During the years following 9/11, Indonesia’s foreign ministry promoted Indonesia as the model for “moderate Islam.” During his 2009 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, then-foreign minister Hasan Wirajuda proclaimed:
President Obama, in Cairo a few days ago, invited the peoples of the Muslim world to a partnership with the American people to address an array of critical issues: violent extremism, the Middle East situation, nuclear disarmament, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development and opportunity… I came here to tell you that Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, has long prepared itself to answer President Obama’s call for partnership.
More recently, in the wake of the Arab Uprisings, Indonesia sponsored several workshops with Egyptian and Tunisian politicians and civil society leaders in order to “share lessons” from Indonesia’s democratic transition from authoritarian rule. Further still, Indonesia has tried to reposition itself as a global peace broker within the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), most recently hosting OIC’s Extraordinary Summit for a just solution in Palestine.
As part of Contending Modernities’ ACI Indonesia Research Group, my current research examines how Indonesia’s governmental and civil society Islamic organizations are trying to rebrand the world’s largest Muslim-majority country through combined efforts of bilateral, multi-lateral, and Track II diplomacy. My research explores the multiple sites, discourses, and actors involved in the constitution – and contestation – of the claim that Indonesia is the exemplar of “moderate Islam.” In doing so, this research contributes to a burgeoning academic literature about religion, diplomacy, and soft power. Understanding such soft power strategies can shed light on the cleavages, conflicts, and coalitions of religious authority, community, and identity within, and beyond, Indonesia.
The late Edward Said’s notion of “traveling theory” helps us to understand how discourses such as “moderate Islam” move around the world, flowing in different directions, and taking on multiple meanings along the way. I do not attempt to define, much less defend, the idea of “moderate Islam.” Instead, I follow the concept in its multiple iterations, at times promoted as the ideal and “true Islam,” and elsewhere targeted by its various critics, Muslim and otherwise.
I first became interested in this project a decade ago while conducting research about Indonesia’s most famous Muslim televangelist, Aa Gym, whose Islamic school was often included in the foreign ministry’s soft power efforts in person-to-person diplomacy. More recently, I have observed public diplomacy inter-faith programs promoted by Indonesia’s embassy in Washington DC as well as similar endeavors sponsored by the Nusantara Foundation, founded by Indonesian inter-faith leader Imam Shamsi Ali.
Nusantara is the Indonesian word for “archipelago.” Many of Indonesia’s political, religious, and civil society leaders have embraced the concept of Islam Nusantara to refer to local historical practices and contemporary understandings of Islam that, according to Islam Nusantara’s proponents, offer an alternative to some of the hardline interpretations of Islam that many Indonesians perceive as rooted in Arab culture, not the Islamic faith.
Indeed, the world’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), championed Islam Nusantara as the theme for its 2015 convention, and Indonesia’s anti-terror governmental organizations are increasingly implementing the concept as part of anti-radicalization programs. Likewise, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion has begun the arduous task of training 200,000 public school religion teachers on how to teach about Islam in terms of peace, moderation, and compassion.
However, the idea of Islam Nusantara is not without its detractors (even within the ranks of NU). Critics have ridiculed proponents of Islam Nusantara, using a clever acronym to liken them to strange otherworldly beings (jinn). Popular preacher Buya Yahya disparaged the appeal of Islam Nusantara as “haram pig meat wrapped in halal lamb meat.”
Indonesia’s modernist Islamic organization Muhammadiyah, eager to steer clear of such polemics – but also keen to promote “moderate Islam” – has advanced the less controversial phrase “progressive Islam” (Islam Berkemajuan). On March 13-16, 2016 the Association for Muhammadiyah University Students (IMM) hosted youth from fifty-two countries as part of their international conference, “Countering Terrorism.” Several of Indonesia’s religious, political, and academic elite addressed participants during the opening ceremony.
IMM’s youth chair introduced Zulkifli Hasan (the chair of parliament) as his personal hope to become Indonesia’s next president. When Hasan took the stage, he waxed nostalgic about “moderate Islam” in Indonesia, reiterating the Quranic passage that Islam was brought to this world as a “blessing for all humankind” (rahmatan lil ‘alamin).
As with all grand schemes to improve the human condition, however, the devil is in the details. Only a few weeks prior to Zulkifli Hasan’s speech, in the midst a contentious national debate about LGBT rights, he derided gays and lesbians as a threat to national morality (moral bangsa) and proclaimed that LGBT organizations should be banned from university campuses. Even among its proponents, what counts as “moderate Islam” does not easily adhere to Western liberal-secular ideas about citizenship and belonging.
“Moderate Islam” thus has a life of its own, and cannot be simply reduced to a Western hegemonic discourse projected outwards as part of the war on terror (of course, that is certainly part of the story). Of equal importance are the ways Muslims themselves craft and contest the concept, inflecting it with new meanings and local nuance. “Moderate Islam” is perhaps best understood not in singular terms of what Islam is, but as competing visions and projects about what Islam could, and should, be.
In this regard, NU recently announced that they will convene a people-to-people “International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders” in May 2016. NU will invite 200 Muslim scholars, from at least forty countries, with a broad range of expertise. As one senior NU leader, Gus Yahya Cholil Staquf, proclaimed:
Because we are the world’s largest Muslim nation, we cannot consider violence in this world to be distant from Indonesia. It is high time that Indonesia assumes the role and takes the initiative to gather the world’s Muslim leaders to discuss this problem. Indonesia’s strength lies in the fact that we do not have an invested interest, unlike Iraq, Iran, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia.
Despite Indonesia’s own “great power aspirations,” many diplomats and religious leaders from the Middle East privately look down on Indonesia and often relegate it to the periphery of Islam. However, with the current turmoil in the Middle East and the situation in Egypt and Turkey looking increasingly bleak, perhaps “moderate Islam” in the world’s most successful Muslim-majority democracy should not be considered peripheral after all.