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

Tuesday, June 12, 2007



Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia.
Ed: Greg Fealy and Virginia Hooker
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
540 pages

Let not your hatred of others cause you to act unjustly against them. The Koran.

Despite this injunction, a minority of Muslims believes they have divine licence to kill unbelievers. The hurt they've done has been far greater than the destruction of people and property within the blast zones of their evildoing.

Their actions have turned the West against Islam. Hatred has nurtured hatred to the point where a Christian political leader in Australia – once the Land of the Fair Go - is now calling for a ban on Muslim migrants and getting good support.

Many Muslims seem indifferent. Religion is not a popularity contest. Who cares what others think?

Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, does: "Never in Islam's history have the actions of so few of its followers caused the religion and its community of believers to be such an abomination in the eyes of others."

Ibrahim's unequivocal condemnation is rare. The standard dismissal put forward by moderate Muslims and Western politicians keen to hose down sectarian rage is that the fundamentalists are fringe dwellers, unrepresentative of the majority.

Islam, the apologists say, means 'peace' and 'submission', while 'jihad' refers to the struggle within, not a holy war. Moslems are tolerant and compassionate, and can live alongside those of other faiths.

That reasoning is now running thin, for too many prominent Muslims are saying the opposite. When Australians think Islam, they see Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the alleged eminence grise of violent jihad. His views were broadcast on television and have been reproduced in this book:

"Allah has divided humanity into two segments, namely the followers of Allah and the followers of Satan …we would rather die than follow that which you worship. We do not want to cooperate … we reject all your beliefs, we reject all your ideologies, we reject all of your teachings that are associated with social issues, economics or beliefs.

"Between you and us there will forever be a ravine of hate and we will be enemies until you follow Allah's law."

Distressful – though allowable in a democracy. But there needs to be counter-views delivered by influential Muslims who are prepared to trash such gross intolerance with moral and theological force. Not too many find the courage, leaving the field to the loonies.

Faced with this sort of rhetoric, backed by media images of white-clad 'holy warriors' waving fists, shouting slogans and acting with impunity, no wonder shallow thinkers equate Islam with terror with Indonesia.

How can that 'ravine of hate' ever be bridged? Certainly not by bland words and soothing comments that are at odds with reality.

Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia doesn't go soft on the hard issues, as the quotes above show. Although it has been compiled from academic research backed by Australian government funds, this is not the transcript of a multi-faith love-in where handpicked moderates make motherhood statements, then pose for happy-snaps.

The subtitle is A Contemporary Sourcebook, so don't expect a cover-to-cover read. This isn't a Karen Armstrong history of the faith. It's a collection of texts (many little known or previously unavailable in English) with commentaries.

This is the volume to turn to when you need facts and opinions about Islam in this geographical area, and ideas to feed critical thinking. It's not for those concrete minds that already know that their way to salvation is the one and only path.

Although there are chapters on Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries in the region with Muslim populations, the emphasis is on Indonesia and Malaysia.

It's a book for those with a lust for learning, who want to hear all sides of an issue and who are fluent in English. It also has an excellent glossary, useful because so many terms are Arabic.

If you're looking for signs of hope – or words that bolster your prejudices - they're all here. The index has only two references to love, but many more to war and terror. Maybe an examination of Christian fundamentalism in the US would glean similar results.

The great issue in the 19th century was the separation of church and state, now a pillar of Western society. For those who can't understand why others would think differently, read Greg Fealy's chapter on Islam, State and Governance.

Gender issues are prominent in modern Western debate. For the reader seeking proof that Islam values men above women there's an excellent section by academic Sally White. This examines tracts – mostly written by men - on how women should behave and manage 'the harmonious family'.

But as the commentaries reveal, these proscriptions should be read against analyses of the texts that are used to uphold the oppression. The principal verse is 'men are the leaders of women' - but other translations aren't so rigid, claiming the critical word is ''maintainers'.

And even if 'leaders' remains, progressives argue it doesn't mean a man can regard housework as unimportant, for leadership includes 'love, protection, education, guidance and humane authority.'

So inevitably it all comes down to interpretation and the way we use the intellects God gave us. Religion defies easy understanding; it has multiple spokespeople, wise and unwise, offering infinite versions. It's unworthy of one-liners whether shouted by the self-styled Defenders of Islam or Christian Bible-thumping bigots.

Illustrating the complexity is a useful extract from an interview that goes to the heart of the matter.

It's between Terry Lane, a prominent Christian and one of Australian broadcasting's most perceptive journalists, and Zainah Anwar, from the Malaysian organization Sisters in Islam:

Lane: Do you mean that this (the Koran) is literally the revealed word of God?

Anwar: Yes, definitely.

Lane: You say 'Yes, definitely', but if I make a comparison between Islam and Christianity, Christianity only lost its ability to control the lives of women when that very notion of revealed truth was rejected.

Anwar: Well, you see there is a difference between what is revealed by God – and that is the words in the Qu'ran (Koran) that comes from God, … and what is human understanding of the word of God ... the human agency, the human intervention.

So coming full circle is the question – what human agency? The clerics (male) and the governments they influence. Indonesia is a highly religious society where regular public affirmations of faith are expected of politicians, and all citizens are required to follow an approved religion. Many find their identity through Islam.

The power of the clerics is obvious; alleged contraventions of the Constitution regarding the introduction of Sharia law in some districts have yet to be tackled by the national government. Law reforms proposed by leading Muslim women that will give women more freedom have not been introduced.

Though the insular graybeards still seem to control public debate on religion in Indonesia from their castles of dogma, other heads are now peeping above the parapet and from the pages of this book. They are brave indeed, risking the charge that they've been westernized.

Today that's a label almost as damning as the tag 'communist' used in the Soeharto era to crush dissent.

For all its faults the West is prepared to publish alternative views as Voices of Islam proves. Even Bali bomber Imam Samudra is given a good run and slanders himself neatly, proving there's no need to censor the extremists:

'I really am a troublesome demon who reeks of death. But don't misconstrue this; it doesn't mean that I'm an antichrist or paranoid. I'm just normal, you know.'

This book is a major and balanced contribution to the most important debate of our times. I hope it gets translated into Indonesian so it becomes more accessible.

(First published in The Sunday Post 10 June 07)



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