Public Relations or Genuine Reform?

Arab states and their clerical establishments appear trapped between problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy and the necessity of adapting to the modern world
Bridging the gap between words and deeds
Humanitarian Islam blazes a trail for beleaguered religious institutions across the Middle East

Grand Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb

Grand Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar University, Egypt’s pre-eminent center of Islamic learning, has again publicly embraced key principles of Humanitarian Islam, an interpretation of the faith put forward by Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim movement, with over 90 million followers and 14,000 madrassahs.

Shaykh al-Tayyeb incorporated NU’s religious, socio-cultural and political precepts in a public statement issued on January 28, 2020 at the conclusion of the Al-Azhar International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought held in Cairo, Egypt. This follows al-Azhar’s adoption of a central NU tenet—universal human fraternity—in A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which Shaykh al-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on February 4, 2019.

These developments are of potentially enormous significance, both in their theological implications and in what they reveal about a seismic shift in patterns of religious, socio-cultural and political influence within the Islamic sphere towards Southeast Asia and the world’s largest Muslim organization: Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama.

Although the Closing Statement of the Al-Azhar International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought was clearly drafted in response to Egypt’s pressing domestic security concerns in the Sinai and western border regions with Libya, it contains a number of articles that closely follow the groundbreaking work of Nahdlatul Ulama, including articles that: define the state within Islam as “the modern, constitutional and democratic nation state”; resolve “that Islam does not recognize the ‘religious state,’ for there is no evidence supporting its existence in our heritage (turath)”; affirms that “there is nothing in the texts of the Quran or Sunnah that obligates a specific form of government [i.e., a caliphate]”; and declares that “full citizenship is a fundamental right of all citizens of a state; there can be no difference between them on the basis of religion, denomination, ethnicity or color.”

The Closing Statement comes less than a year after the Grand Shaykh and Pope Francis jointly signed the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi. The theological and conceptual framework of the Document on Human Fraternity reflects the pioneering ijtihad—the use of independent reasoning to formulate Islamic law—of Kyai Haji Achmad Shiddiq, former Chairman of the Supreme Council of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Pope Francis and Grand Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb sign the Document on Human Fraternity as the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi—Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan—looks on

Kyai Shiddiq first articulated the concept of universal human fraternity (“ukhuwwah basyariyah”)—as a shari‘ah basis for legal equality between Muslims and non-Muslims—at the Nahdlatul Ulama National Congress held in Situbondo, East Java, in 1984. Commenting on the Document on Human Fraternity in February of 2019, current NU Chairman Kyai Haji Said Aqil Siradj said:

“Whether they have emulated our example—and borrowed from our thoughts—I can’t say. I only know that we were first [in articulating these ideas and have consistently done so] for over 35 years, since the Nahdlatul Ulama Congress held in Situbondo in 1984.”

Kyai Haji Ahmad Shiddiq (right) with KH. Abdurrahman Wahid (left)

NU’s current campaign for theological reform started in the 1980s and early 90s, when the NU authorized a wide-ranging, concerted and explicit project of theological renewal (i.e., reform) designed to bring obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy into alignment with the modern world of freedom, democracy and human rights. Central to NU’s reforms is a process of collective ijtihad authorized by the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board and its National Congress during the tenure of former NU Chairman H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, who became Indonesia’s first democratically elected head of state and exemplified the centuries-old tradition of de facto renewal (tajdid) practiced by Indonesian religious scholars (ulama).

Descended from a long and illustrious line of Javanese ulama, current NU General Secretary Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf has continued this tradition of ijtihad by mobilizing a large body of Sunni Muslim authorities to reform obsolete tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that enjoin religious hatred, supremacy and violence. Shaykh Yahya has a clear-eyed understanding of the problem, stating in a 2017 interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “there is a crystal clear relationship between fundamentalism, terror and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy.”

This analysis has led Nahdlatul Ulama to deconstruct the fundamental premises of what terrorism expert Dr. Rüdiger Lohlker terms the “theology of violence inherent in jihadi communications and practice.” A series of historic declarations conceived and/or drafted by Shaykh Yahya form the basis for this reform, including the International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders (ISOMIL) Nahdlatul Ulama Declaration (2016); the First Global Unity Forum Declaration (2016); the Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam (2017); the Nusantara Statement and Nusantara Manifesto (2018); and the Findings of the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars (“2019 Munas”).

Findings of the National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars held in West Java, Indonesia, 27 February – 1 March, 2019, including foundational texts of the Humanitarian Islam movement adopted as official statements of Nahdlatul Ulama policy

Incorporated by Nahdlatul Ulama in the findings of its 2019 Munas—a gathering of some 20,000 Muslim religious scholars from across Indonesia, which prominent ulama from the Middle East, including al-Azhar, attended—these documents also constitute the foundational texts of the global Humanitarian Islam movement co-founded by Shaykh Yahya and former NU Chairman KH. A. Mustofa Bisri: a multi-faith alliance comprised of people of goodwill of every faith and nation determined to confront Islamist theology head on. Since launching the movement in 2017, Shaykh Yahya has already secured an unequivocal ruling by Nahdlatul Ulama that there is no legal category of infidel (kafir) within a modern nation state, only ‘fellow citizens.’ The historic implications of this development may be glimpsed from the fact that—absent the category of infidel—there is no theological basis for Muslims to foster enmity or perpetrate acts of violence (e.g., jihadi terrorism) against those perceived to be non-Muslim.

Under intense pressure from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to acknowledge and address problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy employed by Islamist movements and terror groups, the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar has taken a personal interest in Shaykh Yahya’s work. A highly placed source within the Egyptian Foreign Ministry informed the NU General Secretary that, during a visit to Jakarta in May of 2018, Ahmed al-Tayyeb specifically enquired with the ministry as to “who wrote the Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam and what is their ‘aqidah (creed)?”

Grand Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb (center), flanked by Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman KH. Said Aqil Siradj (left) and H. Hilmy Feisal, General Secretary of the NU Executive Board (right) on a visit to the organization’s Jakarta headquarters in May of 2018

The Declaration on Humanitarian Islam—promulgated by Nahdlatul Ulama’s 5-million-member young adults organization, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, in May of 2017—contains an 8,000 word analysis of the manner in which state and non-state actors have “weaponized” orthodox Islamic teachings, and a detailed road map that calls for “a serious, long-term socio-cultural, political, religious and educational campaign to transform Muslims’ understanding of their religious obligations, and the very nature of Islamic orthodoxy.”

The Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam includes a section titled, “The History of Efforts to Recontextualize Islamic Teachings Within the Malay Archipelago” (points 17 – 24), which describes “the need to contextualize Islamic teachings and adapt these to the ever-changing realities of space and time, while presenting Islam not as a supremacist ideology or vehicle for conquest, but rather, as one of many paths through which humans may attain spiritual perfection.”

Point 20 of the Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam states, “During its 27th national congress held in Situbondo, East Java in 1984, the elected chairman of the NU Supreme Council, Kyai Haji Achmad Shiddiq, established a theological framework for the concept of brotherhood that was not limited to Muslims (ukhuwwah islamiyah), but also encompassed all the citizens of a nation (ukhuwwah wathaniyah) and, indeed, the brotherhood of all humanity (ukhuwwah basyariyah),” i.e., universal human fraternity.

All is not as it appears

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (center) prays with Ahmed al-Tayyeb (right) on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, 2014

Ever since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a “religious revolution” in an historic 2015 speech before the assembled scholars of al-Azhar, Grand Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb has been fighting a rear-guard action, maintaining that there is no link between orthodox Islamic teachings and Islamist terrorism. Rather, he claims, Muslims are the victims of a coordinated, sinister assault intended to discredit Islam, prevent the revival of its glorious heritage and encourage Muslims to embrace the immoral and godless modernity of the West. The Grand Shaykh’s reluctance to acknowledge and reform problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy—in the face of a vicious jihadi insurgency centered in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—has severely strained his relations with President al-Sisi, who views dealing with the theological drivers of jihadist violence as a high-priority national security interest of the Egyptian state.

Significantly, it appears that the 2019 Document on Human Fraternity—which Shaykh al-Tayyeb signed with Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi—was drafted not by al-Azhar religious scholars, but rather by a committee of Egyptian public intellectuals summoned to act in response to President al-Sisi’s 2015 speech. This committee was chaired by a secular judge, Mohamed Abdel Salam, who in September of 2013—i.e., immediately following the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi—was appointed to serve as a close advisor to the Grand Shaykh by the government of Egypt’s Interim President, Adly Mansour, who himself was appointed by then-Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Mohamed Abdel Salam (above, center left) listens to Grand Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb as he speaks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in May of 2018 at the Bogor Presidential Palace in West Java

In the midst of a sustained campaign orchestrated by elements of Egypt’s security services pressuring al-Azhar to engage in genuine theological reform, at times neither Shaykh al-Tayyeb nor President al-Sisi have bothered to hide their mutual displeasure. Viewed in isolation, elements of al-Tayyeb’s Closing Statement of the Al-Azhar International Conference on the Renewal of Islamic Thought imply a commitment by the leadership of al-Azhar to address those tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that enjoin religious supremacism while denigrating the status of non-Muslims. And yet, innumerable statements made by senior al-Azhar officials, up to and including the Grand Shaykh himself, appear to contradict this interpretation.

To cite one of many examples, in June of 2016 Shaykh al-Tayyeb publicly stated that “the four schools of Islamic law all concur that apostasy is a crime, and that an apostate should be asked to repent, and that if he does not he should be killed.”

During a heated exchange with the President of Cairo University at the January 2020 al-Azhar conference, Shaykh al-Tayyeb made it clear that he considers any linkage between Islamic orthodoxy and terrorism to be the slanderous product of “a cursed, malicious machine” that deliberately manufactures these false accusations. Al-Tayyeb complained of having to hold “one, two or ten conferences” to proclaim that Islam and Muslims are innocent of terrorism. The Grand Shaykh stated, to loud applause, that “Islamic heritage took a bunch of tribes that used to fight each other and couldn’t tell left from right, and in the course of 80 years enabled them to place one foot in al-Andalus (Spain) and the other in China. That is because they focused on the strong points of this heritage.” He further opined that the real problem is that the Muslim world is too politically weak to fend off a vast conspiracy to defame Islam.

Humanitarian Islam blazes a trail for beleaguered religious institutions across the Middle East

In 2016, Nahdlatul Ulama boldly declared that it “regards specific modes of interpreting Islam (tafsir) as the most significant factor causing the spread of religious extremism among Muslims.” The spiritual leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama has since moved rapidly to consolidate the global Humanitarian Islam movement. Centrist Democrat International (CDI), a coalition of over 100 center-right parties from across the globe, has announced its “maximum support” for the Humanitarian Islam agenda; called for the “widespread dissemination and study” of its foundational texts; and unanimously recognized the leadership of the National Awakening Party (PKB)—co-founded in 1998 by former NU Chairman Abdurrahman Wahid—on this “sensitive issue.” Already, the Humanitarian Islam movement is forging alliances with religious and political leaders across Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Latin America, while PKB has secured CDI adoption of three seminal resolutions that clearly articulate the compelling moral, ethical and religious grounds for international cooperation to achieve the main objective of Humanitarian Islam: to restore universal love and compassion (rahmah) to its rightful place as the primary message of religion.

The ambiguous and at times contradictory statements and public declarations issued by Middle East religious institutions regarding Islamic reform—which are clearly driven by the geopolitical interests of autocratic state sponsors—raise serious questions as to whether these constitute genuine movement towards reform, or short-term maneuvering in response to political pressures originating both within the Muslim world and the West.

As KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf told reporters after Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al Issa—Secretary General of the Saudi-backed Muslim World League—met with the NU Central Board on February 27, 2020: “The world’s major powers have begun to realize that Nahdlatul Ulama has the potential to blaze a trail that will help Muslims escape the crisis that is engulfing the Islamic world, and this naturally impacts the calculations of Middle East states as well.”

On March 4, 2020 Muhammad Al Issa appeared on France 24 TV’s Arabic-language channel and declared that there is no place for political Islam in France or anywhere else because it does not abide by the values of Islam or by the national values of any country. Al Issa said that people must respect the constitution, laws, and culture of the country in which they live, and that they should move somewhere else if they don’t like them. He also explained that his recent visit to Auschwitz was meant to deliver the message that there are no double standards in Islam when it comes to confronting all forms of injustice.

Ironically, the Muslim World League, which Muhammad Al Issa heads, continues to work hand-in-glove with the virulently antisemitic Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political party PKS, which seeks to destroy Indonesia’s traditionally pluralistic and tolerant understanding and practice of Islam. As documented in the book The Illusion of an Islamic State, PKS cadres often view democracy as a vehicle to transform Indonesia from a multi-religious and pluralistic nation state into an Islamic state or transnational caliphate. Hence, it is not surprising that many PKS schools refuse to hold Indonesian flag raising ceremonies or to sing the national anthem, which is standard practice in Indonesian public and private schools.

A text authored by a senior PKS figure, used to train party cadres, contains the following antisemitic tropes:

“Four thousand Jewish employees who worked at the World Trade Center building stayed home from work on the day of the tragedy; in fact, before the attack occurred, Jews had purchased the WTC building in order to profit from the subsequent insurance payout. . . Jewish history is full of cruelty, including slavery, vicious oppression, arrogance, extreme partisanship, blind fanaticism, implacable greed, usury and other despicable behavior, such as licking the feet of those in power, trickery, hypocrisy, rotten intentions, hard-headedness, seizing the wealth of others through deception and preventing people from entering the path of Islam.” (Jews as the Party of Satan, Which Rules the World, quoted by Burhanuddin Muhtadi in his book, Dilema PKS)

This discrepancy between public statements issued in the West and the Muslim World League’s actual practice on the ground in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation suggests that Middle East states still have far to go, if they are to bridge the gap between words and deeds, and move beyond the realm of public relations to genuine reform.

The Humanitarian Islam movement is blazing a trail for Middle East states and their clerical establishments to follow in this regard. . . if they choose to do so. Unfortunately, the Muslim World League’s current behavior is eerily reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s modus operandi over the past fifty years, as is the willingness of many in the West to turn a blind eye to such deception.

Throughout his life, H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid courageously defended the rights, and dignity, of ethnic and religious minorities, including those who are Jewish. In a 2008 article published by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Ron Kampease wrote:

Wahid says moderate Islam stands a greater chance of triumphing over Islamic radicalism once Western leaders stop trying to accommodate Islamic extremists. Saudi Arabia, in particular, remains the primary funding source for the global spread of fundamentalist Islam.

That is worthy of being repeated:

Moderate Islam stands a greater chance of triumphing over Islamic radicalism once Western leaders stop trying to accommodate Islamic extremists.

“Don’t give any kind of recognition to the fundamentalist view of Islam,” Wahid said. “The Saudis have a double-pronged thing: the first is to give assistance to fundamentalists, on the other side to show the ‘humanist’ side of Islam. These things cannot be reconciled.”

“[W]e present Medals of Valor to individuals whose courage and bravery have made a difference and touched lives in the darkest of places” ∼ Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (above, right), upon presenting the SWC Medal of Valor to President Wahid for hosting the Bali Holocaust Conference in 2007

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