Islamic Moderates, Hard-Liners Wage Battle in Media

24 December 2002
Source: By: Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post

A number of local publications have recently rejected or become overly wary of articles critical of Islam after an opinion piece by a moderate Muslim drew condemnation and a death threats from Islamic hardliners, two Muslim intellectuals said on Monday.

A professor at Syarief Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta, Nasaruddin Umar, said his article containing “sensitive passages” on Islam was rejected by the media.

“It’s unfortunate that they have to do this,” he said without naming the publication.

A frequent contributor to the country’s largest daily newspaper, Kompas, Nasuruddin blamed the rejection on fears of a backlash from Islamic hardliners.

The Coordinator of the Indonesian Society for Pesantren (Islamic boarding school) Development under the country’s largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Zuheiri Misrawi, also a regular media contributor, said he also noticed how publications have turned very cautious over his articles.

The two writers spoke at a press conference discussing the fierce reactions by Islamic hardliners over an opinion piece, which appeared in the Nov. 18 edition of Kompas.

Written by Ulil Abshar Abdalla, who coordinates a coalition of Muslim groups under the Liberal Islam Network (JIL), the article called for a flexible view of the Islamic law, or sharia.

Ulil called into question various obligations under sharia, like the jilbab (veil) or the hand amputations for thieves, suggesting that they were not relevant to all cultures and eras.

Thus Islam, during the time of Muhammad, he explained, was one way of interpreting the religion, and that at a different time it was possible to interpret Islam in another way.

He also stressed the common truths with other religions, saying “I no longer look at the form but its content.”

The article drew condemnation from a Bandung-based group of Muslim clerics called the Indonesian People’s Ulama Forum (FUUI).

They said Ulil’s article was an insult to Islam and that such a violation was punishable by death.

Ulil has been receiving death threats since it was printed, according to JIL member Nong Darol Mahmada.

This would not be the first time that the domestic media buckled under pressure from Islamic hardliners.

In August, a private television station scrapped an advertisement promoting a moderate, diverse Islam to counter perceptions of a violent, fundamentalist Islam that reactionary groups appear to be promoting.

The cancellations have followed pressure from Muslim organization Majelis Mujahidin (MMI) which denounced the commercial as an insult to Islam.

Responding to this, Chairman of the Indonesian Press Council, Atmakusumah Astraatmadja has urged the media to stand up to intimidation if they valued their independence.

Nasaruddin, however, estimated that the media would likely maintain for some time their watchful stance over articles on Islam.

“For the time being, I would say don’t expect any critical articles (on Islam) to appear,” he said.

Nong said the JIL would file next month a police complaint against FUUI over the death threat. “Anyone can now attack Ulil based on that statement by FUUI,” she said. “It’s becoming out of control.”

FUUI chairman Athian Ali Muhammad denied having issued a death threat, or fatwa, against him, explaining that Ulil had insulted Islam and that it was a violation punishable by death.

“We have clarified in press statements that we never issued a death fatwa against Ulil,” he was quoted as saying by Metro TV.

The dispute highlights again Indonesia’s majority moderate Muslims’ struggle to raise their voice at a time when the threat of terrorism has turned public attention to the extremist groups.

Analysts have said Ulil had taken upon himself the task of making the moderates’ voice heard, even if it meant confronting the ultra-fundamentalists head on.

JIL member Hamid Basyaib said Ulil’s article reflected the network’s position, but declined to say whether the same applied to the rest of the country’s moderate Muslims.

However, women’s rights activist Neng Darra Affiah and political analyst Rizal Mallarangeng believed it did represent all moderates.

Neng said that Ulil’s article was nothing new, although Muslim moderates had never put the ideas into writing like he did.

Rizal said history had shown how efforts to impose sharia in Indonesia failed to find support from the majority of Muslims here.

He urged all moderates like JIL to continue their struggle but warned of an uphill battle against the reactionary Muslims.

“It is because they are fading in their numbers, that their voices are getting louder,” he said.