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Indonesia’s Moderate Muslims

Islam in Indonesia, whose 200 million people constitute the world’s largest community of Muslims, is increasingly viewed as very different from the Islam practiced in the older Muslim communities of the Middle East. Indeed, one distinguished scholar, Bassam Tibi of Gottingen University, has described Indonesia as “a model for religiously and ethno-culturally different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect.”

Some historians argue that Indonesia’s moderate form of Islam reflects the way in which foreign traders introduced it, as early as the fourteenth century. Then, the coastal culture already incorporated egalitarianism, dynamism, and inter-dependence, which affected the ideology and practice of Islam. In addition, Indonesian Islam had strong Sufi influences, which emphasize the spiritual rather than the legal elements of the faith.

Similarly, Giora Eliraz of Hebrew University argues that the Islamic ideas that arrived in Indonesia from the Middle East changed, becoming more inclusive and pluralist in character, owing to the influence of the great nineteenth-century Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh. In Egypt, Abduh’s progressive ideas gained support from only a tiny group of reformers. In Indonesia, however, Abduh’s vision of Islamic modernity sparked the creation of the country’s largest modernist Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, which represents mainstream moderate Islam in Indonesia.

This history of moderation continued unabated through the twentieth century, embraced by both traditionalists and modernists. The traditonalist organization Nahdlatul Ulama