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Recent terrorist acts and growing Islamic conservatism have spurred Islamic boarding schools to forge an alliance that aims to curb radicalism and promote the tolerant and moderate values of Islam as a religion of peace.

These pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) play pivotal roles in countering radicalism and extremism. But simmering religious sentiments echoed across the country following the divisive 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election — which saw nonactive Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama convicted for blasphemy — also placed them under the spotlight.

Participants of workshops held by the Pesantren for Peace program initiated by Syarif Hidayatullah State University (UIN) Jakarta’s Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC) agreed that pesantren were the best institutions to counter negative sentiments against Islam and to curb radicalism.

As a place for transferring knowledge of Islamic teachings where youths learn more about Islam than at state schools,

pesantren should become the agent of change in promoting a moderate and peaceful Islam, said Muhammadiyah Abdul Mu’ti, secretary-general of Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Muslim organization.

“Be problem solvers, not problem makers,” he told a workshop of executives from pesantren across Java and Madura in Jakarta on Wednesday.

He referred to these Islamic boarding schools as a key player in integrating their students and teachers, no matter their backgrounds, culture and ethnicity. “If we are talking about peace,

pesantren have all the criteria; we just need to strengthen their roles,” he said. “Pesantren must be the power to create peace of mind and peaceful situations, not only support the absence of war.”

He urged boarding schools to modernize their teaching methodologies and provide students with various perspectives so they may express tolerance when facing people of different faiths.

The Pesantren for Peace program, which is supported by German-based foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and the European Union, saw some 30 boarding schools declare their commitment to an alliance that would promote moderate Islam.

The program aims to strengthen the role of Indonesian Islamic schools in promoting human rights and peaceful conflict resolution, said CSRC director Irfan Abubakar.

The workshops and resulting alliance are expected to help eliminate contradictions between human rights values and Islamic teachings. Most pesantren, Irfan said, tended to defy human rights concepts.

Meanwhile, Masdar Farid Mas’ud, a council member for the country’s largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Islam was a religion that upholds peace and tolerance and is open to differences.

“There is no absolute truth [in Islam]. If people think they are absolutely right, they place themselves higher than the Prophet; they think they are like God. This can trigger conflicts,” Masdar said.

Noted Islamic scholar and prominent historian Azyumardi Azra is confident that Islamic boarding schools will be successful in encouraging a moderate form of Islam as their officials, teachers and students have a strong bond. “[Most people] within a

pesantren have a personal connection to each other; they are related by marriage or by education [attended the same schools],” Azyumardi said.

He hopes the alliance, along with all moderate Muslims, can maintain Indonesia’s global reputation as the face of a tolerant Muslim-majority democracy.

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