Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dr Budhy Munawar-Rachman: Defender of Religious Pluralism in Indonesia

Dr Budhy Munawar-Rachman
Budhy Munawar-Rachman, a leading figure in what I call Indonesia's third generation of postcolonial Muslim intellectuals, has received was doctorate by the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, on the basis of a thesis entitled Titik Temu Agama-agama: Analisis atas Islam Inklusif Nurcholish Madjid (Points of Agreement between Religions: An Analysis of Nurcholish Madjid's Inclusive Islam).

For many years, Budhy was a close confidante of Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005, affectionately known as 'Cak Nur'), one of the most important Muslim intellectuals during Suharto's New Order (1965-1998) and founder of the Movement for the Renewal of Islamic Thinking. As the founder of the Nurcholish Madjid Society, former executive director of the Paramadina Foundation and editor of many of Cak Nur's books, he is the prime custodian of the latter's intellectual heritage. Thus Budhy was uniquely positioned to write this dissertation on his mentor's views of interfaith relations and interreligious dialogue.

Budhy Munawar-Rachman's own views on the subject are shaped by a lengthy and meandering intellectual trajectory. The sketch below is taken from one of the chapters in my upcoming book Islam in Indonesia: The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values:

Although regarded as an exponent of progressive Muslim thinking, Budhy Munawar-Rachman earlier education firmly integrated him  into the mainstream of Sunni orthodoxy, where ‘fiqh became the science that underpinned social reality’. His interest in physics kindled a desire for finding a rationalized understanding of religion, changing fixed religious convictions and received rituals into an intellectual and spiritual quest, which he expanded further through readings into popular psychology and the writings of Krishnamurti. However, Munawar-Rachman‘s key educational experience was the time he spent at the Higher School for Entrepreneurship (Sekolah Tinggi Wiraswasta, STW). This unconventional adult education institute by Utomo Danajaya, who later joined Nurcholish Madjid in establishing the Paramadina Foundation, teaches through participatory training and does not offer any formal degrees or qualifications. This approach is based on Paulo Freire’s philosophy of education, called the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, and geared towards grassroots level social development and empowerment.

In this milieu he was also introduced to the world of Islamic theology and philosophy, becoming captivated by the writings of Harun Nasution and especially his advocacy of a rehabilitation of the Mu‘tazila. Another deep impression was left by the publication of the diaries of AhmadWahib (1942-1973), Mukti Ali’s protégé in Yogyakarta who had died in a traffic accident. This influences ‘turned him into a free thinker, who had the courage to think for himself without fear of error’. Thus Munawar-Rachman was drawn into a study circle run by Ahmad Wahib’s close friend Djohan Effendi, where he learned to understand that the Qur’an must be seen as a phenomenon ‘reflecting the structures of that society, culture, economy and government, its foreign relations, customs, climate, the personality of the Prophet and his Companions’. Here he was also introduced to Nurcholish Madjid’s ideas on secularity and learned to appreciate the distinction between secularism as an ideology and secularization as a social process, captured in a new anthropology which made humankind God’s vicegerent on earth.

After a few years as a social research, during which he undertook a project investigating religious motivation where he tried to use the categories of Muʽtazili philosophy learned from Nasution for determining the level of rationality in pre-urban societies on the outskirts of Jakarta, Munawar-Rachman joined STF Driyarkara, which was equally unconventional as STW and used a  teaching philosophy called ‘conscientizing research’ also modelled after the work of Freire. It stimulated Munawar-Rachman to engage seriously with the work of Marx, Wittgenstein and Popper, as well as other academic fields such as economics and the sociology of development and education. These studies provided him with a more solid philosophical underpinning for rethinking theologies, such as the one formulated by the Mu‘tazila, as functional-rational approaches to modernity and transform them into an ideology for social change -- a Liberation Theology shaped by a new paradigm standing in stark contrast to the privatization of religion found in conventional liberal theology.

All this forms the foundation for Budhy Munawar-Rachman’s later involvement in defending religious pluralism – especially in the wake of the controversial fatwa by Indonesia’s Council of Islamic Religious Scholars (MUI) – culminating in a hefty study entitled Reorientation of the Renewal of Islam: Secularism, Liberalism and Pluralism, A New Paradigm for Indonesian Islam.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Recapturing Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Youssef Rakha on Contemporary Muslim Identity in a Post-Enlightenment World

The 2011 regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are not only transforming the political stage, but also impacting on the cultural scene, articulated  through what Hamid Dabashi calls the ‘indexical utterances’ of a new ‘language of revolt’.  Street art and poetry may first come to mind as media for these alternative expressions of creativity, because novels need a degree of critical distance to evolve and mature. And yet, an upcoming generation of younger writers is using the new opportunity space that has opened up in the wake of the Arab Spring to also take the novel into unexplored directions.

Youssef Rakha
One such author is the Egyptian Youssef Rakha, who admits that he was actually overtaken by events when the publication of Kitab al-Tugra: Gharaib al-Tarikh fi Madinat al-Marikh (Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars)[1] coincided with the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Although years in the making, this novel prefigures some of the concerns that led to the uprisings in the first place, as Rakha explains in an essay entitled ‘Islam and the Caliphate’:

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. […]. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity[…] Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

Perhaps Youssef Rakha is a bit too harsh on himself, because the paradoxical juxtapositions he makes seem to reflect the turbulent social and political changes, indicative of the concomitant polarization in Arab societies:

the Arabic edition of The Sultan's Seal
I placed the Wahhabis, against whom the Pasha had fought on behalf of the Sublime Porte, in the same camp as Mustafa Kemal, whose military nationalism my protagonist saw as the other side of the Islamists’ totalitarian coin. Kemal—and Egypt’s own Gamal Abdel Nasser with him—were more like jihadis, Al Qaeda, Salafis and, yes, Muslim Brothers than the sultans.

The aggressively secular orientation of Kemalism had after all broken with even the highest peaks of Muslim heritage; and it was such severance and complete identification with Europe that eventually gave rise to Islamism. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in response to Kemal abolishing the caliphate altogether in 1924 (following which several attempts to reinstate it across the Muslim world all failed).

To my protagonist, both Kemal’s and the Islamists’ collective self-definitions were forms of glorified provincialism. […]

[…] how inward-looking and small-minded is the fellahin-oriented legacy of both Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat. Neither father of the nation truly introduced the judicial and institutional rigour modern Egypt had always lacked; neither adequately replaced the far less pretentious patriarchy founded by Muhammed Ali, or lived up to the standards he set for economic development.

The reference to Muhammad Ali -- the Albanian officer who took control of Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman empire after the British had evicted Napoleon, but in effect becoming an autonomous ruler to whom then fell the task of ousting the Wahhabis from Islam’s Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina – reminded me of a conversation I had with a London-based Egyptian corporate lawyer. When asking him whether it was al-Sisi’s ambition to become a second Nasser, he opined that it was more probable the field marshall wants to emulate this Ottoman viceroy.

The alternative Rakha seeks to recapture is reminiscent of what Abdelwahab Meddeb set out to do in his novel Talismano. The latter’s hallucinatory journey through Tunis and other Mediterranean cities is not dissimilar to the itinerary of the protagonist in The Sultan’s Seal, both of which tap into the rihla genre which offers an appropriate trope for celebrating a past that was much more sophisticated and cosmopolitanism than the coarse essentialism of nationalist, Pan-Arabist and Islamist ideologies.

For the full essay, click here.

[1]An English translation will appear in the Fall of 2014 under the title The Sultan’s Seal – not to be confused with a Jenny White’s book published under the same title as part of her Kamil Pasha detective series.