The Islam You Don't Hear About
June 23, 2008
A trip to Indonesia home to more than 200 million Muslims reveals a faith that
hardly resembles the one Americans have come to know in the blood-soaked years
By Stephen Prothero
[Stephen Prothero is the chair of the department of religion at Boston
University and the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to
Know And Doesn't.]
After the 9/11 attacks, Americans put out a call for moderate Islam. Many
Muslims answered that call, but few Americans heard them. Early this month, I
traveled to Asia to see what Islam looks like on the ground there, and to
listen to what Muslims themselves have to say about their religion, terrorism
and the United States. What I found surprised me.
I went to Asia because Islam is by no means a Middle Eastern phenomenon. In
fact, Asia is home to most of the world's Muslims. I focused on Indonesia
because there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in any other country roughly
three times as many as in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
But what makes Indonesia strategically important to the United States is not
simply its huge Muslim population (roughly 200 million) but the fact that
Indonesian Muslims are by no means anti-Western.
There are fundamentalists in Indonesia, to be sure, but they account for
roughly one in every 10 citizens there. The overwhelming majority of
Indonesia's Muslims are moderates, and about one in five are progressives.
Fundamentalists typically want to see their countries follow the path of Saudi
Arabia or Iran in instituting an Islamic legal code referred to as shariah.
Moderates and progressives typically favor the separation of mosque and state,
and they enthusiastically affirm democracy. Progressives distinguish themselves
from moderates by speaking out more forcefully for religious pluralism and
equal rights for women, and by drawing more generously on the thinking of
intellectuals from Europe, Latin America and the USA.
The fringe, not the core
Although scholars might quibble about these definitions and the portion of the
Indonesian public to assign to each, what is plain is that in Indonesia
fundamentalism is fringe. A survey released in May by the Australian Strategic
Policy Institute observes that "Islamist parties have failed to attract
votes" in Indonesia, which "today has one of the world's most
successful track records in combating terrorism."
The Muslims I spoke with during my visit to Yogyakarta, a cultural and
intellectual center of this vast island archipelago, came from both the
moderate and progressive wings. All are eagerly adapting Islam to local
circumstances, mixing its ancient traditions with those of their own. They see
no conflict between Islam and civil society.
During my days in Indonesia, I did not see a single woman covered from head to
foot in the chador so characteristic of Iran, and in the rural areas I visited
many women did not wear any head covering at all. According to "Who Speaks
for Islam?" a Gallup poll of Muslims worldwide released earlier this year,
88% of Indonesians believe that a woman should be allowed to do any job for
which she is qualified. In Indonesia, I heard about female imams (prayer
leaders) and about marriages between Christians and Muslims. Repeatedly, I was
told that Muslims reject any coercion in religion, that they view not only Jews
and Christians as fellow "people of the book" but Hindus and
Buddhists as well.
Religious pluralism, especially, seems a key concept here, where the influences
of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity have wafted across Indonesia's
17,000-plus islands for centuries. Why did God create the world? According to
the principle of an Islamic school in Yogyakarta, it's because God prefers
multiplicity to unity because "difference is good."
The Muslims I encountered scoff at any notion of a "clash of
civilizations" between Islam and the West. Any clash of civilizations that
exists, they tell me, is between fundamentalists of all faiths and their
liberal and moderate opponents. And in that clash, the vast majority of
Americans are in common cause with the vast majority of Indonesians.
During my visit to Indonesia, Muslims pointed out many important commonalities
between our two countries. Both are huge geographically. Both have ethnically
and racially diverse populations. Both provide constitutional guarantees for
Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party nomination while I was in Indonesia,
and everyone I met wanted to talk about him. Indonesians are rooting for Obama
not because he is some secret Muslim (they know he is a Christian) but because
he spent some of his formative years in their capital city of Jakarta. One of
my Indonesian interviewees, citing a local tradition of how family networks can
be extended not only through marriage but also through political regimes, went
so far as to suggest that if Obama is elected, Americans and Indonesians will
During my interviews, I always asked what Indonesians would like to convey to
Americans about Islam. Repeatedly, my interlocutors returned to the question of
war and peace. "Islam is not about violence," they told me.
"Islam is not terrorism. Islam is peace."
Justice. Equality. Democracy.
This did not surprise me. What did surprise me was how American all these
people sounded. I heard repeatedly about equality and democracy and
humanitarianism and tolerance and reason and human rights, as if I were
speaking with 21st century reincarnations of America's Founders. When I asked
Zuli Qodir, an intellectual of a highly popular moderate group called
Muhammadiyah, what Islam is all about, he began with, "Islam is justice.
And equality. And democracy."
Just before I left, a progressive student activist in Yogyakarta went so far as
to assert that in some respects, "the American people are more Islamic
than the Indonesian people." While political corruption is endemic in
Indonesia, he explained, Americans respect the rule of law, viewing such
corruption as something to be rooted out rather than something to be tolerated.
Americans have good reasons to be apprehensive about Islam. Islamic radicals
bombed two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002, killing 202 people.
And the men who hijacked three jets on 9/11 shouted "Allahu Akbar"
("God is great") as they steered those planes toward their targets.
But jihadists are one thing, and ordinary Muslims are quite another.
Americans of good will know this. What we also need to know is that in the
fight against Islamic radicalism, one of our key allies could be Islam itself.