Celebrating the Plurality of Islam
Daniel Alan Bey
following has been used to define the word “Muslim”: An individual who believes
in the outdated verses of the Holy Koran, is prone to acts of unspeakable
violence and is dangerous and barbaric in nature. The men are violent towards
women; the women have no choice but to submit to the will of men. Terrorist.
one were to summarize in a few words the portrayal of Muslims by two of the
most popular tabloids in my country, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, one
could quite easily reduce all Muslims to the above definition. This is not an
exaggeration, either; neither is it a set of beliefs and stereotypes exclusive
to the newspapers mentioned. Rather, this demonization of “the Other” – so
cleverly developed by Edward Said in his magisterial “Orientalism” – is,
historically speaking, intrinsically produced by the liberal humanist ideals
that form the basis of today’s political spectrum in the West.
Muslims as barbaric and uncivilized also saturate the dominant and hegemonic
sphere of cultural production, realized most prominently in Hollywood cinema.
For an example of this, look no further than Dr. Jack Shaheen’s documentary
“Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.” This is a perfect example of
how Orientalism functions today, shaping people’s beliefs and prejudices.
In order to
negate these prejudices, it is important we understand that Islamic belief is
not monolithic; in fact, it is and has been produced through a synthesis of
cultures, rendered so by the numerous historical interactions existent between
cultures and people.
interactions, which cannot be reduced to numbers, have produced a richness,
difference and plurality in belief. This plurality is perfectly exemplified by
the Abangan of Java, who practice a syncretic form of Islam that has been
shaped by numerous social, historical and cultural forces as well as local
traditions and customs. Of course, it might be tempting for some believers to
judge Abangan as non-believers; yet this very judgement presupposes that their
interpretation of Islam exists in isolation, outside of social, historical and
cultural factors. This is simply not possible.
So long as
humans exist, one culture will always come into contact with another. Islamic
belief therefore cannot exist or be understood outside of geographical location
or culture. To suggest that there is one Islam, or one correct way of
interpreting the Koran, is to suggest that human beings exist outside of the
social and cultural processes that form their sense of identity.
This is, of
course, an impossibility. Our identity is formed and constituted by our
experiences, which are shaped by the social, historical and cultural forces we
are born into. The interpretations and beliefs of a Muslim living in the
village of Ciptagelar, West Java, will be different to that of a Muslim living
in the north of England; in the same way, a Muslim born in Saudi Arabia will
interpret Islam differently from a Muslim born in Harlem, New York.
one-fifth of the world’s population of believers, only 15 percent of Muslims
come from Arab countries. The two largest Muslim populations in the world,
Indonesia and Nigeria respectively, are countries as far apart (both
geographically and culturally) as West Africa and Southeast Asia. How many
people in the West even know this? And what about subjective experience; that
is, what about the experience of the individual? Do all Muslims think and
believe in the same way? Do all Muslims in, say, Saudi Arabia think in the same
way? Do all Muslims act in the same way? These questions might seem strange to
many of my Indonesian readers, and rightly so.
Yet many in
my own country, in Europe and in the US genuinely believe, for example, that
the hijab represents overt repression. That’s a complete fallacy, of course.
And what about the word “terrorist,” which has now become synonymous with the
word “Muslim,” and therefore with “Islam”? Are all Muslims terrorists? Of
course not. Yet the belief exists, as spoken by the American journalist and
television pundit Ann Coulter, who said all “terrorists are Muslim”.
the differences and complexities of belief, accepting diversity and celebrating
the plurality of Islam. These, to me, seem like the best ways to counteract the
violent stereotypes constructed by Western institutions, which render the
Koran, Muslims and Islam as a single and homogenous entity that is backward and
traditional and opposed to progress, logic and indeed science. And where better
to appreciate this difference and plurality than Jakarta. What better example
of this than the sisters I know, one who chooses to wear the hijab and wear it
with pride, while the other does not. Or, how about the village elder I met
this weekend in southwest Java? He is a Muslim who spoke of his disappointment
that Indonesia is now a country comprised primarily of Muslims. “We must
respect the plurality of religion,” he said. These words hardly reflect the
Islam portrayed by Western institutions, an Islam of intolerance.
For now, I
leave you. I am going to meet one of my Muslim friends. And I am sorry to crush
one of your Western stereotypes, but we are going to drink a few beers! Until
next time, farewell for now.