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'Pesantren' communities unable to accept pluralism, tolerance JAKARTA - The recent research conducted by the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP), the Indonesian Islamic Boarding School Association (BKSPPI) and AusAID, in which I was involved, shows that many pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), both traditional (salaf) and modern, in West Java reject pluralism as they perceive this as an acceptance of the relativity of religion -- or rejecting the notion that Islam is the absolute truth.

For the folks at the boarding schools, pluralism is ideologically unacceptable, and they wholly support the controversial fatwa issued by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) which bans secularism, pluralism and liberalism. According to Diana L. Eck (2001) in her influential book A new religious America: How a 'Christian country' has become the world's most religiously diverse nation, "Pluralism is not an ideology, not a leftist scheme, and not a free-form relativism. Rather, pluralism is the dynamic process which we engage with one another in and through our very deepest differences." She also explains how Islam is growing rapidly and freely in the United States, side by side with Judaism and Christianity.

It follows that pluralism does not mean an abandonment of principles; we merely accept others' differences. Is that not beautiful? But why do the pesantren communities reject pluralism? Why has the spirit of intolerance strengthened among them? We could not really find a complete answer during the research. A noted Indonesianist, Prof. M.C. Ricklefs of the National University of Singapore recently held the Indonesians in attendance, during a seminar to discuss the ICIP survey, spellbound, not only because of his deep knowledge of the history of pesantren in Indonesia back to the 1800s, but also because of his eloquent Bahasa Indonesia. However, I could not help but notice that some of the Indonesian faces in the audience began to show anxiety when Prof. Ricklefs proposed that all education here become fully secular.

He argued that multiculturalism had been a success in Australia because many religious schools in the country, including the Protestant schools where he sent his children, adopted a policy of 90 percent secular education and only 10 percent religious education (he later admitted that the percentage is actually speculative as he did not do research on it).

Some of those in the audience politely rejected his proposal, and also refused his notion of liberalism as they misunderstood it as an "uncontrolled freedom". Even though Prof. Ricklefs stated during his presentation that liberalism means giving freedom "as much as possible" to people to develop their potential with appreciation of the rights of others.

Clearly there was problem of understanding terminology -- something that is fittingly addressed by Prof. Machasin of Islamic State University Sunan Kalijaga of Yogyakarta who reawakened us as to why many Muslims rejected the ideas of pluralism, liberalism and secularism.

He argued that there is a strong tradition in Islam of always referring to the texts, rather than to concepts first. He shared his experience during the congress of Nahdlatul Ulama when he proposed that the study of hermeneutics should be include in the recommendation. But others rejected this, arguing that such a term comes from "the West" and it was used by the West to deconstruct their Bible. He lamented the fact that if he had used the word tafsir , which translates as hermeneutics, he would have had not problems convincing the audience.

Islam, actually has a rich history of pluralism as it spans a long period of time and an abundance of diverse thoughts, and many of them were sometimes at odds with each other. Therefore, trying to find a reference of something that seems to be new is actually not a difficult endeavor.

While the development of the many pesantren in Java was shaped by local culture, it was also molded by values and tradition that were rigorously and consistently nurtured by pesantren leaders, meaning that every pesantren has its own uniqueness, again showing pluralism among pesantren. However, due to the great influence these schools usually have toward their surrounding communities, this contains positive and negative sides. It is positive if the pesantren can provide an alternative education that is beneficial for the surrounding community such as life skills in addition to religious studies. But it is negative if the pesantren decided to reject new ideas that are actually beneficial not only for the students but also for the surrounding community. So, it is imperative to have wisdom by conducting due diligence before persuading pesantren to accept and digest new ideas.

But how is respecting differences specifically addressed in Islam?

We can therefore infer that pluralism, as a mode to perceive plurality and to voluntarily accept differences is something that is inherently entrenched in Islam. The Koran clearly states that the noblest attitude in addressing differences is to "strive as in a race in all virtues" -- constructive competition to do good deeds, and that final truth belongs only to God.

Prof. Ricklefs could only grin at me on the sidelines of the seminar, "If only the Liberal Islamic Network changed its name into Arabic...", a reference to the Indonesian group that has come under fire recently by local fundamentalists after it too was singled out in the MUI fatwa.

The writer is a research fellow at the International Center for Islam and Pluralism and a lecturer at Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa State University. His essays can be read at

Posted in Religion @ 26 January 2006 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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