundance of diverse thoughts, and many of them were sometimes at odds with each other. Therefore, trying to find a reference of something that seems to be new is actually not a difficult endeavor.

While the development of the many pesantren in Java was shaped by local culture, it was also molded by values and tradition that were rigorously and consistently nurtured by pesantren leaders, meaning that every pesantren has its own uniqueness, again showing pluralism among pesantren. However, due to the great influence these schools usually have toward their surrounding communities, this contains positive and negative sides. It is positive if the pesantren can provide an alternative education that is beneficial for the surrounding community such as life skills in addition to religious studies. But it is negative if the pesantren decided to reject new ideas that are actually beneficial not only for the students but also for the surrounding community. So, it is imperative to have wisdom by conducting due diligence before persuading pesantren to accept and digest new ideas.

But how is respecting differences specifically addressed in Islam?

We can therefore infer that pluralism, as a mode to perceive plurality and to voluntarily accept differences is something that is inherently entrenched in Islam. The Koran clearly states that the noblest attitude in addressing differences is to "strive as in a race in all virtues" -- constructive competition to do good deeds, and that final truth belongs only to God.

Prof. Ricklefs could only grin at me on the sidelines of the seminar, "If only the Liberal Islamic Network changed its name into Arabic...", a reference to the Indonesian group that has come under fire recently by local fundamentalists after it too was singled out in the MUI fatwa.


The writer is a research fellow at the International Center for Islam and Pluralism and a lecturer at Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa State University.

2 comments:

Alpha Amirrachman said...

The Jakarta Post. February 9, 2006

Accepting pluralism is hard to do
M. Adhiatera, Jakarta

It was with great interest that I read the article by Alpha Amirrachman, which appeared in this newspaper on Jan. 26, entitled Pesantren Communities Unable to Accept Pluralism, Tolerance. It mentions that "there is a strong tradition in Islam of always referring to the texts, rather than to concept first", pointing to one of the reasons for pesantren's reluctance in accepting the concept of pluralism.

A similar view is echoed by prominent Muslim scholar Siti Musdah Mulia. She said that there are some absolute teachings of Islam that cannot be rejected, but that the rest are subject to debate (ikhtilaf).

However, I observe that this lack of "flexibility in the interpretation of holy books", or this "strong tradition of always referring to the text, not concept", is found in many Indonesians from every religion.

When I lived in Europe, I often discussed the Bible with Western Christians. From these discussions I got the impression that Western Christians are much more open and critical when discussing the Bible, especially Protestants.

The first conclusion I came to when discussing the Bible with them was that almost all of them shared the opinion that the Bible was the indisputable message from God to Man.

The second conclusion, however, was that this message was sent by God and written by humans, who have limitations and frailties. Thus, the Bible consists of moral guidance, basic concepts (which come from God) and many folk stories that are open to debate (because it was written by humans).

The fact that the Bible as a whole consists of many manuscripts, from Genesis to Revelations, written over a more than 1,000-year period, must be taken into account.

But some church practices, including the role of women as priests, which is forbidden by the Catholic church but not by others, is based on interpretations of the Bible. The Catholic Church bases its policy on the Bible, while churches that permit women priests also base their policy on the same Bible.

To promote pluralism as discussed by Alpha Amirrachman's article is not an easy task, especially in a paternalistic and feudalistic culture where the voice of the elite must be obeyed, and whose voice constitutes the truth.

Pluralism encourages people to embrace each other without too much hierarchy. Pluralism also encourages openness to talk and discuss things that may be taboo, and to interpret Holy Books in a manner different from the elite.

Thus, from the viewpoint of some elites, this jeopardizes "the true essence" of their religion, and this is one of the obstacles to the acceptance of the concept of pluralism.

Why do I mention this? Because for the Vatican (Catholic Church), formal acceptance of pluralism is relatively new in its 2000-year history. In 1962, through Vatican Conciliation II (1962-1965), the Catholic Church formally accepted and recognized the truth of other religions. Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus is the jargon of the Catholic Church before Vatican Conciliation II.

This happens because there are words of Jesus in the Bible where He says; "I am the savior and way of life. No one can come to the Father if not through Me. John 14:6). Hence, the Catholic Church interprets this to mean that if you want to go to heaven you must be a Christ follower and thus a Christian. Otherwise, you go to hell.

Without being pessimistic, accepting the concept of pluralism means accepting the truth in others religion, and this is always extremely difficult.

The writer is a lecturer at Trisakti University

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