One is alarmed to see how Islamophobes have begun to dominate secular forces in `civilized’ western democracies. During the 2008 American presidential election `several Republican politicians including Donald Trump asserted that Democratic candidate Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim’.
When British Prime Minister Teresa May `criticized Trump for re-posting material from the far-right Britain First. Trump retorted ` it would be better if she dealt with the “destructive radical Islamic terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom” rather than focusing on him’.
In Denmark, emergence of two new far-right parties in the country `Hard Line’ (‘Stram Kurs’) and `The New Right’ (`Nye Borgerlige’) may threaten re-election of ruling centre-right alliance by June 17 deadline. The `Hard Line’, founded in 2017, held ceremonies to desecrate Holy Qur’an (burn it or hurling into air) at public meetings. It demands deporting Muslims back to their country of origin. Danish courts set Islamaphobes free with a slap on wrist. `Hardliner’ founder Rasmus Paludan is roaming free despite a 14-day conditional jail- sentence for racism toward a spokeswoman for the Black Lives Matter movement. Paludan, a software engineer, developed the ‘Paludan-game’, popular in Danish schoolyards. The game requires `Christian players to catch the Muslims and Jews, put them in cages and insult them’.
In Germany, there had been around 71 attacks on mosques and 908 crimes against German Muslims (ranging from verbal to physical attacks and murder attempts), besides 1,413 attacks on refugees. Similar attacks took place in other European Union states and Britain. EU and other states shrug off existence of Islomophobia. As such, Islamophobe have a heyday carrying out discrimination against the Muslims in various forms (race, religion, workplace, etc.). On March 14, 2017, the European Court of Justice (EJC) passed two ineffectual judgments to rule on non-discrimination at work on religious grounds.
Headscarf versus Turban
In Europe, France spearheads abhorrence to voile, scarf, burka, niqab (call it by any name). The Sikhs’ turban (or the Jews’ kippah also) has quasi-religious significance. The Sikhs’ religion calls upon them to comply with five Ks in their everyday life. The Five K’s include kesh (uncut hair), kanga (small comb made of wood tucked in kesh), karpan (sword or dagger), kara (metallic bracelet), and kachhera or kachha (underwear). Kesh symbolises holiness. Men adorn kesh with a turban or dastaar/pugree, while women may use the dastaar or a stole. Karpan, kept by men and women, is wrapped around the torso with a strap called gatra. It reflects readiness to protect the weak and fight against injustice.
Kara represents strength and integrity of the man or woman. Kachhera, a cotton boxer worn by men and women, symbolizes self-control and chastity and prohibits adultery. These articles are worn at all times by the puritan sikhs, but a heretic sect, narankari, may not grow kesh. You come across Sikhs everywhere. Nowhere they are object of derisions because of their turbans. During his meeting with Manmohan Singh, the then French president Li Pen assured the Indian premier that there was no ban on Sikhs’ turbans in his country (Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, July 16, 2009, Indo-Asian News Service). His attitude marked a contrast to his consistently hostile stand on voile.
The French leaders of various political shades keep lashing out at burka for political expediency as “a sign of subjugation and submission that deprives women of their identity and hinder their social participation”.
They consider it a “cultural tool of male oppression”. France appointed a 58-member presidential Stasi commission for burka probe, but no commission for turban (or kippah) probe.
John R. Brown points out that “French public figures seemed to blame the headscarves for a surprising range of France’s problems, including anti-Semitism, Islamic fundamentalism, growing ghettoisation in the poor suburbs, and the breakdown of order in the classroom” (Why the French don’t like headscarves, 2007, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, p.1).
He observed that legislation against headscarves was portrayed as support to “women battling for freedom in Afghanistan, schoolteachers trying to teach history in Lyon, and all those who wished to reinforce the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity”. The voile was considered a “symbol of mounting Islamism and decaying social life” (p. 1, ibid.).
Brown denudes political motives of the Stasi commission. He reminds that ‘the Commission was forced to work quickly so that a law could be passed before the spring regional elections. In a sense, the timetable was set by the haunting fear that La Pen’s Far Right could repeat its April 2002 victories.
In such a short period of time, banning the voile was the only way to show that the politicians of the “sensible centre were responding to France’s new enemies” (pp. 242-243 ibid.). Brown reminds: “The Stasi Commission had proposed banning political signs as well and many observers commented that Nike symbols had no place at school, either”. But, follow-up action is awaited, ad infinitum.
The ban on burka is ostensibly meant to integrate Muslim women in French society. But, it would, in practice, further isolate Muslim women. Unfortunately, the French media and public figures harbour negative perceptions about Muslim community.
These perceptions manifest themselves, in early 2004, in a ban on headscarves, euphemistically called “clothing that reflected religious affiliations of pupils in schools”.
The law did not attract Muslim girls into greater social cohesion. Instead, it forced them to stay away from schools, the hidden purpose of the piece of legislation. The law was ostensibly based on recommendation of the presidential Stasi commission. But, this commission itself was formed under stimuli from the anti-Muslim media and politicians.
The media, through its reportages and cartoons, portrayed headscarves as “great danger to the French society and its tradition of secularism”. Legislation against the voile is likely to further corner Muslim women, particularly Pakistani immigrants. The anti-Muslim perceptions show themselves in diverse ways.
Why dress codes anachronistic?
The European legislation on the dress code is likely to be counterproductive as was the past legislation in the Muslim and non-Muslim world. The European legislation on the dress code is likely to be counterproductive as was the past legislation in the Muslim and non-Muslim world. The Fourth Council of the Lateran of 1215 ruled that Jews and Muslims must be distinguishable by their dress (Latin ‘habitus’). Pope Paul IV ordered in 1555 that in the Papal States it must be a yellow, peaked hat, and from 1567 for 20 years it was compulsory in Lithuania.
In 850, Caliph al Mutawakkil ordered Christians and Jews to wear a sash called ‘zunnah’ and a distinctive kind of shawl or headscarf called ‘taylasin’ (the Christians had already been required to wear the sash).
In the 11th century, Fatimid Caliph al Hakim ordered Christians to put on half-metre wooden crosses and Jews to wear wooden calves around their necks. In the late 12th century, Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf ordered the Jews of the Maghreb to wear dark blue garments with long sleeves and saddle-like caps. His grandson Abdallah al Adil made a concession after appeals from the Jews, relaxing the required clothing to yellow garments and turbans.
In the 16th century, Jews of the Maghreb could only wear sandals made of rushes and black turbans or caps with an extra red piece of cloth. Ottoman sultans continued to regulate the clothing of their non-Muslim subjects.
In 1577, Murad III issued an edict forbidding Jews and Christians from wearing dresses, turbans, and sandals. In 1580, he changed his mind, restricting the previous prohibition to turbans and requiring ‘dhimmis’ to wear black shoes; Jews and Christians also had to wear red and black hats, respectively.
Observing in 1730 that some Muslims took to the habit of wearing caps similar to those of the Jews, Mahmud I ordered the hanging of the perpetrators. Mustafa III personally helped to enforce his decrees regarding clothes.
In 1758, he was walking incognito in Istanbul and ordered the beheading of a Jew and an Armenian seen dressed in forbidden attire.
The last Ottoman decree affirming the distinctive clothing for ‘dhimmis’ (non-Muslims tax payers) was issued in 1837 by Mahmud II. Discriminatory clothing was not enforced in those Ottoman provinces where Christians were in the majority, such as Greece and the Balkans.
Obviously, the European ban on Muslim scarves or burkas is a tit-for-tat for Muslim rulers’ behaviour in their heyday. That’s why it does not encompass non-Muslim/Jewish kippahs or turbans also. Interestingly, wearing a scarf or a kippah is a custom with common meaning: recognition that there is someone ‘above’ human beings who watches their every act. For instance, most theists wear cover their heads with a piece of cloth, or wear a cap during prayers.
History tells that religious hatred brought about downfall of flourishing empires. Wearing a distinctive religious dress is historically reflection of rulers’ tolerance. Early followers of Christianity, in its infancy, were so frightened that they could not tell fellow Christians that they have embraced Christianity. Fearful of persecution, they indicated through eyeball movement that they too are Christians. They then walked along, with their mouths shut, to a safe place, sat on ground, and drew a cross with their fingers on ground, to show their conversion. Voracious readers may go through Braudel’s Civilisations. The Jews took refuge at Massada (a Mediterranean island) to escape being exterminated by them. The Romans followed them through. Jews were left with no choice but to commit suicide-`bombing’. Have Jews and Christians been eliminated from face of earth? Genghis Khan was indifferent to what religion his subjects followed. If he had been a fanatic, the world would have followed only one religion, pantheism, his religion?
Muslim rulers also failed to enforce a discriminatory dress code during their heyday. Nowadays, they themselves live like `a poisoned rat stinking in a hole’ (Rohingya in Myanmar, cow-lynched India Palestine `State’, Europe, USA) Currently, there is no antipathy to Jews’ kippah (or the Sikhs’ turbans) like Muslim veils. The Muslims also, like the Jews, need legislative protection to live in peace like other communities. Current tide of Islomophobia caricatures veneer of religious tolerance in the West.
The sunset of the West and Islam: From US bombs to the return of the Taliban
With regard to the issue of Islamic proselytism in Europe, where some countries (Belgium, Great Britain, France, etc.) have large minorities of Muslim believers – who, according to many, should be Americanized with sheriff’s hats, miniskirts and reducing the faith to smartphone apps – some clarifications must be made regarding the ignorance that leads newspapers, television and social networks to absolutely not understand what Islam is, i.e. a religion that does not look at races, but aims at the universalism of the God of Abraham.
The Muslim law is a legal science of ancient tradition based on the Holy Koran. Islam is a religious, political and legal system of a reality that is a whole: dogmatic, moral, ritual, pertaining to private and public law (according to our Roman law categories).
A whole – as said above – stemming from the same sacred sources and bearing the overall name of šarī’a (following the straight path revealed by God), which, being based on the Old and New Testament (prophets of Islam: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mary, Muhammad), can be “translated” correctly into religious law of divine origin.
This is of absolute importance and it must be kept in mind – as a peculiarity of Islam – that this religion regulates – with very detailed positive precepts – every manifestation of the life of believers, even in those areas that might appear to be the farthest from the field of religion, according to the parameters of secularism.
The science of law (‘ilm al-fiqh) according to the Muslim jurists (fuqahā’, sing. faqīh) has a first bipartition in the sources of law (usul al-fiqh, sing. asl al-fiqh): the Koran, the Sunnah (ahadīt, sing. hadīt: sayings of the Prophet), the ijmā’ or consensus of the community (ummah) and the qiyās or deductive analogy.
The šarī’a, in turn, is divided into ‘ibādat and mu’āmalat. The former includes the five pillars of faith: acceptance of God, daily prayer, legal almsgiving, fasting and abstinence until sunset in the month of Ramadān (9th), pilgrimage to Mecca and its surroundings in the month of Dû l-Hijja (12th). The second covers all other aspects of the social, economic and political life of the community, and can be adapted to the varying needs of times and places, provided the results do not deviate from the word and spirit of the šarī’a itself.
Prof. Giorgio Vercellin (1950-2007) recalled that Westerners have always pretended not to see this fact, for contingent interests, first of colonial expansion – in trying to impose their own laws and exploit territories – and then of attempted internal assimilation (cancellation of national and fideistic individuality), and
«in essence, therefore, the Muslim world, and particularly the Islamic Near East (and in the manuals there is no trace of the presence of numerous and active Christian and Jewish communities in those territories over the centuries) is described as having an autonomous history worthy of attention only in the remote past. It is not by chance that the pages on Muhammad and his immediate successors follow the much more copious pages describing the Persians – i.e. the Achaemenids – the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, etc. In other words, Islam and the Muslim world are presented on the same “archaeological” level (and therefore devoid of evolution until today) as the ancient Greeks and Romans. […] The real crux is that the Society of Italian Historians has considered the “Muslim world”, so to speak, automatically as part of the “ancient world“».
Instead, it is contemporary and present. Muslims are men and women of faith, and for them religion is also pure lawfulness. Islam is not just a confession, but a culture, a multicontinental and cross-sectoral civilisation, a way of life in which the relationship with the divinity is spiritual and temporal at the same time.
The history of Western thought, from the age of Enlightenment to the present day, is marked by the conflict between faith and science: there is a constant loss of ground of the areas of influence of religion in favour of the side hegemonised by technology.
By this we mean secularisation, rationalisation, relativism, etc. The most striking manifestation of all this is the recognition of the right to ‘believe’ but also to ‘not believe’. Tout court, it is the right to atheism, which Muslim jurisprudence – which, as seen above, is identified with faith – does not admit and which the West tries to impose with the violence of American weapons and with the soppy and cloying European do-goodism and political correctness. Whatever some well-meaning sociologists may say, Islam does not distinguish between religion and politics, between confession and law.
The trend that is being strengthened in the Islamic world consists in a reaffirmation of both regulations and general Shariah principles, which have been established either through legislation or as a practice in Muslim and Islamic countries, i.e. the places from where migrants come.
In the Islamic tradition, the principle that Islam as such must be both religion and State (dīn wa-dawla wa duniyā), and that the term secularism (‘ilmaniyya) is synonymous with atheism, materialism, permissiveness, moral decadence, etc., is fundamental, especially in the countries allied with the West (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, etc.), and in those which are not allied with it. In each of them the institutional presence of other faiths is rarely allowed – and this from a purely legal viewpoint.
The illusion with which weak-minded or mean-minded people (to say the least) and others pursue the so-called multiculturalism has no basis in the experience and beliefs of the other party. Therefore, imagining a Muslim who adheres to the canons and principles of the liberal system – which is atheist insofar as it turns faith from a value into a subjective choice or into an “evangelical” sociological solution and welfarism for the desperate or destitute people – is a deadly naivety: a historical suicide on the part of a society that no longer has anything to offer and on the part of a production system that is leading the planet to destruction.
Any person, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, who puts forward his or her own viewpoint – either in writing or in a speech, which subsumes his or her thinking – clearly believes it to be right and true, and does not accept – on principle – a contrary or different opinion.
It is practically the parallel of a Westerner who, for various reasons, moves to a Muslim country and ex abrupto denies his way of thinking and living. Sometimes you do not understand whether this candid hope is the result of the Westerner’s ignorance or, worse, the absolute malice of a few, since cheap and profitable workforce and caregivers are much more needed than ethics, respect and safety and security of our citizens.
This shows that it is not the West that tolerates the Muslim presence in Europe, but the opposite. In a society such as ours – in full social and environmental deterioration (see the Laudato si’ by Pope Francis), which has denied the sacred and has mixed genders; which is based on consumerism, servitude to money, exasperation of profit, the race for the useless, the triumph of technologicism, the race for pleasure, hedonism, the reduction of the ruling class and of politicians to zero; which has relegated women to the role of sexual icons and has reduced the sense of heroism to fiction; a society in which liberal-free market thinking generates embarrassing choices – the believers, including Catholics, Christians in toto, Jews and Muslims here, are instead tolerating the system that hosts them.
This is proved by the fact that the criminal horrors and atrocities we witnessed on November 13, 2015 were carried out by an infinitesimal percentage of Muslims present on our continent – on top of it, European citizens and not emigrants, i.e. legal children of those States where they committed crimes. It is not for me to explain why they have done so. In a millennium and a half, what has been happening for the last sixteen years, since the “humanitarian” bombs began to devastate the Afghanistan of the Taliban in the past and of the Taliban today, has never happened.
Muslim-Evangelical alliance strives to create religious and political middle ground
A recent unprecedented alliance between Muslims and Evangelicals takes on added significance in a world in which human rights are on the defensive, religious groups tend to forge political as well as ideational partnerships, and the role of the clergy in multiple Muslim-majority countries has come under scrutiny.
The alliance potentially could create a platform for voices in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which significant segments of the youth who constitute a majority of the population, increasingly reject state-controlled, ritualistic forms of religion and distrust clerics subservient to the government.
It could also offer a middle ground on which elements of the secular centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based values in deeply polarised parts of the world, particularly in the West.
International affairs and inter-faith scholar Michael Driessen suggested in an email to this writer that the recently forged alliance between Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), fits a pattern of partnerships between diverse religious groups that goes beyond seeking to protect minorities to promotion of social cohesion and fraternity.
Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Interfaith Forum of the Group of 20 or G20 that brings together the world’s largest economies, Tunisian Islam scholar Nejia Al-Ourimi seemed to anticipate the alliance when she argued that reform of Islam would have to be bottom-up and originate in civil society rather than top-down and directed and controlled by autocratic rulers who see it as a way of branding themselves and their nations as well as and one way of ensuring survival.
Ms. Al-Ourimi reasoned further that genuine inclusivity was precluded in much of the Middle East because most Arab constitutions assume that the state has a religion. She went on to say that “what we need to do is reframe the traditional approaches of linking religion to legislation. We must find leaders who are willing to withdraw from the traditional way of participating in the public sphere—through the legal and legislative dimensions—and return from a ‘values’ perspective to guide ethical efforts.”
In a contribution to a recently published report on Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship issued by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Beirut-based Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity (Adyan), Ms. Al-Oumiri points to a series of lofty, lovey-dovey inter-faith statements issued in the past decade by different combinations of Arab Muslim and non-Muslim clerics, religious and secular intellectuals, and politicians.
The statements constituted attempts by Muslim religious authorities and autocratic governments to keep ahead of the curb of youth aspirations and project themselves as voices of moderation by emphasizing religious freedom, religious pluralism, and inclusive citizenship irrespective of religious belief.
The statements include the 2012 Statement on Basic Freedoms issued by Al Azhar, Islam’s Cairo-based oldest institution of Islamic learning that has long been swayed by Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial support, the 2016 Marrakech Declaration that called for the development of a jurisprudence of that enshrines the concept of inclusive citizenship, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed in the UAE in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
Referring to the 2012 Al Azhar statement, Ms. Al-Oumiri highlighted the fact that the statement was issued in the wake of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Saudi and UAE manoeuvres helped roll back the revolts’ achievements in all of the countries except for Tunisia.
The manoeuvres did not roll back what Ms. Al-Oumiri described as a “new awareness” among “all the components that participated in the protest movement, secularists, liberals, Christians, Muslims and others, (that) became aware of the fact that the bilateral polarization and exclusionary relations prevailing at that time were the main reason for the dispersion of forces capable of inducing positive change and extricating Arab society from its chronic crisis.” It is an awareness that expresses itself today among others in changing youth attitudes towards religiosity.
Ms. Al-Oumiri’s ‘new awareness’ is one factor that hampers autocratic efforts to shape a moderate form of Islam that serves the needs of social change and economic diversification without conceding democratic freedoms, projects autocrats as religious moderates as part of their nation branding and furthers their quest for religious soft power.
The ‘new awareness’ is borne out by research and opinion polls that consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.
As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity to turn its alliance with the WEA into a vehicle of change in both the Muslim world and the West is enhanced by the fact that religious reform in rival contenders for religious soft power like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt is top-down by decree or changes in common or civil rather than, more sustainably, bottom-up and anchored in religious law and jurisprudence.
The point was highlighted when Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious leaders took the first step towards reform of religious law and/or jurisprudence in 2019 by replacing the notion of the kafir or infidel with the concept of muwathinun or citizens to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.
Leaders of the group say that they intend to tackle other outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity is further both bolstered and complicated by the fact that autocratic Muslim rulers wittingly or unwittingly reinforce Islamophobic tendencies in multiple ways by their often brutal abuse of human rights at home and their support of policies in various parts of the globe that encourage negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.
These policies include the blurring in countries like France and Austria of the lines between political Islam and piety as well as autocratic Muslim acquiescence, if not endorsement of the crackdown on Turkic Muslims and Islam in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.
Nahdlatul Ulama, despite its tangible adherence to principles of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, has yet to clearly distinguish itself from autocratic religious soft power rivals when it comes to its shared rejection of political Islam and identity politics. In other words, how it handles Islamophobia is likely to be a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulama as well as its alliance with the Evangelicals.
Making that distinction clear is likely to also enhance the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s ability to bring together elements of the centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based advocacy of human rights, democratic freedoms, and tolerance at a time that democracy is on the defence.
The linkage between the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s opportunity to serve as a bridge in both the religious and political domain is evident not only when it comes to countering religious supremacism but also far-right extremism. It is that linkage that adds a geopolitical dimension to the alliance’s potential.
Germany, where ultra-nationalist supremacists, despite recent electoral setbacks for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have infiltrated the security and armed forces, spotlights the importance of creating a religious and political centre that is driven as much by shared values as it is by interests.
Security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in recent years. The German defence ministry last year disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and memorabilia of the Nazi’s SS were found on the property of a sergeant major.
The geopolitical significance of developments in Germany is enhanced by the fact that some German ultra-nationalists and members of the far-right are believed to have links to Russia and /or far-right Russian nationalists.
In the latest German incident, prosecutors are investigating an official of Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, suspected of helping plan the assassination of a Chechen dissident as part of a campaign across Europe that targets critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov is widely viewed as an associate of President Vladimir Putin and maintains close ties to Middle Eastern autocrats.
Defining moderate Islam: Muslims and Evangelicals forge an alliance
A major Muslim and Evangelical organization joined forces this week to significantly advance hitherto state-backed ceremonial inter-faith dialogues that seldom go beyond platitudes and lofty statements.
This week’s launch at a Washington DC mosque of an inter-faith alliance and a book published by the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Germany-based World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as well as the Center for Shared Civilizational Values constitutes an Evangelical endorsement of Humanitarian Islam.
It also amounts to a rare Muslim celebration of an Evangelical authority, WEA secretary general Archbishop Thomas Schirrmacher, who played a key role in building a relationship between the Evangelical group and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, one, if not the world’s largest Muslim movement.
“Dr. Schirrmacher’s decision to engage with the Humanitarian Islam movement may prove to be singularly consequential, and perhaps even historic, in its ramifications for the relationship between Christians and Muslims,” the editors of the book, Thomas K. Johnson and C. Holland Taylor said in their introduction.
Entitled ‘God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim – Christian Relations in the 21st Century,’ the book is an anthology of essays written by preeminent Muslim and Christian scholars.
Based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Institute for Humanitarian Islam was established by Nahdlatul Ulama to advance globally its humanitarian interpretation of the faith.
Nahdlatul Ulama sees the concept as an alternative to state-backed less developed and less tolerant and pluralistic notions of a moderate Islam as propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well expressions of political Islam represented by Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nahdlatul Ulama was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam propagated for decades by Saudi Arabia until the rise in 2015 of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Indonesian group positions Humanitarian Islam as advocating genuine religious reform rather than self-serving social and rhetorical change advocated by rulers eager to implement long-overdue economic and social reform and project themselves as genuine religious moderates in a global battle for Muslim religious soft power and the soul of Islam.
The differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s Humanitarian Islam and the interpretations of the faith put forward by its conservative monarchical and republican Islamist soft power rivals are stark and raise fundamental questions about what constitutes genuine reform and how it can sustainably be achieved.
The differences pitch an independent civil society group, albeit one with close ties to the state, against states themselves.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s independence has allowed it to start a process of real change rooted in religious law and jurisprudence rather than a ruler’s decree or opinion issued by subservient clergymen.
The group challenges outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the kafir or infidel, the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.
The group’s religious leaders took the first step in 2019 by replacing the term kafir with the word muwathinun or citizen to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law. “The word ‘kafir’ hurts some non-Muslims and is perceived to be theologically violent,” Nahdlatul Ulama cleric Abdul Moqsith Ghazali said at the time.
Independence also enabled Nahdlatul Ulama to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parts of which are exempted by its religious soft power rivals. That is not to say that liberals may not take issue with some of the interpretations of the declaration by Nahdlatul Ulama, a socially conservative movement.
The differences raise questions about Nahdlatul Ulama’s ability to succeed beyond the significant inroads that the group has made among political and religious elites in the United States, Europe, the Vatican, and parts of Africa and Asia.
The launch in Washington of the unprecedented alliance and the book is together with Nahdlatul Ulama’s association with the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), the world’s largest grouping of political parties, the most publicly visible evidence of its success among elites.
The alliance puts flesh on the skeleton of recent inter-faith dialogue by bringing together two of Islam and Christianity‘s major groups. Nahdlatul Ulama has tens of millions of followers while the World Evangelical Alliance says it represents 600 million Protestants and national evangelical alliances in 140 countries. The alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama casts a different light on Evangelicals as opposed to Evangelists, who particularly, in the United States have often come to be identified with Christian nationalism and Islamophobia.
The alliance aims “to prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being,” the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Nation’s Mosque in Washington, said in a press release.
With the creation of the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, the alliance also constitutes an effort to create a platform for a dialogue that moves beyond elites to nurture a grassroots movement in favour of religious reform across major religions that emphasizes inclusivity, pluralism, tolerance, and common values rather than exclusivism and supremacy fueled by identity politics. (In the spirit of transparency, this writer has been invited to be a member of the centre’s advisory board).
In doing so, the Center hopes to build on Nahdlatul Ulama’s substantial popular base in Indonesia, the WEA’s reach across the globe and a range of contacts and interactions with Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu groups and personalities.
The choice of Masjid Mohamed, the Nation’s Mosque, as the venue of the launch, suggests an outside-in strategy in trying to garner grassroots support in the Muslim world. Located in Washington’s historic African-American Shaw district, Masjid Muhammad is the first mosque in the United States built by descendants of slaves.
As such, the launch constitutes an outreach to a minority Muslim community in a Western democracy that despite upheaval in the United States as the country struggles to come to grips with its history of racism is likely to be more accessible and perhaps more open to Humanitarian Islam’s message than significant segments of the population in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan or the Middle East where many see what has long become a global faith through the lens of its Arab origins.
The alliance takes on added significance in a Western world that despite the electoral defeat of former US President Donald J. Trump and setbacks in Europe suffered by populists and ultra-nationalists has in recent years increasingly mainstreamed prejudice, bias, and authoritarianism.
“Rather than the world becoming more like the United States, as so many of us expected after the Cold War, the United States has become more like the rest of the world—in particular, its authoritarians,” noted foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook, debunking the projection of the US as a beacon of liberty and freedom.
In a twist of irony, Nahdlatul Ulama’s book publication coincided with a more narrowly focused and transactional Saudi-backed launch in Lebanon of a book, ‘The relationship between the Maronite patriarchate and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Written by Maronite Father Antoine Daw, Saudi support for the book and outreach to the Maronites was part of the kingdom’s effort to counter Iran’s regional influence and engage the Islamic republic in direct and indirect issue-oriented dialogues.
The launch in Bkirki, the Maronite patriarchate’s episcopal see, followed a call by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, for a meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.
The patriarch urged Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s most powerful groups that played a key role in Iranian support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to move towards a position of neutrality in a bid to salvage Lebanon that is teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse.
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Social Protection Programs remain central to Bangladesh’s sustainable development policy and are progressively benefitting the poorer households. By improving targeting...
Was Trump better for the world than Biden, after all?
Joe Biden and the State Department just approved a major deal with the Saudis for 500mln in choppers maintanance. Effectively,...
Eritrea: Release journalists and politicians arrested 20 years ago
The Eritrean authorities must immediately and unconditionally release 21 journalists and politicians who were arrested in a sweeping crackdown on...
Torture, killings, lawlessness, still blight Burundi’s rights record
The people of Burundi continue to endure serious human rights violations including possible crimes against humanity, the majority committed by...
Appliance standards and labelling is highly effective at reducing energy use
Policies that introduce minimum efficiency performance standards and energy-consumption labelling on appliances and equipment have led to reduced power consumption,...
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