InsightJanuary February 2006

Between Twin Fundamentalisms: Muslims amidst Global Injustice and Extremism

Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf


The twenty first century has both good news and bad news for religious people. The good news is that the Middle age theory of secularization has been falsified by the fact of increasing influence of religions in the lives of human being. Religiosity is growing not only among those living under social and economic depression, but also among middle class, educated and urban people. Many have responded to modernity and globalization by moving religions into the center of their lives.

In Indonesia today, the enforcement of religion in public space has reached a high level. This enforcement is obvious in the trends of Islamic movements that advocate the application of Islamic law, the popularity of TV programs, and in the increasing participation of Muslims in the religions forums like mujahadah, majelis ta’lim, and halaqoh, and the Islamic economy of Shari’ah banking, and so forth. On the global level, interest in learning about Islam has been increased by the fear of 9/11 tragedy and the US enduring war on terror. This has been increasing a better understating of Islam.

Unfortunately, this heartening news goes along with distressing outbreaks of religiously nuanced conflicts and violence. The Hindu-Muslim conflict in Kashmir, Christian-Muslims conflict in Maluku, attack in 9/11, and so forth are just a few of them. Efforts to unite religion with state have claimed countless causalities. This effort is carried out by both ruling parties in India (Hindism), Thailand (Buddhism), Srilanka (Buddhism), USA (Christianity), and by oppositions like in Indonesia (Islam), Algeria (Islam), and so forth.

In the context of Indonesian Muslims, violence and conflicts within Islamic nuances take various forms. These antagonistic or hateful preaching and discourse, militants’ attacks on places they consider sinful, communal confrontation like in Poso and Ambon, structural violence of government (represented by Indonesian council of ulama/MUI) on the accusation of the heresy of certain groups of Muslims, and terrorism of Jema’ah Islamiyah.

Despite the dominant number of Indonesian Muslims who are moderates, tolerant and accommodative, extremism is appealing for few numbers of Muslims. The social, economic and political crisis in the Muslim world which is perceived is the failure of secular system to bring justice and prosperity has made the radicals’ proposal for the enforcement of Islamic monarchy attractive. The US trauma on terrorism followed by enduring campaign on war on terror coupled with the well publicized Islamic radicalism has acerbated the fear of religious intolerance and religiously motivated conflicts and violence. This has reinforced the need to promote religious tolerance and harmony.

Extremist’s Use of Scripture and Muslims’ Responses to It

Surely the religious factor is not an independent factor of religiously nuanced conflicts and violence; however, the ambivalence of scripture is undeniably contributive factor to support religious disharmony as well as harmony.

Needless to say, Islam is not the only religion whose scripture poses an ambivalent attitude toward the Other. On the one side, the Qur’an teaches respect for admission to the religious other. Numerous verses in the Qur’an repeatedly admit, accept and respect diversity. Among such verses the Qur’an says: “If God had so wanted, He could have made them a single people. But He admits whom He wills to His grace and for the wrongdoers there will be neither protector nor helper.” (42: 8)

In other places, the Qur’an not only respects diversity, but also justifies other faiths as valid ways to salvation. This kind of justification appears, for example, in two verses of Qur’an with almost the same words:

“Those who believe in God, and those who follow the Jewish (scripture), and the Christians and Sabians, and who believe in God and the last day, and work righteous, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2: 62)

Those who believe in God and those who follow the Jewish (scripture), and the Christians and Sabians, and who believe in God and the last day, and work righteous; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (5: 72)

In many verses the Qur’an is critical of people from other religion. It warns Muhammad, for example, of the enmity of the Jews and the Polytheists. However, it also rejects generalization. It states for example “not all of them are alike; among them is a group who stand for the right…,” (4: 113) and “…the nearest among them in love to the believers will thou find those who say: “We are Christians.” (5: 82)

However, on the other side, the Qur’an contains criticisms and antagonism towards the religious Other, especially Jews and Christians. There are a set of verses which are repeatedly cited by radical Muslims to justify their antagonistic attitudes to other religions. Such verses, for example command Muslims to have firm attitudes and fight non-Muslims who battle Islam or refuse to submit to a Muslim ruler (Q. 48: 29, 9: 9, 123, 919, 193; 4: 75), others prohibit having non-Muslims as leader, allies or protectors (Q. 5: 51; 3: 28; 4: 144, 159), or warn of perpetual conflict between Islam and non-Islam (7: 16-17; 4: 76).

These seemingly contradictory verses are a potential source of theological justification either for violence-promoting leaders or tolerance-promoting leaders. At the end, it is the interests and contexts of Muslims that will determine or define Muslims’ attitudes toward other religions. An Islamic law professor from University of California, Khalid Abu Fadl, has argued regarding the Qur’an: “the meaning of the text is often as moral as its reader. If the reader is intolerant, hateful, or oppressive, so will be the interpretations.”

The hijacking of Qur’anic verses that promote hateful and hostility is not only limited to those that are textually antagonistic to the Others, but also, even, the Qur’anic restrictions to the resort to violence can be understood broadly depends on the interest and contexts of its readers. Al-Qaedah’s arguments for the justifications of killing civilians, for example, are based on an overbroad understanding of just war theory in Islam. The Islamic just war theory limits conducts in war is illegal to attack countries which have treaty with Muslim authority. When physical jihad is permitted it is forbidden to kill civilians, women, children, or the elderly, burn religious houses, or destroy environments.

However, Al-Qaedah makes twisted argument that currently there is no treaty with the USA whose atrocities against Muslims provide the rationale for a just war of defennse. This argument is based on the widely accepted Muslim principle of justice and defensive struggle, and therefore appeals to mainstream understandings about warfare. Al Qaedah also makes arguments that even if there is a treaty with non-Muslim countries, it is subject to reevaluation because has been violated. They also disregard treaties made by corrupt Muslim authorities.

For Al-Qaedah, killing civilians is permitted in several conditions. First, the norm of reciprocatory is justified by the verse “And one who attacks you, attack him in like manner.” (2: 94) This means that if the enemy of Islam uses the tactics that are prohibited in Islam, such as US bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq and Israel attacks in Palestine, it becomes legal for Muslims to use the same tactics. This also justifies the killing of the strongholds of the enemy including direct, indirect, deed, word, and mind assistances.

In response to 9/11, seeking to counter Al-Qaedah’s arguments, Muslim leaders try to show the peaceful face of Islam. They insist that Islam is a religion of peace, justice and harmony, in contrast to that ideology of terror. They point the harmonious nice verses in the Qur’an and exposed Islamic resources that denounce terrorism as un-Islamic. And indeed, such condemnation of terrorism comes not only from progressive and tolerant Muslims, but also come from radical groups like Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. When bombs exploded in the Australian embassy in Jakarta, these two radical Muslim organizations condemned the action and criticized terrorism as un-Islamic.

However, although such responses are necessary they are not sufficient. The sources of religious violence are merely extreme or sectarian ideologies. Ironically some assume that such responses go along with the US response to terrorism, i.e. the promotion of understating of Islam that promotes peace and tolerance. The sudden flurry of conferences and publications on “liberal Islam” whose underlying base is to address ideological factor and thus ignoring external factors are often seen as manifestation of US campaign in the war on terror.

The strategy of counter discourse may be relevance with the uses of hateful, antagonistic and intolerant preaching and publications of religious leaders. This is particularly important to give “fuel” to help those who are trying to prevent young people from getting recruited into extremist groups. However, it will not stop those already committed to the path of terrorism and other forms violence. Muftis (legal authority in Islam law) captivated by the rhetoric and manipulation of sacred symbols Bin Laden and others are unlikely to be swayed by pronouncements of peace-promoting religious leaders. Additionally, due to the lack of widely accepted legal authority in Islam, average of Muslims can choose to follow either hateful or tolerance promoting leaders. This is the double edged sword of religion that poses a challenge for religious leaders wishing to sharpen the peaceful and tolerant edge. They must not only by counteract incitement to violence, but they must find ways to requires address the actual need of Muslim societies in an era of global injustice.

The double edged sword of Islam (as well as other religions) and the lack of widely accepted legal authority in Islam suggest a need for strategies beyond textual arguments. Clearly, ideology is not an independent source of religious intolerance and violence, the promotion of religious harmony and coexistence needs to address external factors. The reality of global inequities makes extreme ideology appear logical and violent ways seem legitimate. Therefore the challenge for religious leaders promoting tolerance is to address the double edged sword of religion and the need to stand against injustice, hegemony and oppression. Farid Esack calls this as a fight against two fundamentalims; the fundamentalism of religious extremism and the fundamentalism of market capitalism. Both fundamentalisms have practical consequences of excluding others. They refuse any possibility of any grace of the Other.

Strategies to Counter Extremism

Despites the obvious need for promoting religious tolerance and harmony, advocating religious tolerance and ideas like democracy, feminism, civil society poses challenges for moderate and progressive Muslims. The promotion of such values is essentially constructive, but American’s preoccupation with liberal rhetoric feels overdone to many Muslims. Frequently the promotion of these ideas spurs resistance and challenges from Muslim communities. In Indonesia, resistance to liberal Muslim activists not only came from radical Muslims, but from many moderate who feel that liberal understanding of Islam taken toward a “brutal” interpretation of scripture. The current fatwa of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) that accuses liberal Islam and religious pluralism of heresy is a good example.

Underlying such resistance, in my opinion, is not only deep skepticism about the validity of liberal understandings of Islam. More importantly is the lack of concern among liberal Muslims for the problems of injustices and global hegemony of the West.

Islamic liberalism has rich possibilities but it also has its limits. Its critique of Islamist extremism and its advocacy of religious pluralism are surely constructive, but the implicit acceptance by many advocates of Islamic liberalism of free-market capitalism as the ideal economic system and of Western-style liberal democracy as the normative political system appears deeply flawed when viewed from the point of view of the poor and the marginalized. This is because the agendas of promoting Islamic liberalism, pluralism and democracy are not the concerns of average Muslims, especially those distressed by economic and social crisis. The real issues for average Muslims are injustice and underdevelopment. Average Muslims, in Indonesia for example, will not see the promotion of democracy and religious pluralism as the answers of their current underdevelopment. In this sense, liberal Islam is essentially an elitist agenda.

There is another disconcerting aspect of some shades of Islamic liberalism, including in Indonesia, where a host of ‘liberal’ Islamic organizations are now being heavily funded by Western agencies to counter Islamist radicals. The liberal Islam project might unwittingly serve Western hegemonic dynamics if not sufficiently critical, not just of the radicals, but also of oppressive local and global elites.

A Malaysian progressive Muslim, Farish A. Noor, put in this way:

“…. one could argue that any endorsement from Washington would spell the kiss of death for any truly progressive Muslim state, government, leader, movement or intellectual… Islam has not been able to make a dent in the armour of the twin juggernauts of globalization and religious extremism over the years. Progressive Islam has not been able to give birth to a counter-hegemonic discourse that can halt the advances of market capitalism, with all its attendant social evils and disruptive effects on society. Nor has it been able to attract a wider following from the subaltern Muslim masses who still fall prey to the charms of the Osamas and Mullah Omars among them.”

Recently I had a conversation with Farid Esack, a prominent African Muslim proponent of liberation theology in Islam. I could feel his struggle with this dilemma. In his book, Qur’an: Liberation and Puralism, he shows himself as a defender of pluralism and religious collaboration against injustice, yet he expressed frustration with Muslims who produce liberal interpretations of Qur’an that fit peacefully in a larger scenario of global hegemony of the West. He was afraid that those who promote interreligious dialogue have fallen into interpretations that force the Qur’an to serve an agenda of global hegemony. Esack’s may sound like an apologetic fundamentalist Muslim argument. However, his concern merits careful attention.

An illustration of such an agenda in the promotion of “liberal Islam” is a report issued by an American think tank, the RAND Corporation, a paper entitled “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies,” written by Cheryl Benard. This paper seems to see radicalism in the Muslim world as purely religious or as somehow intrinsic to Islam with no relation to the reality of American neocolonialism or western supports to dictatorial regimes. The solution to the problem of Islamic radicalism is seen as simply to promote an alternative version of Islam that is compatible with what are defined as American values.

Interfaith agenda may foster tolerant Islam, but awareness of the pro-establishment agenda is important to bear in mind. Interreligious dialogue was an agenda of religious people far before the 9/11 tragedy. This must be carried out as a global agenda, not only as a response to the tragedy.

At the end of this paper let me put some recommendations for Muslims’ response to extremism and terrorism.

First, the promotion of a tolerant or pluralistic understating of Islam needs to be equally accompanied by serious criticism of injustice and hegemony. It is an enormous task for tolerance promoting religious leaders to respond to religious bigotry, stand up against hate-filled preaching, counter rumors and demonization that fuel religious hatred; and to be equally critical of the hegemonic aspect of globalization, economic injustice, and address political repression and insecurity.

Second, interfaith dialogue need to be integrated with humanitarian works. Economic and social depression are often the breeding grounds of radicalism, thus collaboration among works of people different religious backgrounds in technical fields to address these problem is essential to foster tolerance among religious people. This will help people to see those from different religious backgrounds based on their deed, not on their creed.

Third, as explicit promotion of religious diversity and pluralism often arouse resistance among religious people, there need to be many activities desired to, in a low-key way, strengthen values of tolerance and pluralism among religious people. Making the goal obvious sometimes makes people uncomfortable because they feel they are being accused. In other words, a direct approach to teaching tolerance tends to “religionize” conflicts which may in fact not caused by religious factors. Joseph G. Bock, for example, has recommnded several programs that can implicitly foster tolerant attitude toward other religions. Bock suggests creating competition designed to cultivate an appreciation for diversity, interfaith cooperation in technical fields, linking groups in religious tension into a single business development project, joint cultural events, common relief and development programs, and so forth.

Fourth, as many cases of religiously nuanced conflicts are driven by political and vested interests that manipulate religion to create chaos and instability, it is important to develop awareness and skills that can protect religious people from being used by political and vested interests promoting violence and hatred. Training of information distributions that equips religious people with critical views of social analysis can be effective ways to do so. Another way to protect people from destructive vested interests is to strengthen non-religious and indigenous traditions that unite religiously divided societies. The Pela Gandong tradition in Maluku is an example of indigenous tradition that became mechanism to re-unite people but driven apart by modernization and political interests.

Fifth, an attitude of superiority often seems to lie in the root source of religious intolerance. This must be addressed carefully. Surely the answer is not to dilute religion. Rather it must be to embrace religion. However, this should not be done with a view of “underlying spiritual unity” comparable to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Such an approach, according to Joseph Bock, would quickly challenge the reality of difference in various religions which may be more important for religious people. The ideal response to religious superiority, Bock says, is being grounded and having “holy envy” or what in the similar definition called by Paul Knitter “acceptance.” It aims to revitalize religion rather than to marginalize it. This means Muslims being good Muslims and non-Muslims being good non-Muslims. But, Bock suggests “this does not mean that being rooted firmly in one’s faith disallows one from being open to truth or admiring venerable practices of another religion.” Superiority is fine as long as it does not lead to violent actual attitudes and unhealthy relationships with other religions.

End Notes:

[1] Khalid Abou El Fadl (2002), The Place of Tolerance in Islam: On Reading the Qur’an and Misreading It,
[2] Quintan Wiktorowicz and John Kaltner, Killing in the Name of Islam: Al-Qaeda’s Justification for September 11, Middle Eaest policy Council Journal, Volume X, Summer 2003, Number 2. It is also available in
[3] ibid
[4] Farid Esack (2003), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism , Omid Safi, ed. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications) p. 78-97
[5] Dr. Farish A. Noor. (2003) The Challenge and Prospect of ‘Progressive Islam’ in Southeast Asia: Reclaiming the Faith in the Age of George Bush and Osama ben Laden. Personal file.
[6] This report is available on the web and can be accessed on
[7] Joseph G. Bock (2001), Sharpening Conflict Management: Religious Leadership and the Double-Edge Sward, Praeger Publications, Wesport, p. 61-81
[8] Bock, p. 54

Cited Works

Bock, Joseph G. (2001), Sharpening Conflict Management: Religious Leadership and the Double-Edge Sward, Praeger Publications, Wesport

A. Noor, Farish. (2003) The Challenge and Prospect of ‘Progressive Islam’ in Southeast Asia: Reclaiming the Faith in the Age of George Bush and Osama ben Laden.

El Fadl, Khalid Abou (2002), The Place of Tolerance in Islam: On Reading the Qur’an and Misreading It,

Esack, Farid (2003), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism , Omid Safi, ed. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications

Wiktorowicz, Quintan and John Kaltner, Killing in the Name of Islam: Al-Qaeda’s Justification for September 11, Middle Eaest policy Council Journal, Volume X, Summer 2003, Number 2. It is also available in

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