Posted by: ourvoicestogether | January 31, 2008

Worthy Ambassadors of Inter-Faith Reconciliation and Goodwill

Despite an almost 300 million population, vast geography and home to the best and the most breathtaking holiday resorts in the world, the republic of Indonesia hardly ever hits the headlines. It’s a low profile, unheralded nation that perhaps likes to stay within the confines of its rather spread out boundaries.

A report that recently appeared in the print media about this not-so-discussed country caught my attention. Often referred to as the biggest ‘Muslim’ country in the world, I was pleasantly surprised when I learnt that a five-member peace delegation visited Israel last month. The delegation, amongst others, met with the Israel President, Shimon Peres.

The visit that was sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and LibForAll Foundation comprised of delegates from two major Muslim movements – Nahdlatul Ulama (generally known as NU) and Mohammadia. These two organizations claim to represent approximately 70 million out of the 195 million Muslims in Indonesia.

Abdurrahman Wahid, a former president of Indonesia, is the co-founder of LibForAll. He is also a member of the International Board of Governors of the Peres Peace Center in which capacity he has visited Israel on a few occasions.

There are no diplomatic links and ties between Israel and Indonesia. However, apart from this elite level contact, Indonesian businessmen are also involved in some business ventures with Israel.

Israel, on the other hand, was at the forefront of countries that provided aid and assistance to Indonesia when Tsunami hit parts of the country. In fact, Israel was the very first country to offer help soon after the massive earthquake hit the South and South East Asian regions.

The delegation, according to Press reports, interacted with the hosts on a wide-range of topics that included politico-economic and religious issues. The delegates were visiting Israel at the time of the country’s 60th independence anniversary celebrations.

The Israeli President was gracious enough to convey to the delegation that Israel is ready and willing to establish relations with Indonesia. Mr. Peres called for peace and solidarity and prayed for the well being of ‘all the children of Abraham’.

The delegates stressed upon Indonesia’s efforts and emphasis to develop economy, democracy and revamp the economic infrastructure, aimed at transforming people’s attitudes and creating an aware and a tolerant society, where the Muslims were open to change and transitioning to modernization of thought and action.

The delegation mentioned about the extremist elements that play havoc with the moderate face of Indonesia but stressed that with Islamic values ‘there must be peace. We cannot live without peace.’

According to reports the delegates met with Palestinian moderate elements that believe that conflict and physical violence only increases hatred and animosity rather than helping find a solution to the problem.

Below I quote an extremely pertinent and noteworthy comment that President Peres made to the Indonesian delegates while talking about the 1947 UN resolution on the partition of Palestinian state. The President said:

The Palestinians were not recognized as a people or a state. The Arab states never recognized the Palestinians. Israel was the first state to recognize the Palestinians as a people with a right to have state of their own.

Last year these organizations gathered folks from Indonesia who were survivors of the bombings and a Holocaust survivor and co-sponsored a conference in Bali under the patronage of President Wahid.

Also, at the end of 2007, a group of Indonesian journalists met President Peres who told them that Indonesia could potentially play a major role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, primarily due to the fact Indonesia had set a precedent for the rest of the Muslim world by transforming itself from a dictatorship to a progressive democracy and ‘by proving that modernism and religion can walk hand in hand.’

There is a long list of activities that the delegation was able to participate in that included ‘joining in a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony, dancing at a hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Shmon, touring Bethlehem and attending prayers at al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem following the meeting with Peres.’

The point that I am trying to make here is that if the Indonesians can cross boundaries and be courageous enough to shake hands and act as ambassadors of goodwill, why can’t the rest of the Muslim world be accommodating and open-minded as well? I understand that these people-to-people interactions are not recognized at the state level as yet due to lack of formal recognition, yet, it seems that things are headed in the right direction.

Persistence and patience always pay off. History is witness to the fact that the Wall of Berlin came down due to the consistent efforts of the people of erstwhile East and West Germany who wanted absolutely no symbols of division and malice.

To my mind, the Muslims are suffering from a retardation of a constructive thought-process. Those amongst the Muslims who would like to live in peace are being sidelined and condemned. A dear friend forwarded an email to me, titled as ‘A German’s point of view on Islam’. Here’s what it said:

A man whose family was German aristocracy prior to World War II owned a number of large industries and estates. When asked how many German people were true Nazis, the answer he gave can guide our attitude toward fanaticism.

“Very few people were true Nazis “he said,” but many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care. I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So, the majority just sat back and let it all happen.

Then, before we knew it, they owned us, and we had lost control, and the end of the world had come. My family lost everything. I ended up in a concentration camp and the Allies destroyed my factories.”

We are told again and again by “experts” and “talking heads” that Islam is the religion of peace, and that the vast majority of Muslims just want to live in peace.

Although this unqualified assertion may be true, it is entirely irrelevant. It is meaningless fluff, meant to make us feel better, and meant to somehow diminish the specter of fanatics rampaging across the globe in the name of Islam. The fact is that the fanatics rule Islam at this moment in history.

It is the fanatics who march. It is the fanatics who wage any one of 50 shooting wars worldwide. It is the fanatics who systematically slaughter Christian, Jews or tribal groups throughout Africa and are gradually taking over the entire continent in an Islamic wave. It is the fanatics who bomb, behead, murder, or honor kill. It is the fanatics, who take over mosque after mosque. It is the fanatics who zealously spread the stoning and hanging of rape victims and homosexuals. The hard quantifiable fact is that the “peaceful majority”, the “silent majority”, is cowed and irrelevant.

Communist Russia was comprised of Russians who just wanted to live in peace, yet the Russian Communists were responsible for the murder of about 20 million people. The peaceful majority was irrelevant. China’s huge population was peaceful as well, but Chinese Communists managed to kill a staggering 70 million people.

The average Japanese individual prior to World War II was not a warmongering sadist. Yet, Japan murdered and slaughtered its way across South East Asia in an orgy of killing that included the systematic murder of 12 million Chinese civilians; most killed by sword, shovel, and bayonet.

And, who can forget Rwanda, which collapsed into butchery. Could it not be said that the majority of Rwandans were “peace loving”?

History lessons are often incredibly simple and blunt, yet for all our powers of reason we often miss the most basic and uncomplicated of points: Peace-loving Muslims have been made irrelevant by their silence.

Peace-loving Muslims will become our enemy if they don’t speak up, because like my friend from Germany, they will awaken one day and find that the fanatics own them, and the end of their world will have begun.

Peace-loving Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Rwandans, Serbs, Afghanis, Iraqis, Palestinians, Somalis, Nigerians, Algerians, and many others have died because the peaceful majority did not speak up until it was too late.

As for us who watch it all unfold, we must pay attention to the only group that counts – the fanatics, who threaten our way of life.

Indeed, ‘it is the fanatics who march’. Has the Muslim faith been hijacked by the extremists? Have the Muslims become victims of the ‘Ivory Tower Syndrome’? Have the al-Qaedas, the Talibans and a host of other jihadi outfits devastated any prospects of a healthy future for those who would like to live and prosper in an increasingly interactive and versatile world where state borders and boundaries have become meaningless and where Jews, Christians, Muslims and those belonging to other faiths will move forward as one people working together, hand-in-hand with no fear or jealousy.

Notwithstanding the fact that Indonesia has had its share of misfortune vis-à-vis extremism, there is ample proof that the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is intensely working toward removing any traces of fanaticism found in this predominantly secular country. The Economist magazine reported not long ago that ‘as the 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections approach, secular parties have been attracting voters by creating Islamic – but not Islamist – wings’. ‘The in-phrase’, the report adds, ‘is Islam Lunak, ‘soft Islam’. Pollsters are telling politicians that it helps to add a mild religious tinge to speeches about social justice and anti-corruption. But radical stuff, like preaching an Islamic state, is a turn-off.’

I had the opportunity of meeting one of the architects of Indonesia’s ongoing economic effort recently who was in Washington to meet the World Bank president. Talking to him, it appears that after years of living in the wilderness, Indonesia is on the verge of a breakthrough, working in the direction of ‘economic nourishment’. The country’s priorities are aimed at achieving greater economic goals and entering into alliances with various countries of the world to encourage trade and business.

Why can the rest of the Muslim world not follow the footsteps of the Indonesians? Why is it so hard to nurture peaceful partnerships/relationships? Why aren’t there more Abdurrahman Wahids in the Muslim world or are they afraid to come forward because they fear the extremists? Why is it always about sickening and ‘convenient’ interpretations of the Islamic teachings and not about economic progress? Why are the ideological battles fought by violent means and methods and not through peaceful and democratic ways? Why can they not take the moral high ground and try to reconcile?

Islam may be a religion of peace but, in the current context, it appears to be a bundle of contradictions, a theater of the absurd that has little or no future to survive in the modern-day world. History is witness to the fact that nations and faiths have survived in the face of odds and adversity only when they have embraced those who were abhorred or feared. The Muslims, at the same time, need to overcome the extremist onslaught; those who are eating the very roots of the faith and tarnishing the image of millions who practice the religion peacefully or just try to go about their live trying to make ends meet.

We are all God’s one great family. Love is all we need. We need to say goodbye to our parochial interests and accept change with open arms. One wishes that some day in the near future the walls of hatred with be brought down and the world will become a better place to live in.

–Ahson Saeed Hasan

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