The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, June 01, 2007


Muhammad Nidzhom Hidayatullah

It's one thing to preach tolerance – quite another to put it into practice, as Muhammad Nidzhom Hidayatullah is discovering as he faces the greatest test of his philosophy to date.

A few weeks ago an angry man arrived at Nidzhom's Malang office in central East Java. Nidzhom is executive secretary of the local branch of the peak Islamic body Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) (Indonesian Muslim Scholars' Council).

The visitor was carrying a VCD he'd been given that ridiculed and vilified Islam and had allegedly been made by Christians. Nidzhom knew immediately that if it fell into the hands of hotheads it could cause an outbreak of church burning and assaults on Christians.

The 10-minute video shows about 40 people in a room, most dressed in traditional Muslim clothes – the women wearing headscarves, the men in sarongs and caps. At the front a preacher waves a book that appears to be a copy of the Koran.

At one stage in the proceedings the book is put on the floor. In a grainy and shakily-shot scene the participants form a ring and condemn the text with angry words and gestures.

Captions at the head of the video claim it shows a teaching session conducted last December at a hotel in the nearby town of Batu. It was part of a weeklong workshop run by the Lembaga Pelayanan Mahasiswa Indonesia (LPMI) (Indonesian student ministry.)

The caption also said that the people in the video wearing Muslim garb were Christians. Although the LPMI is supposed to be a student organization the participants in the video look middle aged. The video doesn't appear to have made it to the Internet but copies are not hard to find in Malang and are reported to be circulating in other towns.

Nidzhom kept his cool and pondered whether the VCD was an isolated event by a fringe group of rogue Christians, or a sinister attempt by others to stir sectarian strife by purporting to be the LPMI. He also wondered whether the workshop had been taped, copied and distributed by Muslims.

But these weren't priority issues; the immediate task was to defuse emotions in a society where real or imagined insults to a religion can unleash hate and violence. Lives and property were at risk.

(In 1996 more than 20 churches were trashed or burned in East Java. Further destruction and killings occurred three years later.)

Nidzhom urgently discussed the issue with senior members of the MUI in East Java and Jakarta. They consulted the Koran and the hadis (the collection of stories relating to the deeds of the Prophet, and a major source for determining religious issues.)

One of the stories tells of Muhammad going to the town of Thaif to preach and being stoned by opponents of his teaching. Instead of retaliating with force and anger, the Prophet said: 'God, please forgive them because they don't understand what they are doing.'

"We must learn from the life of the Prophet," Nidzhom said. "We were feeling very angry but we could not express our feelings. We must control our emotions and show that this is the way He would have handled the situation.

"If we take action against the Christians they will react and the fighting will be never-ending.

"I understand and realize how people feel, but this is a time when we must be wise. In Islam we should not be condemning other religions. Malang is a good town with a mature approach to religion."

He also distributed copies of the VCD to mosques, a move that has been criticized by some Christians because it could have created widespread outrage and further inflamed tensions. However Nidzhom argued that exaggerated rumors were already spreading about the video and had to be corrected.

He said it was being wrongly claimed that Christians were stamping on the Koran and only by showing the video could this slur be disproved.

"Muslims are under attack by globalization and secularism," he said. "People must know what we are up against. After they'd seen it the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) - a major Islamic organization with a claimed membership of 40 million - told their followers to ignore the provocation and cool down.

"We accepted that this (VCD) was from a radical group that misunderstood religion, and that such people exist in all faiths. Indonesian society tends towards fundamentalism."

He then called a meeting at MUI headquarters of the Forum Komunikasi Umum (FKU) a discussion group of all faith leaders. The Protestants condemned the video and told the meeting that the VCD was the action of a small minority outside the mainstream churches.

They said the actions of the LPMI were wrong and the case was handed to the police. Nidzhom said church leaders had apologized and would work hard to ensure it didn't happen again. (See sidebar)

The self-effacing Nidzhom, 42, said he felt uncomfortable being called a wise peacemaker, though he agreed the situation had been tense with the potential for serious strife. He claimed it could still go bad – particularly if the police do not move quickly on the case.

"God created big and small people and gave wisdom to all," he said. "I consulted with learned men and I also listened to the voices of drivers and other workers on the street.

"Although I believe all faiths have a place in society and we have been created by God to be diverse, I don't want to be called a pluralist. Many say this is not suitable for Indonesia. When you give people labels it narrows thinking.

"We must all appreciate our position in the community. If we respect others and they respect us then all problems can be solved."

Before taking his present job three years ago Nidzhom was a lecturer in religion at the Muhammadiyah University in Malang. He said he had read the Bible and other non-Islamic holy books and had drawn his personal philosophy from reading widely.

"This is a sick time in Indonesia with a great gap between rich and poor," he said. "There is so much greed and concern with status among our leaders.

"God does not see what we are wearing or the type of handphone we are using, but looks inside our hearts and knows what we are doing.

"I've sent my three children to under-developed schools so they know how the disadvantaged are living. When I was sick I went to a third class hospital so I could understand how poor people are suffering.

"I have tried to give my life to society. My prayers are simple: Please God, just give us enough for daily life."

(Sidebar 1)


Pastor Johan Haryono, a member of the FKU who attended the meeting with Nidzhom, said church leaders had offered unqualified apologies to Muslims for the behavior of the people at the LPMI meeting.

Last Saturday (14 April) night about 3,000 worshippers from several different Christian churches attended a service in Malang and applauded speakers who apologized to Muslims for the 'event'.

"However the LPMI – also known as Campus Crusade - has been running for more than 50 years and is good," Haryono said outside the service "But they have walked too far, gone beyond the boundaries, been too emotional.

"To be an evangelist is to love, but they are committing blasphemy against the Koran. That is evil. I have no idea why they did this.

"The tragedy is that we've lost the trust of Muslims and this must be retrieved. We have to improve our internal networking so this doesn't happen again.

"We are grateful to all the Muslim leaders. What they did was very good. They kept the balance. It's finished now – it's up to the police."

(At the time of writing 11 people allegedly involved in the LPMI event were reportedly been investigated by the police, though no charges have been laid. In Indonesia disturbing public order by insulting religion is a jailing offence.)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 June 07)


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