Who are genuine Muslim moderates? Separating the wheat from the chafe

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If you think Islamic scholars discussing the religious legitimacy of the United Nations and the nation-state will put you to sleep, think again.

A call by Nahdlatul Ulama or the Revival of Islamic Scholars, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society movement, to anchor the nation-state as opposed to a caliphate and the United Nations in Islamic law is at the forefront of the ideological fight against extremism and jihadism as advocated by groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The call, launched on Tuesday at a mass rally in the Indonesian city of Surabaya commemorating the Indonesian group’s centennial and a gathering a day earlier of Islamic scholars from across the globe, lays down a gauntlet for the Muslim world’s autocratic and authoritarian leaders.

Anchoring the United Nations and its charter in religious law would legally oblige non-democratic regimes to respect human rights.

The charter compels states to honour “fundamental human rights…the dignity and worth of the human person, (and)…the equal rights of men and women” and makes it legally binding for its Muslim signatories, according to religious law.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo seemingly endorsed the call by speaking at the rally immediately after senior Nahdlatul Ulama leaders read it in Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia at the gathering.

The call constitutes the latest move in a sustained Nahdlatul Ulama effort to spark reform of Islamic jurisprudence and inspire other faiths to take a critical look at their potentially problematic tenants as a way of countering extremism and religiously motivated violence.

“Nahdlatul Ulama believes it is essential to the well-being of Muslims to develop a new vision capable of replacing the long-established aspiration, rooted in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), of uniting Muslims throughout the world into a single universal state, or caliphate,” the group said in the declaration read out at the rally.

“It is neither feasible nor desirable to re-establish a universal caliphate that would unite Muslims throughout the world in opposition to non-Muslims. As recently demonstrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, attempts to do so will inevitably be disastrous and contrary to the purposes of Sharia (Islamic law): i.e., the protection of religion, human life, sound reasoning, family, and property,” the declaration went on to say.

Yahya Cholil Staquf, the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama’s executive council, framed the group’s proposition in questions about the need for jurisprudential reform that he posed at the scholars’ conference.

Mr. Staquf’s questions were based on an unpublished discussion paper that asserted that the view that Muslims “should have a default attitude of enmity towards non-Muslims, and that infidels…should be subject to discrimination is well established within turats al-fiqh (the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence.”

The attitude towards non-Muslims described in the paper is at the core of the response of the Muslim world to religious extremism and jihadism.

An open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the late leader of the Islamic State, written after he declared in 2014 a caliphate with himself as caliph, signed by 126 prominent Islamic scholars, including participants in this weeks, insists that “there is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah (Muslim community).”

The letter was typical of Muslim leaders, parroted by their Western counterparts, who, for more than two decades since 9/11, have insisted that Islam and Islamic jurisprudence need no reform. Instead, they assert that jihadis misrepresent and misconstrue the faith.

In doing so, autocrats drown out criticism of their brutal, repressive rule that brooks no dissent and potentially provokes violence.

Moreover, casting jihadists as deviants rather than products of problematic tenants of jurisprudence that justify violence stymies criticism of the justification of autocracy as a necessary means to combat violence and promote moderate Islam.

As a result, the Nahdlatul Ulama challenge goes to the core of a battle for the soul of Islam that involves a competition for religious soft power and leadership in the Muslim world as well as who will define what constitutes moderate Islam.

The ideological rivalry pits Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam, which calls for religious reform and unambiguously endorses pluralism, the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights against an autocratic definition of moderate Islam that rejects religious and political reform but supports a formalistic, ceremonial form of inter-faith dialogue and the loosening of social restrictions long advocated by orthodox Islam.

Among the letter’s signatories were proponents of autocratic forms of moderate Islam.

They included Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam; Egypt’s former grand mufti, Ali Goma, who religiously endorsed the killing on a Cairo square in 2013 of some 800 Muslim Brotherhood protesters by security forces; several members of Egypt’s state-controlled Fatwa Council; and scholars At Al Azhar, Cairo’s citadel of Islamic learning.

Also among the signatories were Abdullah Bin Bayyah, the head of the fatwa council of the United Arab Emirates, and one of its other members, popular American Muslim preacher Hamza Yusuf, men who do the Gulf state’s religious bidding.

The strength of the Nahdlatul Ulama challenge was evident in the fact that some of the world’s foremost opponents of the Indonesian group’s reformism felt the need to be represented at this week’s conference in one way or another, even if some backed out of the conference after initially suggesting that they would attend.

Messrs. Bin Bayyah and Goma chose not to attend. Mr. Allam used his video remarks to express opposition to Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for replacing the caliphate with the notion of the nation-state and endorsing the United Nations.

Muhammad Al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vehicle for propagating his autocratic version of moderate Islam, chose to ignore Nahdlatul Ulama’s proposition. Mr. Al-Issa made his remarks on video after cancelling his attendance.

Nahdlatul Ulama threw down its gauntlet by asserting that Muslims need to choose between maintaining the obligation to create a caliphate or reforming Islamic jurisprudence so that it would “embrace a new vision and develop a new discourse regarding Islamic jurisprudence, which will prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse peoples, cultures, and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order,” according to the declaration.

In its unpublished paper, Nahdlatul Ulama asserted that “Muslims should acknowledge that a socio-political construct (or imperium) capable of operationalizing these normative views across the Muslim world no longer exists” and that “as a consequence of choosing to retain the established fiqh view and norms associated therewith…would automatically be a religious duty incumbent upon Muslims to revive the imperium. This, in turn, would necessarily entail dissolving any and all existing nation-states, under whose governance Muslims currently live.”

With one-third of Indonesia’s 270 million inhabitants identifying themselves as Nahdlatul Ulama and a religious authority of its own, the group is likely to formally announce its reform of relevant Islamic jurisprudence, potentially supported by various non-Indonesian scholars, mosques, and other Muslim associations, irrespective of opposition to its moves.

While the group’s legal move would not be binding in a Muslim world where legal authority is decentralised, it lays down a marker that other Muslim legal authorities will ultimately be unable to ignore in their bid to be recognised as proponents of a genuinely moderate Islam.

Thank you for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed the newsletter and/or podcast. Diplomats, policymakers, investors, executives, journalists and academics listen to my twice-weekly podcast and/or read my syndicated newsletter that is republished by media across the globe. Maintaining free distribution ensures that the podcast and newsletter have maximum impact Paid subscribers help me cover the monthly cost of producing the newsletter and podcast. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber. You can do so by clicking on Substack on the subscription button at www.jamesmdorsey.substack.com and choosing one of the subscription options or support me on Patreon at www.patreon.com/mideastsoccer.  Please join me for my next podcast in the coming days. Thank you, take care and best wishes.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.