Indonesia: Essay: "Indonesian intellectuals must raise their voices" by Al Makin

Jakarta Post
"Every edict pronounced should be based on the expertise of that field, not limited merely to the halal (allowed) versus haram (prohibited) paradigm. Enlightenment is what Indonesian society needs."
"Indeed, it is weird, if not ridiculous, that the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) recently barred Prof. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, from speaking at the Annual Conference on Islamic Studies in Riau and another international seminar at Islamic University Malang.
The reason for the ban is that some local Muslim organizations do not want Professor Abu Zayd to speak, suspecting elements of "apostasy" would be brought to Indonesia by this avant-garde Egyptian scholar. It goes without saying this argument is supported by radical ideologies.

The oppressive and harsh attitudes of this local MUI leads to nothing but increasing the awful track record of this institution in the recent years as clumsy in responding the current situation. It also tends to show MUI's failure to grasp what is really going on in this sophisticated world.

MUI has failed to guide common people to the better and educated Indonesian society. Instead of performing this task, such as by teaching this society about the values of tolerance in order to become a more open and democratic society, MUI has taken the advice of radical groups to gain sympathy from them.

The more this situation continues, the more radical MUI becomes; so much so, that no one can differentiate between radicalism and MUI.

One may be inclined to relate this tragedy to the totalitarianism confronting Saeful Badar -- who happens to be the recent recipient of a medal for democracy from the International Association of Political Consultants. In August, his satirical prose piece Malaikat (Angel) appeared in the Pikiran Rakyat daily in Bandung and he was threatened and intimidated by radical groups.

Worse still, Rahim Asyik Purwanto lost his job as editor of the daily. The radical groups once again intimidated the daily due to their narrow-minded false assumption that the prose conveyed religious blasphemy.

Among official and yet blatant vandalism in Indonesia is the burning and destroying of books on Indonesian history in many cities by many local governments. These books are assumed to contain misleading information about the uprising of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965.

Sadly, the voices of intellectuals -- to name a few -- like Asvi Warman Adam (a known historian), Goenawan Mohamad (a leading journalist), Franz Magnis Suseno (a true religious leader), Ariel Heryanto (a political scientist) and Ganjar Pranowo (a politician) are never heard.

The sinful acts of our society, indeed, seem to reach the level of unbearable when one remembers the official threat to Bersihar Lubis, a writer who will be brought to court for an "annoying" op-ed column appearing in the national media. The story goes that the justice in that case felt insulted by the word "dumb" in a piece protesting book burning.

Returning to the case of Prof. Abu Zayd, just bet this local MUI doesn't fully grasp Abu Zayd's thought, which exists in an academic context very different from theirs. These highly academic works promote a new understanding of our holy scripture, the Koran. One needs to understand philosophy, hermeneutics, and literary criticism -- among other fields -- to follow the arguments.

For that matter, MUI, needs could benefit from some fresh thinking, at all levels. It would be better either to accommodate the younger and more progressive Muslim scholars in making certain decisions or else let them join the institution.

Every edict pronounced should be based on the expertise of that field, not limited merely to the halal (allowed) versus haram (prohibited) paradigm. Enlightenment is what Indonesian society needs.

It is urgent, indeed, that academic activities in Indonesia, are given protection by those in power. There should be space for such activities in secure universities and, ideally, no one should interfere with them."

By: Al Makin
Heidelberg, Germany

7 December 2007

The writer is lecturer at State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta and a Ph.D Candidate with Deutsche Academische Austausch Dientsat sponsorship at Heidelberg University. He can be reached at