Friday, November 30, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 30, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Liberal Egyptian Koranic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd had no idea his presence here in Indonesia for a seminar would offend hard-line Muslim groups.

Under pressure from the groups, a high-ranking official at the Religious Affairs Ministry sent a text message to the committee that read: "... We suggest Abu Zayd cancel his trip ... in spite of last minute advice, this reminder is crucial and final. We are not responsible for his attendance..."

Zayd then canceled his appearance at the meeting. Hence, one should not underestimate the antidemocratic elements spreading throughout Indonesia, which seem ready to kill its newly found freedoms.

Born in Qufaha near Tanta, Egypt on July 10, 1943, Zayd earned his bachelor degree in Arabic studies from Cairo University in 1972, and later his master's (1977) and doctorate (1981) in Islamic Studies from the same university. His dissertation is on the interpretation of the Koran.

In 1982, he joined the faculty of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Cairo University as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1987.

Nevertheless, Zayd suffered persecution for his view of the Koran as a religious, mythical, literary work. After his promotion to the rank of full professor in 1995 and a hisbah (Committee for Virtue and the Propagation of Islam) trial against him by a fundamentalist Islamic scholar, Zayd was declared a murtad (apostate) by an Egyptian court.

He was consequently declared divorced from his wife, Cairo University French Literature professor Ibthal Younis.

"The verdict is there but the Egyptian government never implemented the verdict against me," Zayd said during a recent interview, just a few hours before he left the country.

He added that he and his wife had challenged the verdict before deciding to leave the country and live in the Netherlands.

He currently holds the Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University for Humanistics, Utrecht, the Netherlands.

"I have never been expelled by the Egyptian government," he said, adding that he freely visits his country since he still holds Egyptian citizenship and carries his country's passport.

"And my wife returned several times to Egypt for the supervision of master's and PhD students at the French department of the Cairo University."

Zayd was dismayed and confounded by the unprecedented treatment he endured here.

"As many as 10 of my books have been translated into Bahasa Indonesia and I supervised many Indonesian students who were sent by the Religious Affairs Ministry and some have become professors."

He said the motives of the Muslim fundamentalists who had moved against him in Egypt had been mixed.

"I was highly critical toward the development of the so-called Islamic investment system at that time," he recalled.

Zayd said many ulema have become "religious advisors" in a system where a "highly suspicious" 25 percent interest rate was floated.

"I uncovered the lies and tricks ... they stole a huge amount of money from people who have never received anything, even until now," he said, "so they moved against me by hook or by crook and by making a lot of noise about my academic works."

He argued that the science of interpretation was deeply rooted in Islamic tradition and was not something utterly borrowed from the West.

"Shall we wait for God to interpret the Koran for us?" said Zayd, who received the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought in Berlin in 2005.

"Humans can interpret the Koran only with their human capacity, which can be empowered by knowledge. If we are ignorant God will be very angry ..."

Despite the accusation he is a "Westernized" theologist, Zayd can be very critical of the West.

He said the war against terror and the subsequent expressions, such as "our values" and "our culture", entailed the notion that others were "uncivilized".

"And I don't believe the U.S. is working to spread its democratic values because interests dictate its policy," he said of what he dubs the "new empire project of the U.S."

He cited the example of how the U.S. had supported Pakistan's Musharraf who had illegally annulled the constitution and arrested activists, while at the same time slapping a total economic embargo on military-ruled Myanmar.

He said that before the failure of the U.S. in Iraq, the U.S. had tried to "democratize" the dictatorial regimes in the region, but now the U.S. was forced to cooperate with the "moderates" in the region.

"No nation can install democracy without the working of internal power, like here in Indonesia with its student movement," Zayd pointed out.

"Besides, democracy can result in a new government that the U.S. might not like," said Zayd, who supervised master's and PhD students at the University of Leiden as well.

"But when speak about the culture of the West; we speak about ideas and philosophies ... about possible shared values ... about a free market of an exchange of ideas.

"Here the distinction between the East and West is sometimes ideologically emphasized," he said.

"Hence, the differentiation of the different aspects of the West is important, we don't need to take the West as it is and reject the West as it is. Besides there is no single 'West', when the European Union sides with dictators, for example, I would be against it at this specific point, because I am with freedom and justice."

"So I have to be critically engaged with every culture, even with my own culture," he said.

Zayd believes no culture will contradict the values of human justice, political and religious freedoms. He says the denunciation of these values in any cultural context is an instrument of protecting particular political powers in order for certain groups to maintain privileges at the political cost of others.

He said universal values, which are often regarded as purely Western, are in fact part of the human struggle for peace and justice.

And he holds the view that a humanistic interpretation of the Koran can account for social change within Muslim societies, whose development has been stalled by the dogmatic interpretation of certain ulema "who want to keep their power as the only authority of Islamic knowledge by manipulating both the people and the political regime."

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