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Religious leaders strive to become peacemakers, not warmongers

James M. Dorsey



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This article incorporates remarks by the author at the International Summit of Religious Authorities.


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A recent clash between pro-Palestinian Muslims and pro-Israeli Christians in the North Sulawesi coastal town of Bitung raised the spectre of Indonesia’s worst nightmare, inter-communal violence.


In a country that prides itself on a culture of inter-communal harmony, the death of a protester set off alarm bells.


“This is very worrying” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate Muslim civil society movement.


Mr. Staquf, popularly known as Pak Yahya, spoke at a one-day summit in Jakarta of religious leaders, convened to define “religion’s role in addressing Middle East violence & threats to a rules-based international order.”


PBNU General Chair Yahya Cholil Staquf at the opening of the R20 International Summit of Religious Authorities (ISORA) in Jakarta. R20 International Summit of Religious Authorities (ISORA), 30 representatives from various religions and countries consulted to resolve conflicts including Gaza, Palestine. (NU Online)


President Joko Widodo cautioned in his opening remarks at the summit, planned before the Sulawesi incident, that Indonesia’s principle of “unity in diversity” can only be achieved if “religious leaders teach that love of nation and tolerance of differences, while maintaining unity constitutes faith.”


In a call for action, the summit of Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, Buddhist, and Shinto religious figures, “urge(d) religious authorities of every faith and nation to marshal the power and influence of their respective communities to impact decision-making circles; halt armed conflicts raging in the Middle East, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and other regions of the world; (and) develop effective mechanisms for dialogue and negotiation that may lead towards the peaceful resolution of such conflicts.”


To be sure, to warrant that the statement is not just one more lofty declaration with no legs, religious leaders will have to take real world steps. Attendees vowed to propagate their message in their communities and lobby their governments.


However, it will take more than that for religious leaders to ensure that religion is a constructive rather than a destructive force that fuels ethnic and religious tensions as is the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


The potential importance of a role for moderate religious leaders is enhanced by the fact that the Gaza war has emerged as a polarising factor in countries across the globe.


In the case of Indonesia, analyst Irman Lanti cautioned in an RSIS commentary that “the situation in Gaza and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have greater domestic political salience in Indonesia, with significant consequences for Indonesian foreign policy and Jakarta’s relations with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian) member states and ASEAN dialogue partners.”


Living up to their promises at the Jakarta summit, religious leaders, particularly Jews and Muslims, will likely have to forcefully confront the prevalent dehumanization and demonization of the other in their respective communities, a practice that Nahdlatul Ulama has long sought to counter.


So far, Nahdlatul Ulama and many other moderate religious leaders appear committed to adopting US President Joe Biden’s notion of the bear hug. The notion is based on the belief that an embrace often grants greater leverage than public criticism.


In the case of religious leaders, it’s an approach that so far has yielded, at best, marginal results.


Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, a 1,053-year-old citadel of Islamic learning that has uncritically supports Gaza in the war with Israel, bowed out of the Jakarta summit at the last minute, saying he had to attend to urgent domestic Egyptian issues.


The Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayeb on 4 February 2019 Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images


Nahdlatul Ulama chairman Staquf’s international affairs advisor C. Holland Taylor aka Muhammad Kholil noted that Muslim World League secretary general Mohammed al-Issa embraced the Indonesian group’s call for strengthening the post-World War Two international order in a video address to the Jakarta summit.


Muslim World League secretary general Mohammed al-Issa. Photo: themwl.org


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has turned the Muslim World League into a tool for propagating his autocratic version of moderate Islam that is socially more liberal and seeks to enhance the kingdom’s geopolitical clout, while repressing any form of criticism or dissent and demanding absolute obedience to the ruler.


For much of its more than six-decade history, the League was a key vehicle in the kingdom’s decades-long global propagation of Wahhabism and Salafism, ultra-conservative, austere, and puritan interpretations of Islam.


“Bringing Saudi influence to bear to strengthen the international order is significant. Improving the functioning of the institutions of the international order, including the United Nations, was one purpose of the Jakarta summit,” Mr. Taylor said.


What Nahdlatul Ulama has set out to achieve is aspirational, bold, and ideational. The push for reform of religious jurisprudence and/or supremacist and discriminatory precepts challenges neglect of concepts of morality, ethics, and principles and spotlights much of the world’s double standards.


It also challenges autocrats who reduce religion to a pillar of autocratic rule and deprive civil society, including religion, of its role as a pillar of a politically pluralistic, and open society.


It raises questions about the role of men like Messrs. Al Tayeb and Al-Issa in moves to ensure religion is part of the solution rather than part of the problem, if one assumes that an independent civil society is key to sustainable and healthy inter-communal harmony.


That is particularly true given that the quest for reform of religious law and jurisprudence helps frame debates about the rule of law and a 21st century world order, even if change is likely to be generational in shaping fundamental and instinctive attitudes.


To be sure, Nahdlatul Ulama has gone where most advocacy groups, religious or otherwise, have not. It has sought to break out of silos, reinforced by social media.


Nahdlatul Ulama has done so by not simply calling on religious and political others to embrace principles of pluralism, human rights, dignity, and equality but by proactively engaging with the other and seeking common ground that can create a crowbar for change.

Many Muslim religious and political leaders pay lip service to the principles of tolerance, equality, freedom, human rights, and inter-faith dialogue.


Beyond Nahdlatul Ulama, few, if any, have sought to enshrine those principles by reforming religious law and jurisprudence to eliminate provisions that are outdated and/or contradict the values religious and political leaders claim to be their own.


Following a series of Nahdlatul Ulama gatherings that articulated the notion of a Humanitarian Islam that embraces equal rights for all irrespective of religion, race, or creed; political pluralism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; replaced the Sharia concept of a kafir or infidel with that of a “fellow citizen;” and called for the abolition of the notion of a caliphate in favour of the nation state, the Jakarta summit was one more building block in Nahdlatul Ulama’s campaign.


These may only be first steps, but they are crucial first steps that deserve to be emulated, nowhere more so than in Israel and Palestine where the wanton killing of innocent civilians is not only justified by national aspirations and security concerns, but, often unconsciously, grounded in religious laws that justify and enable it.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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