Ulil Abshar Abdalla , Jakarta | Thu, 12/10/2009 12:19 PM | Opinion
It took me by surprise that news on the ban of erecting minaret passed recently through a referendum in Switzerland has stirred scant attention and comment among Muslims, including in Indonesia.
It seems that news on the recent bank scandal that has plagued the country over the last few months has overwhelmed Muslims in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia.
As I perused through national and local newspapers, comments by Muslim figures were hardly heard on this “incidence” in Switzerland, neither on electronic and nor print media.
The ban itself might not qualify to be an “explosive” issue that strikes the Muslim nerve. Apparently the incident pales in comparison to Salman Rushdie Affair, for instance.
However, the fear circulating in Switzerland right after the referendum is that it will provoke an aggressive response from the Muslim world as people learn of the past incident of the Danish cartoon on the Prophet Muhammad.
The French controversy on the Muslim scarf has been a household topic all over the Muslim world. The scarf controversy received massive coverage on media. But not this minor incident in Switzerland.
The news came to my attention not through an Indonesian news service, but through an English newspaper brought to me by a friend who had just arrived back from Singapore.
A few moments later, I stumbled on some notes on Facebook made by friends on the incident. But the incident itself hardly appeared on the front pages of Indonesian newspapers and magazines.
The only response I paid attention to was from the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Gomooah. He was quoted to say that the ban was a sheer violation of religious freedom. No Muslim clerics or scholars in Indonesia have lent their voice to protest the ban.
Why is the minaret incident in Switzerland not on the headline of newspapers in the Muslim world? The question has intrigued me as I expect that it might be symptomatic of a minor change in the way Muslims respond to occurrences in Western countries that might irritate any religious sensitivity.
As far as Indonesian Muslims are concerned, it seems that the ban will in no way overtake the domestic controversy around a big bank scandal that many here speculate to lead to the unseating of Vice President Boediono.
However, the puzzle lingers as it didn’t make it into the headlines in other Muslim countries. Why?
The easiest shot at an answer is that the incident in Switzerland is not explosive enough to stir a wide controversy. At the end of the day, it is just minor.
However, I don’t buy this. There were past instances in Indonesia where minor religious incidents turned into entire messes that took the whole country by surprise.
The furor and violence in some Muslim countries that ensued after the Danish cartoon was circulated, was not an isolated incident. The cartoon itself was obviously explosive, but it was not by itself capable of exploding unless an agent came along to make it one.
The social and political dimension of a controversy is also very important to take into account. In many cases, a minor religious incident turned into a gross mess as it benefits certain groups or even a ruling party to turn the people’s eye from other daunting issues.
Another possibility is that the Danish cartoon controversy taught Muslims a good lesson. The whole mess that has been conducted in the name of defending the Prophet after the outbreak of the Danish cartoon controversy seemed to tarnish the image of Islam.
Instead of doing a good service in Muslims’ interest, it turned into a “dirty” game played by many right-wing movements that have mushroomed in Western countries recently. It also fuels the existing image of Muslim as a “riotous ummah” (community).
There is also another positive development that should not slip from our sight. The fact that the Grand Mufti of Egypt used the language of religious freedom (for example, his comment that the ban violates religious freedom) could be seen as a positive development. We can see it, in a way, as a “secularization” of religious discourse.
Others may argue that the use of a secular discourse here is not out of a principled commitment to democratic values that entail, among other things, a respect for religious freedom.
It may be suspected as a pragmatic appropriation of a secular language dictated by temporary exigencies.
But, don’t ever take this pragmatic appropriation lightly. The history of religious tolerance in European and the US has shown that the adoption of the idea of tolerance was primarily motivated by the pursuance of a pragmatic solution to the protracted religious conflicts.
Tolerance is not simply a platonic idea, but rather a pragmatic concept that is seen as the most reasonable way to escape from the raging religious war.
Parties that come to a truce, ending the religious conflict, may not be true believers in the virtue of religious tolerance. But that’s not the issue.
I am completely aware that there is a sort of playing double standards here. When non-Muslims hurt Muslim’s religious freedom, Muslim leaders rush into using the language of right. When it comes to Muslims mistreating religious minorities on Muslim land, they shut their mouth. Isn’t this a sheer hypocrisy? Yes, no doubt.
But as Muslims come to realize that the language of religious freedom is the most pragmatic language that serves their interest in protecting their fellow Muslim minorities in Western countries, we may expect that sooner or later this language will become “the only game in town” in the Muslim world. What started as pragmatism may turn into a principled commitment.
The writer is the co-founder of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) based in Jakarta.