ISIS antidote? New York Times examines moderate Indonesian Muslim group

The faith-based hate of Islamic State has been lacking a counter-narrative, and an Indonesia-based movement may be developing one, says an
absorbing report in the New York Times

The Nahdlatul Ulama movement holds nothing back in the counter-attack, as the Times tells it. N.U. says the extremists are shallow, savage, unfaithful to God, even "mired in filth." And it challenges the ISIS claim that there is only one way to be Muslim.

This 1,300-word Times article is laudably ghost-free, providing a (mostly) thorough understanding of the issues, including religious ones. It offers background on the violence that has often plagued the world's largest Islamic nation. And it directly quotes several leaders of N.U., even its top man:

“The spread of a shallow understanding of Islam renders this situation critical, as highly vocal elements within the Muslim population at large — extremist groups — justify their harsh and often savage behavior by claiming to act in accord with God’s commands, although they are grievously mistaken,” said A. Mustofa Bisri, the spiritual leader of the group, Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian Muslim organization that claims more than 50 million members.
“According to the Sunni view of Islam,” he said, “every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion, and foster the perfection of human nature.”

N.U.'s main weapon thus far is Rahmat Islam Nusantara (The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam), a 90-minute documentary that blends music, poetry, history and interviews with Indonesian Islamic scholars. They "challenge and denounce the Islamic State's interpretations of the Quran and Hadith," the story says. And it links to a colorful, two-and-a-half-minute trailer for the film.

We also read some background on ISIS theology and its roots in the Wahhabi movement. (However, the Times missteps in calling Wahhabis "fundamentalist," without defining that subjective term.) The story says ISIS "takes its cues from medieval Islamic jurisprudence, where slavery and execution of prisoners was accepted." Interestingly, N.U. leaders accept the medieval statements "but argue that Islamic law needs to be updated to 21st-century norms."

At times, the story verges on p.r. and marketing in praising Indonesia and moderate Islam:

In a way, it should not be surprising that this message comes from Indonesia, the home of Islam Nusantara, widely seen as one of the most progressive Islamic movements in the world. The movement — its name is Indonesian for “East Indies Islam” — dates back more than 500 years and promotes a spiritual interpretation of Islam that stresses nonviolence, inclusiveness and acceptance of other religions.
Analysts say the theology developed organically in a place where Hinduism and Buddhism were the primary religions before Islam arrived around the 13th century. Indonesian Islam blended with local religious beliefs and traditions, creating a pluralistic society despite having a Muslim majority.
Indonesia today has more than 190 million Muslims, but also has a secular government and influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities.

As you can see, the Times also praises the ideal of pluralism, a kind of religious utopia -- at least, for a newspaper in America's northeastern megalopolis.

But the story also acknowledges difficulties in the initiative. It says the campaign "comes at a time when Islam is at war with itself over central theological questions." It points out that Indonesia has suffered its own brutal attacks in the 2000s, in Bali and Jakarta. It could have also mentioned the Indonesian island of Ambon, where jihadis exacerbated Christian-Muslim tensions in the 1990s, leading to 5,000 dead and a half-million displaced.  

The article says mistakenly that Jemaah Islamiyah, the best-known jihadi group in Indonesia, has been crushed, although splinter groups still exist. Well, a high-ranking police official in Jakarta disagrees. Inspector General Tito Karnavian says that not only does Jemaah Islamiyah still command thousands of men, but it has branches in Malaysia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Another hurdle, as the Times says: Other Muslim groups have tried to oppose jihadis before, but "countries like Indonesia tend to have less influence on the practice of Islam, especially in the Middle East":

“The problem with Middle East Islam is they have what I call religious racism,” said Azyumardi Azra, an Islamic scholar and former rector of the State Islamic University in Jakarta. “They feel that only the Arabs are real Muslims and the others are not.”
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the main source of financial support for Wahhabism worldwide, has had more success in imposing its interpretation and has even made inroads in Indonesia. Analysts say a steady flow of money from Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supports an active and growing Wahhabist movement here.

The "religious racism" epithet is an interesting label from a fellow Muslim. And it may well be a valid one. Coptic, Maronite and Chaldean Christians in the Middle East claim separate bloodlines from the Arab Muslims who dominate them; by that measure, the Arab jihadis may be committing ethnic cleansing. And even a decade ago, Canadian journalist Irshad Manji told me that much of world Islam had absorbed an "Arab tribal" attitude -- rejecting outside criticism as hostile and in-house criticism as disloyal.

But at least one difficulty is not examined. The article says Western leaders "often lack credibility with those most susceptible to jihad’s allure"; then it says N.U. has set up an international hub in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Times should have asked if that locale will taint the group's credibility.

The story does note that N.U. is outgunned against ISIS, which tweets a staggering 2.8 million messages a day. But counter-offenses always start from behind, and the N.U. campaign will need exposure. At least the U.S.' most influential newspaper has stepped up, with a searching, (mostly) thorough article.


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