What's really at stake in Indonesian street protests

It's not that radical Islam has taken root in Indonesia. The real issue is the misuse of the Quran by reading it out of context.

Jakarta recently witnessed its biggest rallies in years. On Nov 4, about 100,000 people took to the streets, calling for the arrest of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, for alleged blasphemy. About 500,000 people participated in a second rally staged on Dec 2. These rallies were led by the conservative Muslim group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), under the banner "Bela Islam" (Defend Islam).

While grievances with Ahok should not be dismissed as purely religiously driven - claims of corruption and policies biased towards the middle-class ethnic Chinese minority are allegedly aplenty - mass mobilisation was possible precisely because of the use of religious rhetoric.

This has led many media reports to simply frame the protests as a sign of a radical strain of Islam taking hold in Jakarta. In fact, what the hardliners have also demonstrated was how a decontextualised reading of a sacred text - in this case the Quran - can be misused for ends that are inimical to public peace and social cohesion.

Ahok, a Christian, had suggested that verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran (Q 5:51) had been misused by his political opponents to deceive voters and justify the assertion that Muslims could not have him as their political leader.

Taken literally, verse Q 5:51 discourages Muslims from taking as friends, confidants and leaders, Christians and Jews.

However, this verse should not be read out of context, without consideration of its historical circumstances. It was revealed at a time of hostilities between a nascent Muslim community and specific tribes, including particular Christian tribes - not Jews and Christians as such - in seventh- century Arabia.

Indeed, some scholars have acknowledged that the Quran holds Christians in high regard and singles them out as being "closest in affection" to Muslims (Q 5:82).

It also makes reference to the People of the Book, which could be read to include Christians, as belonging to an "upright community" (Q 3:113).

CONTEXTUALISATION IN ISLAMIC TRADITION 

Reading the Quran in context refers to the understanding of the meaning and intent of passages in the Quran in relation to a specific context, and then being able to apply its teachings anew, taking into account contemporary realities. Indeed, the very act of contextualising Islam has been integral to its historical acceptance by distinct peoples living in diverse places at different times.

Islam's ability to incorporate external elements from other non-Muslim cultures has allowed it to flourish in places like China, once thought to be an unlikely destination for Muslims.

For instance, Chinese ulama, such as Wang Dai-yu (died in 1660) and Liu Zhi (d. 1739), wrote about and taught Islam, using Confucian terminology and categories of thought.

In this manner, Islamic concepts of God, prophethood, heaven and hell became intelligible to the Chinese community, enabling them to live a form of Islam that is familiar within their culture, while still in accordance with the dictates of the religion.

Centuries earlier, Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi (d. 873), al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) synthesised the writings of Plato and Aristotle with Islamic philosophy.

Beyond translating the texts, these philosophers made significant contributions to the corpus of knowledge in the world. For example, al-Kindi repurposed the Greek notion of the first principle (arche) to be the Creator, thereby bringing out the relevance of Greek philosophy not only to Islam but to other monotheistic religions like Christianity in the West.

CONTEXTUALISATION WITHIN ETHICAL BOUNDARIES

However, contextualisation has been met with scepticism by some who argue that it can lead to moral relativism or a dilution of the "true Islam". How then can we ensure that Islam does not become too foreign or unrecognisable?

The Islamic scholarly tradition has established a hierarchy of values in Islam that could help us in distinguishing the permanent elements of the religion (tsawabit) from those that are changing (mutaghayyirat), in order to derive meaning from the Quran.

They set the boundaries for contextualisation and ensure that efforts at doing so do not fall into moral relativism. At the same time, recognising the existence of a hierarchy of values would also prevent interpretations that conflict with the very substance or universal values of the religion.

An example of an obligatory value in Islam is its theological world view of one God that creates and sustains the universe. This explains why classical Muslim scholars engaged with Greek philosophy and sciences, but did not freely import Greek mythology into its literary corpus because of concerns that doing so undermined its monotheistic world view.

ISLAM IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT 

This episode has put at stake a critical matter for Indonesian Islam.

It is not the transitory issue of the electioneering for Ahok's ouster as such that is of fundamental concern here.

What is at stake crucially is how a religious rationalisation - that stems from a decontextualised reading of the Quran that is unfriendly towards Christians and other non-Muslims - can become encrusted into the tradition of Islam in Indonesia.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim community and is a pluralistic society. On the very subject of Islam's hospitality to other religions, it has much to offer to the troubled Muslim world of today, which is riven by religiously motivated violence.

It behooves Muslim scholars and leaders to challenge the misuse of religious scriptures for errant political ends, by offering viewpoints rooted in solid Islamic scholarship through proper contextualised reading.

  • Nursheila Muez is a research analyst with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP), at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2016, with the headline 'What's really at stake in Indonesian street protests'. Print Edition | Subscribe