Islam in Indonesia, whose 200 million people constitute the world's largest community of Muslims, is increasingly viewed as very different from the Islam practiced in the older Muslim communities of the Middle East. Indeed, one distinguished scholar, Bassam Tibi of Gottingen University, has described Indonesia as "a model for religiously and ethno-culturally different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect."
Some historians argue that Indonesia's moderate form of Islam reflects the way in which foreign traders introduced it, as early as the 14th century. Then, the coastal culture already incorporated egalitarianism, dynamism, and interdependence, which affected the ideology and practice of Islam. In addition, Indonesian Islam had strong Sufi influences, which emphasize the spiritual rather than the legal elements of the faith.
Similarly, Giora Eliraz of Hebrew University argues that the Islamic ideas that arrived in Indonesia from the Middle East changed, becoming more inclusive and pluralist in character, owing to the influence of the great 19th-century Egyptian reformer Mohammad Abduh. In Egypt, Abduh's progressive ideas gained support from only a tiny group of reformers. In Indonesia, however, Abduh's vision of Islamic modernity sparked the creation of the country's largest modernist Muslim organization, Mohammadiyyah, which represents mainstream moderate Islam
This history of moderation continued unabated through the 20th century, embraced by both traditionalists and modernists. The traditionalist organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), for example, had issued a fatwa in the 1930s declaring Dutch colonial rule to be legitimate. The early leaders of Mohammadiyyah focused more on the spiritual improvement of individual Muslims than public enforcement of Islamic law.
Most importantly, this orientation toward moderation has consistently drawn support from Indonesia's leading intellectuals. A remarkably creative and dedicated group of young religious and social thinkers and activists chose in the 1960s and 1970s - during the early days of Suharto's secular "New Order" regime - to reject the idea of an Islamic state.
At the height of the New Order's political repression of Islam during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new pattern of thinking emerged among younger intellectuals. Their "reform movement," is perhaps best summed up in Nurcholish Madjid's 1972 dictum: "Islam yes, Islamic party no." This new generation successfully took the idea of an Islamic state off the political agenda.
By the late 1980s, Suharto's own stance toward Islam was changing. Government concessions to religious sentiment included the promulgation of an Islamic family law in 1989, the establishment of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectual Association in 1990, lifting the ban on schoolgirls' wearing the jilbab, or head cover, in 1991, the founding of an Islamic bank (Bank Muamalat, in 1992), and abolition of the state lottery. These measures persuaded Indonesia's Muslims that they could live in accord with Islamic teaching without Indonesia becoming an Islamic state.
The state established a wide network of educational institutions to support this moderate tendency. There are now 27 branches of the State Islamic University, which integrate Islamic and general studies for undergraduate and graduate students. There are also roughly a hundred Institutes of Islamic Studies, for undergraduates who want to focus on Islamic studies only.
Indonesian students and scholars actively seek to engage new ways of understanding Islam and exploring its relevance for Indonesia. For the past two decades, increasing numbers of Indonesian students have been drawn to study in the West. As a result, they have come to see Islam as a dynamic process of understanding the world, rather than a static faith that cannot change. Those who studied in the West appear well equipped to present an "Islam" more adaptable and amenable to social change.
Indeed, many Western-educated students now occupy the highest academic and political positions in Indonesia. They work actively to develop a different image of Islam - an Islam compatible with modern human achievements, including democracy, human rights and vibrant civil societies. Not confined by any fixed orthodoxy, Indonesian Muslims have taken the historic step of welcoming dissident Muslim thinkers like the Pakistani Fazlur Rahman, the Palestinian Ismail al-Faruqi, and the Iranian Sayyid Hossein Nasr, even when their ideas were unwelcome in their native lands.
It is neither exaggeration nor overly optimistic to say that Indonesia's experience could pave the way for the emergence of what might be called a "moderate Islamic network," one that forges strong links with the West.
Munim Sirry is an Indonesian Muslim scholar and the author of several books, including "Resisting Religious Militancy." THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).