Some of his views are considered too liberal or even heretical.
His thoughts on Ramadan: “Ramadan is not an extraordinary month – Rajab is. During Rajab, people could not wage war, a continuation of the pre-Islamic tradition. Ramadan gradually became special only after the Prophet passed away….”
On his pro-LGBT stance: “My argument is simple, they are human beings just like us, so what are we going to do? I believe they have as much dignity as other humans, so there must be a way to interpret (religious teaching) differently.”
These views are not without solid basis of knowledge. Mun’im is an assistant professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He received his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the faculty of sharia and law at Islamabad’s International Islamic University, before earning his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.
His publications have appeared in several peer-reviewed journals, including Arabica, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Journal of Semitic Studies, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Studia Islamica, and Die Welt des Islams. His book, Scriptural Polemics: The Quran and Other Religions was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
Magdalene recently chatted with him when he visited Jakarta and below is the excerpts of the interview.
Magdalene: You’re still going back and forth Jakarta and Indiana?
Mun’im Sirry: Yes. We at Notre Dame has just launched a multiyear project, a working group on Indonesia. It’s a part of an old project, actually, which is called “Contending Modernities.” The problems faced by modernity are so complex that it cannot be solved by only one religion, or one group. We want to involve the Christians, in this case Catholics because Notre Dame is a Catholic campus, the Muslims, and – the last one is the most problematic – the secular group. How these three groups negotiate, respond and appropriate the challenges of modernity.
Why is the secular group most problematic?
Categorically it’s problematic, which group can be called secular? We already have three working groups. The first one will work on religion and bioethics; medical issues have always been interesting. The second group will tackle migration and its links with cosmopolitanism. We study big cities in the world to see the impact of migration to the tendency of exclusivism or the other way around. The third one is a working group on Indonesia. It’s interesting that Notre Dame is interested in and even created this special working group on Indonesia.
Did you propose it?
I was the one who proposed it. So, we’re funding seven studies by a number of researchers and scholars from Indonesia, the U.S. and Europe to conduct the study. The big theme is peaceful co-existence. I think the issue is the most crucial in Indonesia right now. The researches would be done individually and in collaboration. For example, Pak Bob Hefner and Pak (Fajran) Zain want to create civic pluralism in four big cities in Indonesia – in Yogya, Maluku and West Sumatra. And then another one, for example, from Askal Salim, director of research institute at Jakarta State Islamic University (UIN Jakarta), who collaborates with UIN Yogyakarta to study the impact of shariatization to non-Muslims or minority groups in Aceh. There is also a research in Lombok. Lombok is interesting, because there are not just Muslims and Christians, but also Hindu. In total, we’re financing seven researches.
The big theme is peaceful co-existence. It is because Indonesia is considered a good example or because such thing is under threat?
I think...to consider (Indonesia) an example is very problematic. But there are many things that outsiders can learn from Indonesia, particularly how religious diversity is managed. The world was let down by the Arab Spring. When the Arab Spring happened, people expected the Middle East to become the model of the marriage between religion, particularly Islam, and democracy. But people have since become disappointed. What happened in Egypt, and then Tunisia had led to problems as well. People see, again, that there were no lessons learned. So, Indonesia, I think, is one of those countries that people can learn from. It’s not an example, because we don’t have an ideal model yet. Turkey is also failing. On the one hand, Indonesia cannot be considered a failure, but, on the other hand, we have real problems regarding the issues of co-existence.
So, the central question that we want to study in this research project is actually simple: why do certain regions, such as Maluku and West Java, tend to be fraught with conflicts? The level of religious-based conflict and discrimination against non-Muslims is high. The hostility in West Java is among the highest at provincial or community levels. Meanwhile, in other places, such as in Yogyakarta, peaceful co-existence tends to be manageable.
We are like an ailing patient, to whom everybody prescribes medicines before even diagnosing the real illness.
Or why in certain places conflict resolution can work but not in other places. We’re looking into not only regions where the ratio of Muslim/non-Muslim is equal, like in Maluku, but also where the Muslims are majority, like in West Sumatra, and minority, like in Nusa Tenggara. Does the variable of majority/minority play a role in either maintaining a peaceful co-existence or hindering it. That’s the basic idea of our working group.
On religious conservatism, has it reached an alarming level? Should I be seeking asylum?
It is highly alarming, but it’s also a global phenomenon. If we take a look at the research of Pew Forum, the level of religious restriction in the world is soaring. They divide into three: those that are free of or have a low level of hostility, as well as those with medium and high levels of hostility. Nowadays, those countries that used to be relatively free of hostility or have low level of hostility have seen their levels increased. It’s a global phenomenon. So, what happens in Indonesia is actually part of the big picture of what happens in the world.
In America the hostility is high, as seen in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, for example. Everywhere else in the world there is a similar phenomenon... people use different terms – religious resurgence, radicalization – they’re all the same. It means that the thesis of secularization has failed. People assume that the more modern a society is, the less room it has for religion, especially in public space. As it turns out, no. In America, the public role of religion is increasingly apparent. Every presidential candidate is speaking about religion, otherwise no one will vote for them.
In Indonesia, what has to be done?
I think projects like “Contending Modernities” need to be encouraged. We have to know what the root of the problem is. Our problem is that too many people provide solutions without really looking into what is going on. We are like an ailing patient, to whom everybody prescribes medicines before even diagnosing the real illness. What we should do at the moment is to really look into the problem. For example, how frightening radicalism is among . Many researches have shown that high school students – from public high school not Islamic ones – refuse to salute the national flag, saying it is shirk (the deification or worship of anyone or anything other than God). We need to know, what is the problem?
This is what Leila Ahmed, a professor in Harvard, talked about. She studied – this is exactly like us – she studied the jihadis in Egypt. The Jihadis quietly spread their tentacles everywhere without us even realizing it. She did an interesting study on the hijab phenomenon. The research covers the period of 1950s to 2010. In 1950s, at schools in Cairo – as we can see on graduation photos – there would only be one female student wearing hijab among the rest of the students. In 1970s almost half of the students. In 1990 most of the female students, and in 2010 most of the female students wear face veil. The movement was a quite jihad that happened without people realizing it.
I’m optimistic that the Notre Dame researches can at least diagnose the problem. So we can really know see that is a problem, but that there are opportunities is there too. At the moment, we don’t even know what the problem is, what we should do – everyone prescribes medicine and the medicine is wrong, and the problems get more complicated.
Each region must be treated differently and the solution must be different as well. Because what works in some place may not work in other place due to the complexity of demography and so on. We cover nearly all regions in Indonesia. It’s a three-year project.
I think in three years we will find out. We’re not claiming that we can give solution, but at least we know what the diagnosis is, what the disease is. We will publish books, policy notes for the government. It’s good if Notre Dame can work together with Indonesian universities.
The Islamization in public schools is so alarming...
On the one hand, it is the success of groups like PKS (the Muslim-based Prosperous Justice Party). But, on the other hand, it’s the failure of groups that champion pluralism. Their ideas are very elitist and their arguments might be wrong. I have written an article about that. Those groups tend to contribute to the hardening of radical groups. For example by saying that all religions are the same, which is their basic argument. Pluralism does not mean that every religion is the same. But (the pluralistic groups) contributed to the birth of such fatwa and the fatwa is wrong. So I think my pluralist friends have contributed to the misunderstanding.
The ground of their basic arguments is wrong. They tend not to discuss different things. They preach to the choir, meeting only with people who share the same ideas. At interfaith dialogues, they only invite pluralist groups. The discussions then would be wonderful, because everyone has the same idea. They never invite FPI (the vandalistic group Islamic Defending Front), for example. We need to involve people who have different ideas from us, get them into dialogues. It’s easy to take the smooth road, but we have to address the difficult things.
But sometimes starting a dialog is difficult because hardline groups are usually very defensive to begin with. How do we address that?
It is a wrong way to think that we should not pay attention to those who are different. On the contrary, we should pay attention to them. For example, the concept that God is one, when we delve into it, every religion has a different concept of God. So our framework is not right. We stop at the surface, which makes all religions look the same.
The concept of redemption, for example, how Jesus descended to save his followers. Some react that Islam has the concept of syafaat (blessing). We tend to equate things. To me those two concepts are very different. but because we have the wrong framework, we tend to look for similarities. And then we do not address the problem, as if it was enough just to find our similarities.
It’s true finding similarities can be a starting point, but if we stop at that, we fail. Because we know that we’re different. When we know that people are different we ignore them. We refuse to involve hardline groups, because from the beginning we decide that they’re different.
My point is, we have to sit together with those who are different. If they refuse that’s another thing, but at least we have to straighten our perception first.
Former ASEAN Secretary General, Surin Pitsuwan, also said the same thing. That moderates refuse to understand and reach out to the hardliners.
I think it’s true. That’s why in my writings I always try to question my pluralist friends’ perspectives. Things that are not considered a problem, should be reexamined because our basic assumptions should be revised. If we face “failure” don’t look for external scapegoats. It’s possible that there’s something wrong with us. I always try to problematize things that other people think is true. I think by doing that, at least there is room for new thoughts.
I think our friends are facing intellectual stagnancy at the moment. I’ve tried to provoke them by offering unusual ideas, but they only went as far as commenting on Facebook. Nobody writes, maybe they think we’re friends so nobody responded. But I told them, please respond. I don’t know what’s going on, maybe the political euphoria makes everyone want to become a politician. So there is nothing on the intellectual sphere. Even when they’re being provoked, they only respond on social media. Maybe it’s the problem of social media as well, people don’t want to write longer piece. But if we stop at that, if we don’t want to produce longer work – we have a big problem.
What should be the first step to open dialogues with the different and opposing groups?
It is, indeed, complex – where to start. Ideally, we ask them to sit together, but that’s highly idealistic, not easy to do because there is already a deep division among the conservatives and moderates. JIL (Liberal Islam Network) for example has always considered FPI as enemy and the feeling is mutual. So, from the beginning they position themselves as enemies. But perhaps other institutions, like Maarif, can come in. The problem now is whoever has a different stance (from the views of the mainstream Muslims) is considered JIL, like me, although I have no affiliation whatsoever with JIL. JIL has a different position because historically they want to be confrontational. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any contribution. Let that be JIL’s work, because somebody should go against FPI strongly. But the rest of our allies must take different paths.
The problem is there are deep internal conflicts (within Islamic organizations). In NU (Nahdlatul Ulama) for example, there the mainstream NU, there the “funny” (unconventional) NU. The internal battles are also interesting, but that’s just the dynamics of the organization. They still have the potential to attract outside groups to talk. Muhammadiyah is the same; they have the Maarif Institute, Al-Maun, and progressive youth organizations. Muhammadiyah is relatively able to conduct dialogues because it’s a little bit more “radical” compared to NU. They have the potential to (reach out for hardliner groups).
So, the first thing, I guess, is reflecting on our perception, and then start reaching out to them. The problem is we sometimes do soliluquoy, talking among us but never to other groups.
For feminist groups like us, the religious resurgence is worrying because it tends to return women to the domestic realm. What are Islam’s takes on this actually? I tend to think that no matter how you sugarcoat it, women are always second class citizens in Islam.
I think it’s complex. The position of women in Islam is more complicated. For example, we can see Surah Al-Mujadilah in the Quran, it’s a chapter about a woman who liked to debate and it was recorded in the Quran. There was a woman who argued against the Prophet because she did not like her husband. So, whether women are depicted as subordinate, perhaps not so much, because there was a woman who was brave and who argued against Prophet Muhammad and it was described in the Quran in full of praises.
Saba Mahmood, a prominent Muslim thinker, wrote a thesis on this. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. Her book is called Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Her study is based in Egypt on women who are active in mosques. Her argument is, mosque is the realm of men, but in Egypt, where women are involved in the mosques, they found their agency. They have the rights to teach children to study the religion, they preach among women and they have influence.
By wearing hijab and going to the mosque, women are perceived by the outsiders as being subordinated. But Mahmood’s argument is interesting, because she said it was through their religious activities that women find their agency. Mahmood questions feminist arguments stated by the likes of Judy Butler, who tend to pit religion against freedom. You have to choose, either you want freedom or you lose agency. Mahmood said it doesn’t have to be that way. Because by entering the realm of male, women find their agency.
I think there can be agency in even the most conservative context, especially in Indonesia, where women still has more room for freedom compared to Arabic countries. In general perception, people accept women working outside of home.... Yes, maybe some people define piety with hijab, but I don’t see it as the general perception.
A research shows how business plays a dominant role in the hijabization in Indonesia.
I just gave a lecture at UGM (Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta) about human rights and sharia. There was a representative from Aceh there. When I mentioned that Aceh commits a blatant human right violation to force women, even non-Muslims, to wear hijab and so on, she said it was not true and that was their way to protect women. I was really upset with her argument that forcing women to wear hijab is to protect women.
I showed them the result of one of the studies conducted by our working groups, which was very quantitative. Most Muslims (in Aceh) felt that implementing laws on how to dress violated their civil rights. If Muslim women feel this way, what about non-Muslim who must wear hijab by law? Hijab cannot be the measure of someone’s piety. During the lecture, one of the people who opposed the (Acehnese) argument was a female UGM student who wears hijab. She said, I wear hijab, but I don’t see myself as the most pious person.
But is the perception that hijab is not the measure of piety a minority? Because more and more women are wearing hijab. Is that peer pressure?
That’s also the success of capitalists. They turn it into fashion – so there is a business aspect to it. A feminist professor from Indiana University, in Bloomington, Carla Jones, specifically studied the financial aspect of hijab. She did a very critical research about how business plays a dominant role in the hijabization in Indonesia. So, hijab is also a capitalistic and the media’s game, and media. This hijab business is incredible.
Business people find various ways to seek profit, regardless of the impact. But it benefits groups like PKS, which views it as the success of their proselytizing. PKS is aggressive, but people with money contribute a great deal as well.
Imagine, there is now even “halal” hijab. Celebrities wear hijab and they are paid a lot of money by businesses. People look at them and say, even celebrities wear hijab. The impact is huge for public in general. And then people assume that they have repented, as if they had lived a bad life before.. We must be reminded that a lot of factors are at play when it comes to hijab, including economy.
From religious point of view, I think Pak Quraish (Shihab) has made it clear. Maybe from religious perspective we will never agree on this issue, but what we don’t realize is how business people use celebrities to sell their products, and it’s a big business. And they don’t care where this country is heading, right? As long as they gain profit from it. That’s why it’s important to keep reminding people of this.
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