Sunday, June 25, 2006

Building a Bridge through Europe

On 20-21 June 2006, a second International Conference of Islamic Scholars was held in Jakarta. Representatives from various Muslim countries as well as those of other religious groups were present for the two days conference with the aim of building a better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims through dialogue so as to eradicate hostilities and discord among them. The conference tried to project a moderate Islam as the legitimate representative of Islam in an effort to reject the increasing radicalism among Muslims throughout the Muslim world.

In this conference, leaders of Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, expressed their commitment to campaigning for moderate Islam to counter the emergence of militant groups. They would not seek strict religious formalism in pluralist Indonesia – meaning the upholding of the outward signs and practices of the religion – nor tolerate the use of violence in the name of the religion.

At the same time, the results of a new international survey of more than 14,000 people in 13 nations (in Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Spain, Turkey and the United States) by Pew as a part of Pew's Global Attitude Project for 2006 conducted in April and May this year was released. The survey found out that Westerners and Muslims around the world have radically different views of world events, and each group tends to view the other as violent, intolerant, and lacking respect for women. There is discord between Muslim world and West.

Muslims worldwide, including the large Islamic communities in Britain, France, Germany and Spain, broadly blamed the West, while Westerners tended to blame Muslims. Muslims in the Middle East and Asia depicted Westerners as immoral and selfish, while Westerners saw Muslims as fanatical.

The overall results of this research, according Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, show that “even though relations are not good, there has not been a spike in outright hostility between the two groups over the past year.” While both sides see relations as bad, it is, at least, “not getting worse.”

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Even though there has been an increase in the Muslim radicalism in Indonesia in recent years, but majority of Muslims there are having moderate view on Islam. The two largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia, the NU and Muhammadiyah, represent this group of moderate Muslims. It would be understandable then that an initiative to build a bridge between the opposing communities comes from moderate Muslim community in Indonesia. However, if we believe the result of Pew’s survey, Europe could be the starting point where a bridge could be built to improve the situation. Why?

There is one interesting thing in this year’s survey in which for the first time Pew interviewed Muslims in Europe as a group. Furthermore, the view from Europe could play a very important role in this process of creating “a bridge” between the widely divergent views of other Europeans and Muslims in Asia and the Middle East. Two reasons support this argument.

First, with support for terrorism declined in some Muslim countries surveyed, dropping dramatically in Jordan, where terrorist bombings killed more than 50 people in Amman in November and two-thirds of the French public expressed positive views of Muslims, and even larger majorities of French Muslims felt favorable to Christians and Jews, Muslims in Europe are less inclined to see a “clash of civilizations” than general publics in Europe and Muslims elsewhere.

Second, European Muslims lined up with European general publics on some issues, indicating that integration might be moving ahead better than recent events would suggest. Even though the survey found that British Muslims were highly critical of Westerners, holding negative views resembling those of Muslims in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Nigeria, who generally saw Westerners as violent and immoral, for example, this view was not shared by Muslims in France, Germany and Spain.

Thus this distinct view of Muslims in Europe could be used as an initial foundation to build a bridge to create better understanding and erase discord between Muslim world and the West. Moderate Indonesian Muslims have the opportunity to lead the way, but European Muslims have already shown the way.

Without undermining the potentials and capabilities of Muslims in Indonesia to play important role in bridging the gap between Muslim world and the West, the European Muslim has the edge. Their first hand experience and contact with the West and an age-old democratic practice in Europe as compared to the peripheral geographic location of Indonesian Muslims with young democracy are more important than rhetoric and numerical strength. Experience is the best teacher.

However, a one-way step will not yield any fruitful result without the collaboration from the opposing side. A reciprocal action from the West is also important to make the process successful. They have to change their views and policies towards Muslim world, especially on Israel – Palestine’s relation and Iraq. A balanced policy on this issue would certainly create a breakthrough and could yield positive result in the future.

For now, it is European Muslims that have the edge to begin the arduous process of building a bridge that would minimize the gap and discord between Muslim world and the West. At the same time, having the number on its side, moderate Indonesian Muslims should no longer wait to also play their own role in this process. Leave the rhetoric now and start the real work. Collective effort is much better than individual effort.

This post was published in the Op-Ed section of an Indonesian national daily, The Jakarta Post on Friday, 30 June 2006.
The published title was Building the Bridge Through Europe

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