Defeating Islamist Extremism
By Jeff Jacoby | January 22, 2006
''I HAVE been called 'Chrislam' because I am so
close to Christians," Abdurrahman Wahid is saying. ''When I was
criticized by a certain Muslim preacher for not being harsh enough
against the 'kaffir' [infidels] -- for being too close to Jews and
Christians -- I told him to read the Koran again. Because when the
Koran speaks of 'infidels,' it means idolaters," not monotheists.
Wahid, the former president of Indonesia, is
speaking to me by phone from his office in Jakarta. With him is C.
Holland Taylor, an American entrepreneur who fell in love with
Indonesian culture en route to making a fortune in the telecom
industry. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Taylor created the
LibForAll Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting
Islamist extremism by promoting a culture of liberty and tolerance in
the Muslim world; Wahid is the foundation's patron and senior adviser.
With 200 million residents, Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim
nation, and Wahid -- popularly known as Gus Dur -- was not only its
first democratically elected president but the longtime chairman of
its largest Muslim organization, the 35 million-member Nahdlatul Ulama.
A revered religious scholar who studied in Cairo and Baghdad, Wahid is
a longtime champion of a moderate, progressive, and nonpolitical
Islam. As a result, he has frequently clashed with militant
fundamentalists whose growing influence, fueled by Arab/Wahhabi oil
money, is undermining Indonesia's traditional religious pluralism.
Last year, Wahid spearheaded the opposition to a
series of 11 reactionary fatwas, or religious decrees, issued by a
high-ranking council of Indonesian Muslim clerics. The fatwas
condemned any Islamic teaching based on liberalism and secularism,
banned interfaith prayers not led by a Muslim, and even prohibited the
answering of ''amen" to a non-Muslim prayer. Wahid and LibForAll
promptly organized a group of religious leaders into an ''Alliance
Toward a Civil Society," which denounced the fatwas as unworthy of
decent Muslims and improper under Indonesia's constitution.
''Gus Dur went on TV and radio to insist that the fatwas had no
legitimacy and called on Muslims to ignore them," Taylor says.
''Because of his genuine scholarship, his criticism carried great
weight. This is a model of how to defeat radical Islam worldwide."
Wahid and Taylor are convinced that the impact of
Islamist fanaticism can best be blunted by promoting leading Muslims
who endorse moderation, pluralism, and democracy. One member of the
LibForAll board is rock star Ahmad Dhani of the band Dewa. Some of
Dhani's hits have been aimed at undercutting Islamic militants. For
example, one album is called ''Laskar Cinta" (''Warriors of Love") --
a play on the name of a terrorist group, Laskar Jihad (''Warriors of
Jihad"). By harnessing his music and popular following to the cause of
peace and interfaith tolerance, Dhani aims to inoculate young
Indonesian Muslims against the extremism and violence of the
While all of LibForAll's work to date has been in
Indonesia, Wahid and Taylor hope to begin operating in other Muslim
nations soon. On the drawing board now: a project to translate ''Laskar
Cinta" into Arabic and then arrange for an Egyptian pop star to
perform and record it at a concert in Cairo. Wahid intends to meet
with Egyptian clerics and opinion leaders, to press his view that
Islam requires openness toward other religions and that Islamist
terrorists and their supporters must be resisted and discredited.
Taylor argues that because of Indonesia's long
tradition of pluralism, and because of Wahid's great following,
Indonesia is the ideal base from which to launch an intellectual and
cultural assault against the jihadists' ideology. The ''essence" of
Islam, he and Wahid maintain, is summed up in the words of the Koran (Sura
109:6): ''For you, your religion; for me, my religion." But whether
such a message will resonate in the Arab world remains to be seen.
After all, jihadists quote the Koran too, and the verses they cite are
as intolerant and supremacist as Wahid's is pacific and humane.
But there is no doubting Wahid's commitment to
interfaith harmony. He tells Indonesian Muslims that they can learn
from Christianity and Christian life, and has dispatched armed members
of Nahdlatul Ulama to protect Christian churches from Islamist
violence. Not long ago, one of Wahid's Muslim adherents was killed
when he discovered a bomb in a church and used his body to shield the
Christian worshipers from its blast. That stunning act of selflessness
is a powerful reminder that Muslims no less than non-Muslims have a
great deal riding on the defeat of the Islamofascists, and that we
will not win the war against radical Islam without Muslim allies like
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
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