Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Indonesia’s response to a provocative lecture on Islam

In the tableau of America’s troubled relationship with Muslims around the world, its relationship with Indonesia has been looked to with much optimism. But to what extent has America successfully engaged with Indonesia’s Muslim population?

Speaking at Yogyakarta’s State Islamic University last Wednesday, Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University addressed some of these issues in a lecture he gave on a wide range of past, present, and possible future political crises between the West and Muslim-majority nations.

It is bad US foreign policy, Esposito asserted multiple times, that creates most of the ill will we read in the headlines every day. Balancing this with guarded optimism, he noted that polls of global Muslim populations have shown that most Muslims want exactly the kinds of democratic reforms that Western nations, at least in their official talking points, advocate.

Elaborating on the disconnection, he said that many Muslims have “great admiration for what America and the West stand for, but not what they often do.”

The issue of “what they often do” was evidently a significant stumbling block for some in the
audience who, during the question and answer period, expressed profound suspicions of the United States.

More than one audience member — almost all college educated, if not college educators — intimated versions of beliefs I have heard in many different settings in Indonesia: that Islamic reform movements are really CIA-back plots to destroy Islam from the inside; that academics and talking heads like Esposito are out to destroy Islam.

Lines were drawn. On the one side you have young Indonesian Muslims, suspicious of America; on the other side you have academics who frequently have to deal with these emotional responses, responses which will not yield to intellectual engagement. It’s a circuit of distrust and dismissal, and it seems irredeemable.

However absurd the conspiracy theories might seem to a Westerner, a legitimate fear often motivates this emotional response in many Indonesian Muslims.

The danger is being labeled an apostate for subscribing to ideas or policies from the West. Apostasy is one of the greatest, unforgivable crimes in Islam, and there are an abundance of Muslim commentators who jump at the opportunity to denounce ideological or political opponents with the weighty charge.

A similar psychology has evolved in America, which has its own version of apostasy, vaguely connected to the Christian roots of my nation’s founders.

Those who express sympathy for Muslims — even the most well intentioned Muslim projects like Cordoba House in Manhattan — are attacked as being un-American.

What makes a real Muslim? What makes a real American? The issue is one of authenticity, and our attempts to get at it often have been mired in too empirical an approach. We read the foundational texts

(the Koran, the US Constitution) and try to establish what they “really say.”

This is an easier in the case of the constitution because it was written recently, because we have greater familiarity with the historical conditions at the time of writing, and because it was written by human beings.

But a document of divine inspiration — like the Koran, like the Bible — has, by virtue of being divinely inspired, unknowable origins. Historically, attempts to establish hegemonic interpretations of religious texts have not met with success.

The choice is between attempting something which, historically, has been impossible and adopting
a more reasonable approach, one that does not contribute to acrimonious distinctions that separate
a noble “us” from a loathsome “them.”

On both sides, most often that “loathsome ‘them’” exists only abstractly, known at second-hand, and figures little into the decisions we make in daily life.

Rather than subscribe to unwieldy generalizations that obfuscate the relevance of religion in our daily lives, we might do better to scale down our opinions to matters that we can address firsthand.

The fact is that many pejorative opinions non-Muslim Americans have about Muslims are unfounded.

The fact is that many pejorative opinions Indonesian Muslims have about Americans are unfounded. Further, these opinions have no positive application, only aggravating mistrust and resentment.

In pursuit of the larger goal of peace, each of us would do well to examine what prejudices we have received at second hand, and consider how, when we speak negatively about things about which we have no direct knowledge, we often add to the strength of unhelpful generalizations.

Many pejorative opinions non-Muslim Americans have about Muslims are unfounded.

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