“It is truly difficult to convince people that Islam is supposed to be moderate amid the growing extremism. We were met with rejection at first, but we must keep going,” Umar Yusuf, a cleric from a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) called Babussalam in Bandung, West Java, told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.
Umar was speaking about his experience in joining the Pesantren for Peace program with leaders from 29 other pesantren, visiting more than 750 of such schools in Java and Madura to campaign on Islam wasatiyah (middle-path Islam) through workshops, training and discussions.
The growing trend of conservatism has recently made the job more difficult. Some Islamic schools that have been influenced by Salafism, an ultraconservative movement within Sunni Islam that originated mainly in countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, are the most difficult to talk with.
“Many of them are close-minded. They criticized us a lot and were very insecure about what we would tell them,” said Umar, himself formerly an activist in a hardline Muslim organization who claimed to have once taken part in torching a Christian church in West Java.
Another participant in the Pesantren for Peace movement is Jazilus Sakhok, a cleric from the Sunan Pandanaran Islamic boarding school in Sleman, Yogyakarta, who believed that centuries ago pesantren promoted only a moderate strand of Islam and that some Islamic schools became hubs for radical ideas only after the arrival of a new wave of Middle Eastern-influenced clerics.
“If [the pesantren] are old enough and originated in this country, they are supposed to be moderate, but these newcomers are unfortunately more outspoken than us. All this time we were silent in the midst of the political tensions because we thought it wouldn’t be a problem to have different stances and accept new ideas,” Jazilus said.
He said that moderate Muslim groups were caught by surprise by the growing conservatism and that’s when they took action.
“We were surprised that conservative ideas only grew stronger and, more surprisingly, were easily accepted by the public. That was a wake-up call for us to also be outspoken in promoting our moderate teachings,” he said.
Umar and Jazilus, along with clerics from 30 pesantren in Java and Madura, on Thursday agreed to set up an alliance that would promote a tasamuh (moderate) and tawassuth (tolerant) version of Islam, under the Pesantren for Peace program.
The program, which has been going on for the past two years, was initiated by the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC) of Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University (UIN) Jakarta and was backed by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation and the European Union.
CSRC director Irfan Abubakar said the program would work on formulating a counter-narrative against the growing radicalism and extremism in the Muslim community.
“Radicalization is growing fast, particularly on social media and among Muslims who don’t have enough knowledge of religion and can be easily brainwashed. We should have special workshops to devise a strategy on how to counter their extremism in ways that people can easily accept,” Irfan said.
However, Irfan said the program would not target Islamic schools that were known to be radical and would only focus what he called the “silent majority.”
“So, at this stage we will focus on maintaining connections with moderate Muslim groups and turn them into agents of change to slowly reduce the numbers of radical groups,” Irfan said.