View from the Pew
Lecturer denounces extremes
The religion's conservatives believe they hold the whole and only truth of their faith, and want to impose their version on their compatriots in their political and social life.
The liberals are critical and even disdainful of their co-religionists, believing theirs is the informed and superior application of the religion.
When Indonesian political scientist Bahtiar Effendy talks about those extremes among Muslims in his country, it sounds similar to division among Christian elements with political agendas in the United States.
"Religion cannot live in extremes, the far-left, the far-right radicals," said Bahtiar, who is here as a Fulbright scholar in a program to give Americans "Direct Access to the Muslim World." A political science lecturer at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, Bahtiar is the author of several books, including "Islam and the State in Indonesia," published in 2003 by Ohio State University, where he earned postgraduate degrees.
He is lecturing at the University of Hawaii this month through the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He will speak to several community groups. Two events that are open to the public are:
» Tomorrow at Jodo Mission of Hawaii, 1429 Makiki St., he will speak about Islam and peace at the 9:30 a.m. monthly Peace Prayer Service.
» Wednesday, 7 p.m., at the Buddhist Study Center, 1436 University Ave., he will talk about "Islam in Contemporary Indonesia."
"My wish is that those in the right and the left would talk to each other," he said. "It's OK to critique the other, but there needs to be dialogue. Islam is a religion of the middle path."
People of any religion are mistaken when they claim they alone hold the truth, he said. "Why bother to ask God to help you find the straight path if you found it already? You cannot claim, 'I'm there,' because there is always the potential that you will go astray tomorrow. The Quran teaches that every day, you always seek the straight path, you have not found it yet. You are continually becoming Muslim."
Democratic Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world -- 88 percent of its 240 million people -- is known for a more mellow application of the majority religion than occurs in Middle East nations. It has, however, seen increasing incidence of extremist terrorism and has elements with ties to al-Qaida.
"People try to generalize about Islam, that Islam condones terrorism. I'm asked if the religion provides a justification for violent acts," said Bahtiar, whose lectures here lead to questions based on stereotypes, top of the list being suicide bombers.
"Islam is a religion of peace and justice," he said. Response to terrorism questions takes the discussion down the political rather than religious path. "The general assumption in the Islamic world is that the U.S. does not have an evenhanded policy in the Middle East. Until the perception is changed ... the terrorism continues."
Bahtiar talks about the applications of religion on political and social life on his television talk show and in seminars and lectures, and is often tapped as a resource by the news media.
His assertion that Islamic teaching can even be debated would shake the American perception based on the stereotypical Middle Eastern dictatorship with religion police enforcing compliance.
"Islam respects independent judgment," said the scholar, and there is lively debate about whether social practice, proposed legislation or court judgment measures up to scriptures. "We read the same text differently; the understanding and interpretation are different sometimes. I cannot judge whether your understanding is wrong; only God does. Islam teaches us to be open-minded."
So, what about the news this week of an Afghan government trial of a man facing death because he converted from Islam to Christianity?
"People can fail to understand the Quran in the holistic sense," he said. "There is no compulsion in religion. Not every Muslim who converted is threatened."
For an example of different levels of understanding and interpretation, he pointed to the Islamic doctrine, "Your hand is cut off if you steal." He said that after Mohammed died, a successor's interpretation was that a thief's hand does not have to be lopped off. "He said you have to try to understand why did he steal. In the social context of the time, the poor needed to be taken care of," and thus, motive to steal would be removed.
"There are Muslims who understand it differently. Some hear it literally as the hand being cut off. Others understand the hand as a power. You abdicate your power by stealing, and you must be removed from office.
"If we believe the Quran is eternal, we need to make it functional. It is to understand current needs. Religion is a divine instrument to understand the world."
Bahtiar said Indonesia is "neither an Islamic state nor a secular state," but the concept of separation of church and state does not apply there. "Our founding fathers could not put religion aside. The government is prohibited from passing a law that violates religious law."
There is a national Department of Religious Affairs whose task is "to help citizens practice religion," he said. One of its roles is to administer the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, organizing Indonesians who are fulfilling the Islamic requirement that Muslims make the trip to the religion's holiest place at least once in their life.
Bahtiar said many of his colleagues studied Islam at the University of Chicago, UCLA or Columbia University. A past minister of religious affairs encouraged Indonesians to study in America, not so much for the tenets of the faith, but for the "methodology" of teaching it.
The University of Hawaii aspires to join the ranks of those institutions, said Barbara Andaya, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. The School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies has established a Council on Muslim Asia, made up of UH faculty, staff and administrators, as a first stage in creating a visiting professorship on Muslim societies in Asia. The school is seeking a $2.5 million endowment to fund the chair.
Three doctoral degree candidates from Indonesia's State Islamic University are studying at the University of Hawaii this year.
Bahtiar is the latest of several Islamic scholars to teach at the University of Hawaii. Recently, Anwar Ibraham, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, and Ysa Osman of Cambodia lectured here.