Finding Common Ground for Religion, Politics, and Culture – OpEd – Eurasia Review
By Justin L. Wejak*
(UCA News) – I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual seminar where Professor R. Michael Feener of Kyoto University in Japan gave an insightful and informative presentation on the role of religion, politics and culture that binds societies in Southeast Asia.
The seminar with a thematic discussion on Islam and politics was organized by the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne where I teach.
Professor Feener’s insightful article explains the trajectory of Islamic jurisprudence and adat (customary practices and traditions) in Southeast Asia, particularly highlighting the long history of dynamic interactions between Islam and culture.
“The history of Islam in Southeast Asia is in many ways a story of connections and gradual integration into a constellation of diverse Muslim societies that has been unfolding for over a thousand years,” the document states. .
The paper encouraged me to write a response, although my knowledge of Islam is relatively weak. I grew up in a predominantly Catholic community in the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur. I studied Islamology for two semesters in 1987 at the Catholic Institute of Philosophy in Ledalero, Flores. I loved the subject and came to admire Islam as “a system of culture” as described by Clifford Geertz.
To me, Islam is like a religious cousin of Christianity and Judaism as the third Abrahamic religion. I continue to admire Islam thanks to my personal encounters with many Muslim friends, mainly in Indonesia, who share the same values of love, peace and justice, fundamental values of our universal humanity.
My academic field covers ethnography with a background in philosophy and theology. Because of my background, Professor Feener’s article has sparked in me a renewed interest in the discourse of Islamic jurisprudence and adat.
He mainly referred to Indonesia as a point of reference. The choice of Indonesia is understandable, in part because Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. About 87% of Indonesians, or about 239 million people, adhere to the Islamic faith in a nation of about 275 million people. By 2045, Indonesia’s population is expected to reach 320 million.
Despite this, it should be noted that in some parts of Indonesia, such as Bali, North Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara Timur, and Papua, Islam is not a majority religion but a minority among other faiths. For example, Hinduism is dominant in Bali, while Christianity is dominant in Nusa Tenggara Timur, North Sulawesi, and Papua.
It is essential to mention the concept of majority and minority in order to explore and understand whether this dimension can contribute to the willingness or reluctance of people of certain faiths to embrace the strength of adat as a means of strengthening their religious entity and their identity. As is known, Protestantism in Indonesia has always been associated with ethnicity, so there are, for example, Gereja Batak (Batak Church), Gereja Masehi Ambon (Massiah Ambon Church) and Gereja Manado (Manado Church), among others.
In Catholicism, after the Second Vatican Council, in the spirit of updating (adaptation, inculturation, transformation), the Church has become more welcoming, welcoming and accommodating towards adat, referring to local beliefs, customs and practices. For example, local animism is no longer seen as a form of paganism or dualism to be condemned and abandoned. Animism is seen as a complementary force to Christianity.
The long-standing Latin axiom that denied the value of other religions and belief systems within the pre-Vatican II Church – extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation) — is then abandoned. The Church recognizes that salvation exists in every faith.
This new theology of salvation emerging from Vatican II is an important recognition of the continuing role of adat in the local Christian community. Sociologically, the revised theology makes the Church more conducive to community, even though in other respects the Catholic Church remains Kolot (backwards) and did not catch up with the demands of the time, such as on issues of gender and marriage rights.
Professor Feener’s article implies that there have been three forces or powers representing different eras – namely, pre-Western colonialism, colonialism and post-colonialism, particularly emphasizing their influences in manifesting or authorizing Islamic jurisprudence and adat.
It seems, in general, that there has been unity between Islamic law and adat in pre-colonial times. This unit was deconstructed during Western colonial times. Attempts have even been suggested to eliminate, or at least weaken, adat as a source of law governing communities in the highlands of West Sumatra.
In this regard, Professor Feener quotes Jeffrey Hadler (2009), who wrote: “[the adat leaders] applied the law of adat basandi syarak …and if there was a problem with adat he would be taken to adat leaders. And if there was a problem with Islamic law, it would be brought before the four Islamic authorities…” This implies an opinion at the time that religion and adat were two opposing forces, that there was no need to be local cultural to be Islamic.
In the post-colonial era, I’m not entirely sure that Indonesian Islam came to feel more or less comfortable mixing religion and adatto like gado-gado (Indonesian vegetable mix) or just like nasi campur (mixed rice).
This metaphor of gado-gado or nasi campur can be used to understand the notion of syncretism, as mentioned by Prof. Feener in characterizing Islam in Java. He said: “Over the centuries that followed, Javanese Islamic legal traditions developed in complex ways, displaying at different times both assertions of exclusivity and openness to various sources of authority and institutional training.”
I found this very interesting, as most scholars of religious studies would agree that all organized religions in Indonesia are syncretic in nature due to the long history of interactions with local belief systems and practices. Accepting or denying the idea of syncretic religions may be partly inspired by the perception of culture as pollution to the purity of religion.
There seems to be an obsession with this idea of purity in religion, treating religion as something given by God; denying the fact that all religion is historically and sociologically a human creation for mankind’s need to communicate with Divinity or the Unseen.
Taking note of Professor Feener’s article, I consider Sharia law in Aceh province to be too simplistic and even lazy. This is because he places a strong emphasis on outward ritual purity, especially in his interpretation of halal and haraam, and its use of public corporal punishment for moral wrongdoing. These are contrary to the spirit of Sharia as enshrined in Islam.
It is time for Islamic scholars, philosophers and theologians, both Indonesian and foreign, to play a more proactive role in revising and reinterpreting Sharia law in Aceh to make it a force for renewal, inclusion and liberation, not a cause of fear and violence.
*Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.