The non-moderate vein of Islam prevalent in the Middle East is due to the Arabs' “besieged” mentality, a result of centuries of Western occupations and sectarian clashing, according to an Indonesian historian and one of the world's leading scholars of moderate Islam.
"Muslims in the Middle East are on the defensive – they possess an undersiege
mentality,” explained Prof. Azyumardi Azra on Monday. “They are afraid of
interacting, and giving greater room,” whether to different Muslim sects or
members of other religions.
Later in the day, Arza delivered a lecture on
the interplay among the Indonesian state, democracy and the Shari’a, at Bar-Ilan
University’s international conference on Religious Law and State Affairs. The
conference, supported by the Tager Family Jewish Law Program in the university’s
Faculty of Law, advances research in Jewish law from a variety of viewpoints –
among them religious, historical and philosophical.
A professor of
history at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, Azra is the founder and
editor-in-chief of Studia Islamika, Indonesian Journal for Islamic Studies
on the board of editors of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies
at SOAS, University
of London. In 2010 he was granted an Honorary CBE (Commander of the Order of the
British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II, for his dedication to promoting
THIS WAS his first visit to Israel, and besides
his surprise over how green the country was, he noted how Jerusalem’s Old City
was full of Muslims, Christians and Jews – a meeting place of Abrahamic faiths.
But despite the religions’ common ground, the Middle East is not a place of
“The sectarianism in the Middle East among Muslims
leaves little room for compromise,” Azra said of the divisions among Sunnis,
Shi’ites, Salafites, Wahabites and other Islamic groups in the region. “Of
course the situation is getting worse with authoritarianism” prevalent in some
of those countries.
Could the current political upheaval in the Middle
East create the setting for a more moderate form of Islam to emerge?
problems in the current transitions,” he said. “First, because of the
long-entrenched military power, like in Egypt, which resulted in almost no civil
society. In Libya’s case, there is no viable political structure, only
According to Azra, “the challenge for Arab countries to
develop democratic systems is huge. We must encourage civil societies. The
problem is that when you have socialbased mass organization – the Muslim
Brotherhood – they are very political, and not operational in cultural aspects
of improvement such as in social affairs or education, and enhancing
understanding among Muslims.”
To Arza, the lack of moderation in Middle
East Islam stems from the historical settings of the region.
have been on the defensive since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th
century. Many Muslims in the Middle East had been under the control of
Western powers. That’s why conspiracy theories are so prevalent.”
while in the Middle East “there are reformists, and moderate forces,” those
might “not [be] powerful enough to bring the Muslims that have been under
conspiracy theories and under-siege mentality for so long” to a different phase,
“One of the necessary prerequisites for Muslims to develop now,
would be self-confidence among themselves, to bridge the differences amongst
Muslims, and between them and non-Muslims.”
Of course, the Middle Eastern
model of Islam is not the religion’s only modus operandi.
we have sectarian differences, but we give room for compromise. We are
fortunate, and have, in the last two decades, experienced religious convergence,
exchanges among different sectarians, an exchange of practices,” Azra
said. “This created [greater] room for compromise and
The South Asian republic, home to the world’s largest
Muslim population, also has a very different attitude toward women than that of
“In the Middle East, Muslims are a male-dominated society.
Males play an important role at the expense of women, who have been segregated
for centuries,” Azra said. But in Indonesia, women can recite the Koran in
mosques, as their voice is not considered “arwa” – sexually arousing to men.
Middle Eastern Muslim men, as well as many Orthodox Jews, refrain from hearing a
woman’s voice in song, let alone liturgy. In addition, Indonesian Muslim women
pray together in the same mosque space as men do, on different sides but without
a dividing barrier.
As for the Western “impression of Islam as a radical
religion, since the colonial period, Westerners look at Islam only in the Middle
East, and identify it with that region and the Arabs, disregarding the fact that
Islam has a strong influence in South and Southeast Asia,” he
“ISLAM AND Judaism can learn from each other,” Azra added.
“Christianity, Islam and Judaism came from the same roots. We have a lot in
common, and should strengthen the commonalities among us. We should not only
look to differences; even among children in one family, there are differences,
but one needn’t emphasize them.”
Prof. Zvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University’s
Faculty of Law, who was a member of the conference organizing committee, agrees
that Shari’a, the religious law of Islam, is very similar to
“There are many similarities which we can build upon and which
can be the basis for intellectual and academic conversation with Islamic
scholars and the people of Indonesia, a country with which Israel has no
diplomatic relations,” he said.
To Zohar, who is also one of the editors
of the biannual journal of law, religion and state published within the
framework of the program, it is fundamental to involve Islam in discourse such
as that hosted by the conference.
“In any discussion of the relationship
of law, religion and state, there are many reasons to inquire into Islam,” he
said. “Islam and Judaism are much closer in their structure and relation between
religion and state” than Christianity, for example.
“To our sorrow, the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been escalated by certain quarters to be seen
as interreligious conflict,” Zohar said. “The founders of Israel had nothing
against Islam, it is merely a matter of [historic coincidence] that the people
living here were Muslims. We have every reason to be interested in entering into
dialogue with Islam, and must not let conflict obscure the common
He added, “If we talk together we could learn about each other
and see the similarities and common issues that are facing people in both
communities, and find that there is a spectrum in both. Indonesia is an
important country with an important culture of its own, and we are hopeful that
this will form the basis of future cooperation in a positive spirit.”