Examining the Fragile Promise of Muslim Diversity

At a recent event in India, I asked Pakistan's former president, Pervez Musharraf, whether he would support his country's tireless human-rights activists. He invited me to pose a different question. I didn't.

"Sit down!" the retired Army general then ordered.

Things probably won't get that tense when Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari, visits Barack Obama next week. But maybe they should, given the Taliban's growing reach and Zardari's plunging credibility. The two presidents will be joined by a third, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, a religious "moderate" who routinely barters away the rights of women and minorities to warlords and mullahs.

As a reform-minded Muslim, I admit that these guys make the notion of diversity in my faith look laughable. Their track records underscore why we have to venture beyond geopolitical hotspots to fathom the future of progressive Islam.

A year ago, I traveled to Indonesia during Kartini Days. That's when almost 300 million people, most of them Muslim, pay tribute to an early 20th-century Indonesian feminist named Kartini. Although a controversial figure—too revolutionary for some, not radical enough for others—the nationwide affection that I witnessed for her rivals the respect I observe each April in the U.S. for Martin Luther King Jr.

I arrived in Jakarta to launch my book and film, both of which call on Muslims to embrace human rights and freedom of conscience for all. Hundreds of students showed up, ranging from transsexuals to Islamists. They spoke their minds. They disagreed. In between the verbal sparring, guitarists strummed, poets recited and dancers kicked up their Javanese heels. Nobody downplayed their conflicts; instead, they treated dispute as a necessity of democracy. Everybody left safely—including the most vocal transsexual, who proudly announced that after her surgery, she fought for the right to wear a headscarf. She won. My uncovered head spun at the layers of nuance being expressed.

For all its promise, exemplified by last week's national elections favoring secular parties, Indonesia nonetheless flirts with peril. In only 10 years, Islamism has gone from being a joke to a force. Once an authoritarian state whose military quashed any inconvenient element, Indonesia introduced democratic reforms a decade ago. Since then, a free press has emerged. So has political Islam.

Like Muslims elsewhere, Indonesians are watching the import of Saudi-style Islam. Sometimes known as Salafism, it preaches a borderless caliphate anchored in the moral absolutes of the Prophet Muhammad's initial successors. A global village for the virtuous and valorous, Salafism purports to offer a way—no, the way—to combine reverence with modernity. Binding black and white, rich and poor, woman and man, mighty and weak, the theory of Salafism is transcendently pluralistic.

Then there's reality. In practice, Salafis displace pluralism with puritanism. True to the dictates of dogma, they use intimidation and violence to spread their gospel. This summer, a small but steroidal gang of Islamists assaulted human-rights activists in Jakarta. Police stood by as the extremists crashed a religious freedom rally, organized after Indonesia's government imposed restrictions on a minority Muslim sect.

Salafis call the move a defense of Islam's integrity. Pluralists call it a violation of Indonesia's Constitution. Moderate Muslim leaders call it none of their business. Those moderates embody the communal silence that has allowed militant Islamism to metastasize worldwide. Emanating from a secular democracy like Indonesia, such silence is made all the more tragic—with implications that can be frighteningly personal.

Consider the e-mail sent to me by Sakdiyah, a student who attended my film screening at Indonesia's largest university. Since 2005, she has passionately promoted progressive Islam in the same city that houses the Indonesian Mujahedin Council, a radical Islamist outfit. No longer can she and her friends deny their fears: "We tried to organize a seminar on pluralism and received phone calls saying that they would send hundreds of Allah's soldiers to stop us."

Spartan Islam is hitting home. "My family will send me threatening letters whenever I get my work published," Sakdiyah writes. "I often find myself giving up when I face my father," Sakdiyah writes. "Then I lie. I don't want to hurt him, and I don't want him to hurt me because I don't want to hate him. So how can we get along? How can I use my freedom of speech in a matter that will make people understand, especially when they are conservative?"

This is a defining dilemma for the new generation of Muslims in Indonesia, Algeria, Nigeria, India, Iran, France, the United States and elsewhere. They are wired enough to witness how others live, making many of them disgruntled by the maldistribution not just of material wealth but also of individual liberties. They struggle loudly against the colonizing cudgels of U.S. foreign policy. They denounce their own arrogant governments. And in the West, they finger the catchall specter of racism. But behind the placards, they text their peers about how they're resisting what a Muslim lad in Britain described to me as "tribalism"—community pressures to clam up and conform.

Now for the irony. Moderate Muslims are ignoring this frustration while Salafis are eagerly tapping into it. Hard-core Islamists open the doors of inquiry, usher the vulnerable through and then extinguish the very curiosity that attracted their recruits. They achieve this by providing "safe" spaces in which Muslims who feel suffocated by their own can question conventional teachings, especially those of mainstream imams whose smug feudalism oozes the warning: do as you're told. Tribalism to a T.

Moderate Muslims fail to appreciate at least two realities. One: at a time when youth are constantly engaging their minds to navigate the ocean of information flowing through the Web, it's humiliating to be told you can't think for yourself. Two: in our era of mass migration, young Muslims have more questions than ever. I draw strength from the most common remark sent to me through my Web site these days—"Can we, as Muslims, marry non-Muslims?" A hot 21st-century issue, interfaith love is helping to drive a new school of Islamic jurisprudence that reinterprets theology for Muslim minorities in the multicultural West.

Reinterpretation will be painfully messy because it demands excising tribal tradition from the practice of Islam. It's not just Salafis who confuse culture with faith. Seemingly integrated Muslims do, too. I remain amazed at how often Muslim-American students whisper to me what is, in fact, an open secret: that they can't voice their support for progressive Islam because they would be accused of "dishonoring" their communities.

The shame-soaked culture of honor comes straight out of the desert. It predates Islam. Why should children of the First Amendment sacrifice their authenticity at the ancient altar of a non-Islamic, even un-Islamic, mindset?

Culture is emotional, and a critical mass of Arabs may feel deeply attached to the code of honor. But with equal emotional sincerity, non-Arab Muslims often resent this custom being foisted on them. Previously colonized by the Dutch, Indonesians detect Saudi cultural imperialism today. After one of my film screenings, Professor Hindun Annisa lectured to an auditorium of students that "when theologians talk about Islamic history, they're really talking about Arab history." The audience instantly understood. Their reaction gives me hope that a cultural shift away from honor is possible in the world's largest Muslim nation.

Which leads me back to Sakdiyah, who echoes countless young Muslims today. She wants to be honest with her father but compromises her conscience the moment she faces him. How to help her harmonize faith with freedom? The key, I'm convinced, is to replace honor with dignity.

As a starting point, Muslim children ought to be taught higher expectations of themselves. Some of them will rise to the occasion, as I glimpsed at an Indonesian Islamic boarding school. The adolescent girls didn't need to be persuaded that Islam and human rights can be reconciled. Instead, they asked whether Indonesians, so distant from the news media's attention, could emit that vision effectively.

Invited to reply, I assured them that compelling ideas have historically come from the edges. Witness the Grameen Bank, the world's most energetic lender to the poor. Created by Muslims in Bangladesh, Grameen is now bringing its wisdom to America. The students began to buzz.

Seizing on their excitement, I reminded them of their precious democratic privileges. Use your freedoms of thought, speech and conscience to invent a fresh future for Islam, I advised. Then use digital technology to circulate your ideas. You'll show open-minded Muslims everywhere that they're not alone.

At the end of our session, a gaggle of girls surrounded me to ask more questions, shake hands and snap photos. One confided in slow and deliberate English, "I am so inspired. Thank you, Wonder Woman."

Her reference to a universal superheroine assured me of two things. First, honor can indeed be redefined if the feminist heart of Kartini beats in the religious enclaves of the most populous Muslim country on earth. Second, the potential for a cross-cultural and contemporary Islam can be found in the unlikeliest corners.

In that cross-cultural vein, it's vital to peer past conventional combat zones for hints of where progressive Islam still has a fighting chance. The Prophet Muhammad reportedly counseled going as far as China to gain knowledge. I'm reinterpreting his guidance to include Indonesia. Same time zones.

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