Situated on Islam’s eastern periphery, the
Indonesian island of Java has long been known to have the
most liberal, tolerant version of that religion practiced
anywhere on earth.
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Its religious traditions are not the result of accident, but rather of precise historic circumstances, which offer invaluable lessons for us in the struggle against religious extremism and terror today.
The sixteenth century was a time of great
upheaval and bloodshed on the island of Java, as newly Muslim
city-states along its northern coast destroyed local Hindu-Buddhist
kingdoms, and extended their power to the island’s interior.
Flush with victory,
fanatical adherents of the new religion—many of Arab or Chinese
descent—spread terror as they sought to eradicate the island’s
ancient cultural heritage in the name of the One True God,
Opposing them were indigenous Javanese—now led by Islamic
saints and political figures, such as Sunan Kalijogo (shown
left)—who sought continuity and a common ground between
religions, based on the precepts of tolerance and mysticism.
nearly a hundred years, the opposing forces struggled for
the soul of Java—and, ultimately, for that of Islam—in
a war whose decisive engagements occurred not only on
the field of battle, but in the hearts and minds of countless
individuals scattered across the lush, tropical landscape
In the end, a new dynasty arose, which established
religious tolerance as the rule of law, and guaranteed freedom
of conscience to all Javanese. The founder of that dynasty
was a Javanese Sufi Muslim and disciple of Sunan Kalijogo named
Senopati ing Alogo (shown right). The basis of his victory
was the popular appeal of Senopati’s message of freedom, justice
and profound inner spirituality, in contrast to the fanaticism
and tyranny of his political opponents.
Today, more than four centuries later, Kalijogo’s and
Senopati’s legacy remains, in the form of Java’s distinctly
tolerant and pluralistic culture. Their ideological descendants
continue to resist the tide of religious extremism, now funded
by Gulf petrodollars and entrenched local elites, who use
radical Islam for personal advancement, or to attack and
undermine the process of reform in Indonesian society.
Contemporary leaders—such as Senopati’s lineal descendant,
Sri Sultan Hamengkubuono X; Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid,
Indonesia's former president;
Abdullah, the rector of Sunan Kalijaga Islamic State University;
and rock superstar Ahmad Dhani—are not alone in their efforts,
but supported by tens of millions of Indonesians, who wish to
preserve their culture’s enlightened embrace of religious
tolerance and diversity.
By applying the lessons of Java’s historic
struggle, we can help to reduce religious extremism and
discredit the use of terror worldwide. That means promoting
the cause of liberty, tolerance and justice in other Muslim
countries, and encouraging true inner spirituality as an
antidote to religious fanaticism. The appeal of these ideas
is evident, with calls for political reform now echoing
throughout the Middle East. They are also essential to
counter the growth of hard line fundamentalist parties that
seek to exploit the desperation engendered by decades of
economic and political corruption, and the emerging process
of democratic reform, in order to dominate their respective
societies—much as Hitler rose to power by cleverly
exploiting the suffering and resentments of the German
people in a newly democratic Weimar Germany.
Lebanese demonstrators calling for freedom and democracy
on the streets of Beirut.