Achmad Munjid , Philadelphia | Sun, 08/16/2009 12:23 PM | Opinion
After being away for five years, I was amazed by the much stronger presence of Islam in Indonesian public life when I came home this summer.
Even without including such hot issues as the application of sharia (Islamic law) law in several areas and the significant achievement of Islamic political parties in the last two elections, there are abundant examples: The number of women wearing jilbab (Muslim head scarf) has multiplied, private Islamic schools have quadrupled, various books and CDs on Islam are everywhere, TV channels are filled with Islamic programs and new young da'i (preacher) stars, musholla (smaller mosque) is "required" for every public facility including gas stations, recreation centers, etc.
Surprisingly, especially in urban mosques, during Friday prayers and other occasions, I hear more preachers complaining about the degradation of the faith and the profound secularization/westernization of the society.
In rural areas, I hear many pesantren (Islamic boarding school) leaders complaining about a different issue: The decrease of interest within the community in studying Islamic sciences. Fewer people are sending their children to pesantren. Fewer children are regularly going nightly to their neighborhood mosque to intensively study the religion. Their other concern is the increasing number of narrow-minded Muslims in the country.
What is going on?
Until a few years back, many agreed that the pesantren is the heart of Islamic learning, the pillar of Islamic life in Indonesia. The quality of rural life around pesantren was considered religiously more superior. Pesantren and the accompanying rural life are still central now, but more and more religious "authorities", old and new, are moving into urban areas: Modern Islamic schools, Islamic universities, Islamic banks and hospitals, Muslim associations, Islamic TV stations etc. Urban life, while it is massively westernized, it is also getting Islamized at the same time. Religious authorities in rural areas are finding themselves left behind.
What differentiates urban Muslim from rural Muslims is the awareness of their identity and educational system. Urban Indonesian Muslims are more aware of their identity. They tend to speak of anything "as a Muslim" or "in Islam". They also consciously present Islamic identity and Islamic life style in public space as something required by the religion.
With the tide of Islamization since the 1990s, the pluralistic nature of industrialized urban life, including the strong penetration of the West and other foreign influences, pushes them to overtly demonstrate their religious identity. "Being a good Muslim" is distinctly recognized in every aspect by others. Therefore, their language and other conscious social behaviors are "thick" with Islamic formalism. Urban Islam is a "thick Islam".
Since Islam is a relatively new phenomenon as a key player in Indonesian urban life, many aspects of this thick Islam in fact are acquired through "instant" processes: summer short courses (pesantren kilat), topical training packages, "Sunday" schools etc. The Pesantren's traditional learning system doesn't fit their need.
For busy urbanites, the pesantren system takes too much time, is too complicated and out of date. Also, since many young urban Muslims come from less or non-practicing Muslim families, they are introduced to Islam mostly when they go to public schools or secular universities. Therefore, while it is "thick", the urban Islam is not (yet) a deeply rooted tradition.
Meanwhile "deep Islam" is found in rural areas, where people have been faithfully practicing Islam for generations, many through intensive learning and the sophisticated procedure of reinterpretation taught in pesantren. Unlike urban Muslims, for many rural Muslims, Islam is also practiced more as culture and tradition.
Within a relatively homogenous community, the need to demonstrate Islam as an identity is less relevant. Islam has been part more of an unconscious practice. In many cases they freely adopt cultural form or local wisdom and transform it within Islamic values.
Being a good Muslim doesn't necessarily mean being different from others, but being with/for others to enforce moral principles, for the sake of God. While sometimes their practices are considered un-Islamic in the eyes of urban Muslims, when seen from a different perspective, they represent a more "advanced" Islam.
If the above observation is justified, it is very possible that the trend of practicing Islam in Indonesia is a shifting, from the deep Islam of rural areas to the thick, urban Islam. While now Islam is more observable in public life, if people are more interested in thick Islam, I am afraid, Islam will be more easily manipulated, or worse, abused by power interests.
Among the thick Islamists, religion is strongly perceived as identity in competition or even in opposition to others, political Islam is marketable and the "clash of civilizations" assumption is widely adopted.
This explains why many urban Muslim leaders are so worried about the impacts of secularization and westernization rather than real issues like as economic injustice, political discrimination, education, religious intolerance, etc.
For them Islam is absolutely superior, while secular and Western values are useless, if not completely dangerous. On the other hand, this also explains why rural Muslim leaders feel concerned about the increasing number of narrow-mindedness among Muslims. For them, unfriendly Islam is made possible by this kind of thick Islam.
Of course, we should not be entrapped by into a binary mould of an opposition between thick and deep Islam. With huge challenges ahead and the great potential of Indonesian Muslims, the solution should be multifaceted: The deepening of the thick Islam on the one side and the re-contextualization of deep Islam.
Instead of justifying the tiresome Huntingtonian antagonistic assumption, a multifaceted process might bring about an Islam that is relevant to the real needs of its people, including the promotion of open and sincere dialogue between civilizations.
The writer is President of Nahdlatul Ulama Community in North America and Associate at Dialogue Institute, Temple University, Philadelphia, US.