Islamic Theology in Indonesia, was infected by USA?

This article from Washington Post. About Islamic Theology that is infected by American?

By Andrew Higgins

In the early 1980s, Nasir Tamara, a young Indonesian scholar, needed
money to fund a study of Islam and politics. He went to the Jakarta
office of the U.S.-based Ford Foundation to ask for help. He left
empty-handed. The United States, he was told, was “not interested in
getting into Islam.”

The rebuff came from President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, a U.S.
anthropologist who lived in Indonesia for more than a decade. Dunham,
who died in 1995, focused on issues of economic development, not matters
of faith and politics, sensitive subjects in a country then ruled by a
secular-minded autocrat.

“It was not fashionable to ‘do Islam’ back then,” Tamara recalled.

Today, Indonesia is a democracy and the role of Islam is one of the most
important issues facing U.S. policy in a country with many more Muslims
than Egypt, Syria, Jordan and all the Arab countries of the Persian
Gulf combined. What kind of Islam prevails here is critical to U.S.
interests across the wider Muslim world.

“This is a fight for ideas, a fight for what kind of future Indonesia
wants,” said Walter North, Jakarta mission chief for the U.S. Agency for
International Development (USAID), who knew Dunham while she was here
in the 1980s.

It is also a fight that raises a tricky question: Should Americans stand
apart from Islam’s internal struggles around the world or jump in and
try to bolster Muslims who are in sync with American views?

A close look at U.S. interactions with Muslim groups in Indonesia —
Obama’s boyhood home for four years — shows how, since the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks, rival strategies have played out, often with consequences
very different from what Washington intended.

In the debate over how best to influence the country’s religious
direction, some champion intervention, most notably a private
organization from North Carolina that has waded deep into Indonesia’s
theological struggles. But, in the main, U.S. thinking has moved back
toward what it was in Dunham’s day: stay out of Islam.

A change in public mood

In many ways, Indonesia — a nation of 240 million people scattered
across 17,000 islands — is moving in America’s direction. It has
flirted with Saudi-style dogmatism on its fringes. But while
increasingly pious, it shows few signs of dumping what, since Islam
arrived here in the 14th century, has generally been an eclectic and
flexible brand of the faith.

Terrorism, which many Indonesians previously considered an American-made
myth, now stirs general revulsion. When a key suspect in July suicide
bombings in Jakarta was killed recently in a shootout with a
U.S.-trained police unit, his native village, appalled by his violent
activities, refused to take the body for burial.

A band of Islamic moral vigilantes this month forced a Japanese porn
star to call off a trip to Jakarta. But the group no longer storms bars,
nightclubs and hotels as it did regularly a few years ago, at the
height of a U.S. drive to promote “moderate” Islam. Aceh, a particularly
devout Indonesian region and a big recipient of U.S. aid after a 2004
tsunami, recently introduced a bylaw that mandates the stoning to death
of adulterers, but few expect the penalty to be carried out. Aceh’s
governor, who has an American adviser paid for by USAID, opposes

Public fury at the United States over the Iraq war has faded, a trend
accelerated by the departure of President George W. Bush and the
election of Obama. In 2003, the first year of the war, 15 percent of
Indonesians surveyed by the Pew Research Center had a favorable view of
the United States — compared with 75 percent before Bush took office.
America’s favorability rating is now 63 percent.

There are many reasons for the change of mood: an economy that is
growing fast despite the global slump; increasing political stability
rooted in elections that are generally free and fair; moves by President
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a U.S.-trained former general who won
reelection by a landslide in July, to co-opt Islamic political parties.

Another reason, said Masdar Mas’udi, a senior cleric at Nahdlatul Ulama,
Indonesia’s — and the world’s — largest Islamic organization, is that
the United States has backed away from overt intrusions into religious
matters. A foe of hard-line Muslims who has worked closely with
Americans, Mas’udi said he now believes that U.S. intervention in
theological quarrels often provides radicals with “a sparring partner”
that strengthens them. These days, instead of tinkering with religious
doctrine, a pet project focuses on providing organic rice seeds to poor
Muslim farmers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington deployed
money and rhetoric in a big push to bolster “moderate” Muslims against
what Bush called the “real and profound ideology” of “Islamo-fascism. ”
Obama, promising a “new beginning between America and Muslims around the
world,” has avoided dividing Muslims into competing theological camps.
He has denounced “violent extremists” but, in a June speech in Cairo,
stated that “Islam is not part of the problem.”

North, the USAID mission chief, said the best way to help “champions of
an enlightened perspective win the day” is to avoid theology and help
Indonesia “address some of the problems here, such as poverty and
corruption.” Trying to groom Muslim leaders America likes, he said,
won’t help.

Rethinking post-9/11 tack

This is a sharp retreat from the approach taken right after the Sept. 11
attacks, when a raft of U.S.-funded programs sought to amplify the
voice of “moderates.” Hundreds of Indonesian clerics went through
U.S.-sponsored courses that taught a reform-minded reading of the Koran.
A handbook for preachers, published with U.S. money, offered tips on
what to preach. One American-funded Muslim group even tried to script
Friday prayer sermons.

Such initiatives mimicked a strategy adopted during the Cold War, when,
to counter communist ideology, the United States funded a host of
cultural, educational and other groups in tune with America’s goals.
Even some of the key actors were the same. The Asia Foundation, founded
with covert U.S. funding in the 1950s to combat communism, took the lead
in battling noxious strands of Islam in Indonesia as part of a
USAID-financed program called Islam and Civil Society. The program began
before the Sept. 11 attacks but ramped up its activities after.

“We wanted to challenge hard-line ideas head-on,” recalled Ulil Abshar
Abdalla, an Indonesian expert in Islamic theology who, with Asia
Foundation funding, set up the Liberal Islam Network in 2001. The
network launched a weekly radio program that questioned literal
interpretations of sacred texts with respect to women, homosexuals and
basic doctrine. It bought airtime on national television for a video
that presented Islam as a faith of “many colors” and distributed
leaflets promoting liberal theology in mosques.

Feted by Americans as a model moderate, Abdalla was flown to Washington
in 2002 to meet officials at the State Department and the Pentagon,
including Paul D. Wolfowitz, the then-deputy secretary of defense and a
former U.S. ambassador to Jakarta. But efforts to transplant Cold War
tactics into the Islamic world started to go very wrong.
More-conservative Muslims never liked what they viewed as American
meddling in theology. Their unease over U.S. motives escalated sharply
with the start of the Iraq war and spread to a wider constituency. Iraq
“destroyed everything,” said Abdalla, who started getting death threats.

Indonesia’s council of clerics, enraged by what it saw as a U.S.
campaign to reshape Islam, issued a fatwa denouncing “secularism,
pluralism and liberalism.”

The Asia Foundation pulled its funding for Abdalla’s network and began
to rethink its strategy. It still works with Muslim groups but avoids
sensitive theological issues, focusing instead on training to monitor
budgets, battle corruption and lobby on behalf of the poor. “The
foundation came to believe that it was more effective for intra-Islamic
debates to take place without the involvement of international
organizations, ” said Robin Bush, head of the foundation’s Jakarta

Abdalla, meanwhile, left Indonesia and moved to Boston to study.

One U.S. group jumps in

While the Asia Foundation and others dived for cover, one American
outfit jumped into the theological fray with gusto. In December 2003, C.
Holland Taylor, a former telecommunications executive from
Winston-Salem, N.C., set up a combative outfit called LibForAll
Foundation to “promote the culture of liberty and tolerance.”

Taylor, who speaks Indonesian, won some big-name supporters, including
Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, a prominent but ailing
cleric, and a popular Indonesian pop star, who released a hit song that
vowed, “No to the warriors of jihad! Yes to the warriors of love.”
Taylor took Wahid to Washington, where they met Wolfowitz, Vice
President Richard B. Cheney and others. He recruited a reform-minded
Koran scholar from Egypt to help promote a “renaissance of Islamic
pluralism, tolerance and critical thinking.”

Funding came from wealthy Americans, including heirs of the Hanes
underwear fortune, and several European organizations. Taylor, in a
recent interview in Jakarta, declined to identify his biggest American
donor. He said he has repeatedly asked the U.S. government for money but
has received only $50,000, a grant from a State Department
counterterrorism unit.

“You can’t win a war with that,” said Taylor, who is working on a
26-part TV documentary that aims to debunk hard-line Islamic doctrine.
“People in Washington would prefer to think that if we do nothing we
will be okay: just cut off the heads of terrorists and everything will
be fine.”

As the atmosphere has grown less hostile, Abdalla, the much-reviled
American favorite, returned this year to Jakarta. He hasn’t changed his
liberal take on Islam but now avoids topics that fire up his foes. “I’ve
changed. The environment has changed,” he said. “We now realize the
radical groups are not as dominant as we thought in the beginning.”

Tired of being branded a fringe American stooge, he plans to run in an
election next year for leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama, a pillar of
Indonesia’s traditional religious establishment. He doesn’t stand much
of a chance but wants to “engage with the mainstream instead of the
periphery.” His Liberal Islam Network doesn’t get U.S. money anymore,
skirts touchy topics on its radio show and no longer hands out leaflets
in mosques.

“Religion is too sensitive. We shouldn’t get involved,” said Kay
Ikranagara, a close American friend of Obama’s late mother who works in
Jakarta for a small USAID-funded scholarship program. Ikranagara worries
about Islam’s growing influence on daily life in the country, but she’s
wary of outsiders who want to press Indonesians on matters of faith.

“We just get in a lot of trouble trying to do that,” she said.

http://www.washingt wp-dyn/content/ article/2009/ 10/24/AR20091024 02279.html

Bibles with ‘Allah’ are Confiscated

 http://www.latimes. com/news/ nationworld/ world/la- fg-briefs30- 2009oct30, 0,7232083. story

October 30, 2009

Bibles with ‘Allah’ are confiscated

Malaysian authorities have confiscated more than 15,000 Bibles because they referred to “God” as “Allah,” a translation that has been banned in this Muslim-majority country, Christian church officials said.

The Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, said authorities seized a consignment of 10,000 copies sent from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Kuching, in Sarawak state, on Sept. 11 because the Indonesian-language Bibles contained the word “Allah.”

An additional 5,100 Bibles, also imported from Indonesia, were seized in March, said an official from the Bible Society of Malaysia.

A Home Ministry official said he was not aware of the seizures.

Church officials say “Allah” is not exclusive to Islam but is an Arabic word that predates Islam.

West Java: Christians have won a court battle restoring the right to worship in their building in Depok

West Java.: Christians have won a court battle restoring the right to worship in their building in Depok

http://www.charisma php/news/ 23489-indonesia- church-wins- legal-battle- to-worship- in-building

Christians have won a court battle restoring the right to worship in
their building in Depok City, West Java.

Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail on March 27 had revoked the building
permit for a multipurpose building and house of worship for Gereja
Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church following protests by
Muslims. A court in Bandung on Sept. 17 rescinded the order that
revoked the church building permit, paving the way for congregants to
resume worship there.

Head Judge A. Syaifullah read the decision of the three-judge panel,
which found the mayor’s reasoning for canceling the building permit
inadequate. The mayor had said that most people living near the church
objected to its building in Jalan Pesanggrahan IV, Cinere Area of
Depok City.

“These objections by the local residents should have been raised when
the building permit was going through the approval process, not
protesting afterwards,” said Syaifullah.

Syaifullah added that the mayor also should have taken the views of
church members into consideration.

“In this case, the revocation of the building permit was based upon
the objections of one group in the community without considering those
from the church,” he said.

Construction of the church building had begun in 1998, shortly after
the permit was issued, but halted soon afterward due to a lack of
When the project began anew in 2007, members of a Muslim group from
the Cinere Area of Depok City and neighboring villages damaged the
boundary hedge and posted protest banners on the walls of the
building. Most of the protestors were not local residents.

The court determined that lawyers for the church successfully
demonstrated that church leaders had followed all Depok City
procedures for the building permit. Betty Sitompul, vice-chair of the
HKBP church building committee, stated that the church court win was a
victory for all Christians.

“We won because we had followed all the procedures and had completed
all the required documents,” she said.

In early June the church had filed suit against the mayor’s action in
a provincial court in Bandung, with church lawyer Junimart Girsang
arguing that the mayor’s revocation of the permit was wrong.

Girsang said that the court had finally sided with justice for all Indonesians.

“The judges made the right decision and had no choice, because all of
the papers for the permit were done properly,” he said.

The church had been meeting in a naval facility located about five
kilometers (nearly three miles) from the church building since the
permit was revoked, causing great inconvenience for church members,
many of whom did not have their own transportation.

In South Sumatra Province, another HKBP church outside the provincial
capital city of Palembang is trying to overcome objections by Muslim
protestors in order to complete construction of its building in Plaju.

Church leaders acknowledge they had not finished the application
process for a permit before beginning construction. They said they
went forward because after they applied to the mayor of Palembang, he
told them to talk with the governor of South Sumatra. After talking
with Gov. Alex Noerdin and securing his approval on Feb. 10, church
leaders began construction on a donated plot of 1,500 square meters
only to face a demonstration by members of several Muslim
organizations on June 27.

The South Sumatra Muslim Forum (FUI Sumsel) organized the
demonstration. Carrying a copy of a mayoral decree dated May 2009
ordering a halt to construction, the protestors gathered outside the
building site, listened to speeches and then destroyed a bridge
leading to it before demanding that the government ban the building

Applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in
Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in
private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities. Such gatherings
leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups
such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), in recent
years responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.

———— –

Indonesia’s quiet revolution bodes well for the relationship

Indonesia’s quiet revolution bodes well for the relationship

Our next door neighbour is booming politically and economically.


THIS year, most of the world’s economic growth will take place in China. Much of the rest will be in India. But the third biggest source of global growth will be right next door: Indonesia.

We don’t think of Indonesia as a rising economic power. Its output ranks only 15th in the world (a bit bigger than ours). Its market ranks 18th (a bit smaller than ours). But Indonesia is changing.

Yes, there was a terrorist attack in Jakarta last month, but that was the first in four years. It has just held free elections for president and legislature that gave an emphatic mandate to its modernising moderate leader, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for a second five-year term. The army no longer rules. The economy is no longer broken. Indonesia, for so long under the heel of dictators, is now what one analyst calls ”the best functioning democracy in South-East Asia”.

A decade ago president B. J. Habibie unexpectedly ended the dictatorship to allow free speech, a free press, independent courts and free elections. While China, Singapore and Malaysia remain in the grip of ruling elites that won’t let power out of their grasp, Indonesia has become a country where people can say what they like without having to check who’s listening.

And as the global financial crisis has flattened most countries, Indonesia has flourished. In this decade, its economy has grown by almost two-thirds. More Indonesians now live in cities than on farms. Per capita incomes have risen almost 25 per cent in five years, almost 50 per cent in a decade. Even on the IMF’s forecasts – seen in Jakarta as unrealistically low – its economy would grow 15 per cent over the three years of this global recession. Only China and India will do better.

Indonesia has no lack of problems. But a month travelling the country has left me with a strong sense that it is moving ahead, that the roots of democracy have grown deep in its decade of freedom, and that its potential importance to us and the world will grow if Yudhoyono’s 10 years as President becomes the bridge between the chaos of old and its emergence as a new world power.

Indonesia never will be a giant on the scale of China and India. Indonesia has 230 million people; they each have well over a billion. But it is moving along very different lines from China. Last year, analysts Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas Ramage published an essay for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute titled provocatively Seeing Indonesia as a normal country. Their thesis was that Indonesia is developing into a middle-income, stable democracy that poses no threat to its neighbours, and solves issues by peaceful, democratic means. At the time I thought their title provocative; a year and two elections later, it looks prescient.

China is much bigger, much mightier. But China is not a normal country. As we have been reminded starkly, it is an authoritarian dictatorship that tries to solve problems by bullying and force: arresting Rio Tinto’s chief in China, trying to bully the Melbourne film festival, and now, according to The Canberra Times, engaging in ”cyber espionage”, with China suspected of having sent Australian diplomats fake emails, designed to give the sender access to DFAT’s computer network.

Indonesia is different. For all the mistaken fears of Australians past and present, it is not a threat to us. In a wise paper for the Lowy Institute, Australia and Indonesia: current problems, future prospects, Professor Jamie Mackie tells how in the turmoil of the 1960s, when the British embassy was burnt to ashes, president Sukarno summoned Australian ambassador Mick Shann to explain why his embassy remained intact. ”You [Australia] are part of our region, and we both have to learn how to live alongside each other.”

And we have. At government level, the relationship is in excellent shape. Indonesia and Australia are working closely on issues from climate change to people smuggling. Indonesia is now the largest destination for Australia’s development aid, receiving almost $500 million a year to build schools, roads and health centres. There are 17 Australian Government departments and agencies with staff working in the Indonesian Government, helping them make government work. (One big success has been the Australian Tax Office helping its Indonesian counterpart make Indonesia’s big companies and rich people pay their taxes.)

People-to-people relationships are improving, if underdeveloped. There are now 15,000 Indonesians studying in Australia. In the year to June, a record 436,000 Australian tourists went to Indonesia, despite the official warning urging them to reconsider.

The commercial relationship, however, could be much bigger. Indonesia still has a widespread hostility to foreign investment, which Yudhoyono’s reforms have not challenged. Yet Australian companies in Indonesia – such as the ANZ, Toll and Thiess – are doing well, and there is the potential for Australia to help modernise Indonesian business as it is helping to modernise government.

Indonesia’s democratic revolution has put down deep roots. Its economic revolution is starting to do the same. Much depends on Yudhoyono’s second term, and how it tackles corruption and reforms to the bureaucracy, the labour market, infrastructure and investment. What will be good for Indonesia will be good for us.


Tim Colebatch is economics editor.

The Chinese Indonesians’ dilemma in electing president

Http://www.thejakar news/2009/ 06/24/the- chinese-indonesi ans’-dilemma- electing- president. html


The Chinese Indonesians’ dilemma in electing president

Mario Rustan ,  BANDUNG   |  Wed, 06/24/2009 10:23 AM  |  Opinion


In the country’s first direct presidential election in 2004, the majority of Chinese-Indonesians knew who to choose for the president — the incumbent Megawati Soekarnoputri, because they wanted to thank for her great attention to this ethnic group. This year, however situation is totally different. Many of them are still undecided, like many other Indonesians.

A group of people share the same ethnicity, but there are still thousands of differences in political perspectives because of class, interests, knowledge, personal circumstance, religion, and others. The Chinese-Indonesians , on the other hand, like every other ethnic group in Indonesia share general attitude and behavior in politics.    

This article tries to give a sketch on how Chinese-Indonesians perceive the presidential candidates, and why.

Chinese-Indonesians experienced cultural and identity renaissance under the presidency of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid (1999-2001) and Megawati administrations (2001-2004). Often scorned and viewed negatively throughout Soeharto’s 32-year ruling and with its peak during the May 1998 riots, all of a sudden they felt appreciated and admitted, and were starting to explore and express their ethnicity.

The Pacific Rim, at the same time, was experiencing a boom of East Asian fashion, food, entertainment, and culture. Those commodities also flourished in Indonesia and were also enjoyed by non-Chinese Indonesians.     

At the same time, the specter of Islamist terrorism haunted Indonesia, while inter-religious conflict was taking place in Maluku and Central Sulawesi. Several Muslim vigilantes groups attacked Christian schools and places of worship. The post-9/11 atmosphere convinced many Chinese Christians that there was indeed a war taking place between Islam and Christianity.

The 2004 presidential election, therefore, became a dire situation. Megawati was seen as the only secular candidate that could promise security for the Chinese and other minorities. When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) was gaining popularity and becoming a new favorite, stories emerged that he was supported by Islamic parties hardliner groups. The fear was strengthened when the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) supported SBY.    

Jusuf Kalla, SBY’s chosen vice president candidate, was pictured as a racist and an Islamist.

Therefore Megawati became the obvious choice, although a handful of Chinese also voted for SBY because of his image as an intellectual, modern, and Westernized firm leader.

Not long after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won the presidency, Jusuf Kalla allegedly launched a negative statement concerning the Chinese Indonesians. Largely unknown in Indonesia, his comment for a while created an uproar among Asian-American activists.    

Under SBY’s administration, Indonesia was saturated with bad news of disasters, incompetency, and scandals. Poverty was rising, the parliament adopted Islamist-driven bills, and Chinese-Indonesians adopted a low-profile attitude again.    

Although Yudhoyono might be not a proponent of it, since his administration, assertive nationalism has become popular in Indonesia, as it is in several other countries like Russia, China, and Iran. Media, politicians, and public figures express contempt toward foreigners and foreign countries.

Chinese-Indonesians are not specifically targeted, and some even joining in when the perceived enemies are shared, such as America or Malaysia. But although Chinese-Indonesians hardly admit it, the nationalists openly condemn institutes closely related with Chinese-Indonesian lifestyles, such as malls, foreign franchises, and upmarket apartments and private schools.
Economic nationalism has become the biggest issue in this election. One of Kalla’s catchphrase is “being a mandiri (independent) nation”, which can be interpreted as self-sufficient, independent, and mature. His point, however, that Indonesia should limit foreign trade and should dare to say “no” to foreigners.

Megawati’s running mate, Prabowo, had been a populist from the start, condemning apartments, malls, and foreign trade on his party’s advertisements. Megawati and Kalla accused the SBY ticket as “neoliberalist” , in contrast to their “people’s economy”. On a lower pitch, Kalla and Wiranto portrayed their wives as devout Muslim women, and rumors appeared on the Internet that Boediono’s wife is actually a Catholic.

These issues, however, don’t turn many Chinese Indonesians to Yudhoyono. In public, many Chinese-Indonesians feel it’s safe (and even cool) to repeat what they have heard from the media, and the media often try to look critical and brave in criticizing the president.

On the other hand, Megawati is still popular as a secular leader, and Prabowo is the hardest-working candidate when it comes to approaching Chinese community leaders. The trick somehow worked since first, he isn’t identified as an Islamist and he could convince people that he is Chinese-friendly, although numerous worldwide news reports and academic papers link him to the May 1998 riots.

Jusuf Kalla is also active in approaching the Chinese community leaders, and even has won the endorsement of prominent figure Sofyan Wanandi, who insists that Kalla isn’t a racist.    

It is true that Yudhoyono would still be popular for many Chinese who don’t know and don’t care much for politics, but only wishing for security, safety, and order. But some of his lesser maneuvers did not really help his image. He also attempted some gestures which could be seen as appeasement to the Islamists, such as promising to rejuvenate the Islamic scout or quickly approving the Iranian election result.

This newspaper stated that there are only 1.5 million eligible Chinese voters out of 170 millions. That’s not even one percent. More than half of them live in Greater Jakarta, leaving less than one million thinly spread all across Indonesia.

In numbers, they are very insignificant and their votes are actually quite expendable. But in economics, international relations, and social affairs, they are indispensable.  

The writer graduated with honors from La Trobe University, Australia.


Depok told to open dialogue over church

Following his decision to revoke a building permit for a church in Cinere, Depok Mayor Nurmahmudi Ismail is told to open room for dialogue to prevent potential conflicts, a noted Muslim scholar says.

“Nurmahmudi has to be open about the reason behind his decision [to revoke the building], since the decision has so far created more tension for Christians in the area,” Azyumardi Azra, a professor at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University told The Jakarta Post.

“Moreover, the decision will not only potentially affect the relationship between Christians and Muslims in the area, but also Christians with the local [Depok] administration.”

Azyumardi also urged Nurmahmudi to find a solution for the church congregation should he insist on revoking the church’s building permit.

“Relocating the church, for example, could be a viable solution for them,” he said.

On March 27, Nurmahmudi, also former president of the Muslim-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), issued a municipal ordinance to cancel the building permit for a church in the Bukit Cinere Indah (BCI) residential complex in Depok, which belongs to the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (HKBP) congregation.

The cancellation came as a response to a series of letters sent by the church construction committee last year asking the mayor about the status of the church.

In 1998, the committee received the church’s building permit from the administration, but left the land untouched for almost 10 years since former Depok mayor Badrul Kamal suggested the committee stop the church’s construction in May 1999, following a series of protests from locals.

In September 2008, the committee decided to continue building the church, but came to a standstill after dozens of Muslim residents from the Muslim Solidarity Forum (FSUI) attacked the workers and sealed the construction site.

After the attack, the committee sent three letters to Nurmahmudi asking the mayor to facilitate a dialogue, without receiving any response except the unexpected building permit cancellation.  
The HKBP, represented by lawyer Junimart Girsang, filed a lawsuit earlier this month to the State Administrative Court in Bandung, to get the revocation cancelled.

According to a 2007 Ministerial decree, a new house of worship must have the support of at least 90 congregation members, the consent of the local administration and at least 60 residents of different faiths.

Firdaus Amin, a BCI resident and a FSUI leader, said the residents in the complex would continue to stand in the way of the church’s construction, claiming the HKBP had manipulated the procedure to obtain the building permit.

“They faked the residents’ signatures to complete the administrative procedures,” said Firdaus, who has been living in the complex for 15 years.

Meanwhile, Betty Sitorus, the construction committee deputy head and also a resident in the complex, denied rumors that the church’s construction was an attempt to “Christianize” local residents.

“Our congregation only shelters the Batak community. We talk and preach in the Batak language. So how could we ‘Christianize’ the locals?” she said.  

Without their own church, the HKBP congregation, which currently has more than 350 families, have to borrow the Bahtera Allah church in Pangkalan Jati, Pondok Labu, South Jakarta to host masses. (hwa)

Source: http://www.thejakartapost .com/news/2009/05/13/depok-told-open-dialogue-over-church.html

Indonesia’s dark-horse candidate

http://www.atimes. com/atimes/ Southeast_ Asia/KC31Ae01. html

Mar 31, 2009

Indonesia’s dark-horse candidate
By Katherine Demopoulos

JAKARTA – Career soldier Prabowo Subianto is still a dark-horse candidate among the 38 different political parties jockeying for position ahead of next month’s legislative elections and a looming presidential race set for July.

A former son-in-law of dictator Suharto, and an alleged mastermind of the violence and abuses that attended East Timor’s break from Indonesia in 1999, he is running a decidedly slick and well-financed campaign that appears to have substantial grassroots resonance.

Although he is trailing incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and frontrunner Megawati Sukarnoputri in the polls, Prabowo and his political party’s numbers could be pivotal to the formation of the next ruling coalition. His Great Indonesia Movement party, or Gerindra, claims 11.2 million members.

The most recent polls forecast his party to win between 2.6% and 6.23% of the legislative vote, sufficient popular support to cross the 2.5% threshold needed for a party to assume legislative seats. Those figures could rise considering between 9% and 50% of polled voters say they are still undecided.

Political analysts say that if Gerindra wins 6-7% of the legislature, it will be a major player in the coalition building for presidential nominations. A party or coalition needs 20% of seats of parliament or 25% of the popular votes to put forward a presidential candidate.

Political analysts partially credit Prabowo’s and Gerindra’s early success to the financial resources of his brother, Hashim Djojohadikusomo, who last year was ranked by Globe Asia magazine as Indonesia’s 14th richest person with a net worth of just over US$1 billion.

He has helped to bankroll Prabowo’s prime time media barrage, depicting glossy panoramas of Indonesia, peopled with smiling children and hard-working farmers and fishermen. Market research firm Nielson estimates Gerindra has garnered more TV exposure than any other party by positioning its ads around Sikar, the country’s most popular soap opera and most viewed news bulletin.
His campaign has also been burnished by high-profile foreign advisors, including US political communications expert Rob Allyn, who worked for outgoing US president George W Bush‘s successful Texas governor campaign in 1994, and reportedly a German scriptwriter involved in various popular Indonesian soap operas.

“If you were a political actor in Indonesia, you’d have to be looking at him closely and paying attention. There might be a hidden agenda. It might be quite a legitimate tilt at the president or it might be a tilt for 2014, or getting something else he wants,” said Damien Kingsbury, associate professor at Australia’s Deakin University.

Rural sensitivity
By spending much of his campaign time in rural villages, Prabowo has shown a populist touch certain other top candidates have lacked. He has in particular courted farmers and fishermen, demographic groups which make up the majority of the rural population.

He has leveraged his position as chairman of the Indonesian Farmers’ Association, which claims 10 million members nationwide, to build up his grassroots credentials and has lobbied the agriculture ministry on matters of rural concern. He has also vowed to create 36 million new agricultural jobs and double the average per capita income from its current $2,000 to $4,000 per year.

“I haven’t seen any politician who has been so active and so persistent in approaching the farmers down to the village across the archipelago, ” said Aleksius Jemadu, professor at Pelita Harapan University, located on the outskirts of Jakarta.

“He is a military strategist and he has a long-term perspective and he knows what he can do to strengthen his popularity. He used to be known by the public as a general, but knows he has to change his image to [that of] an effective leader,” he added.

Gerindra spokesman Haryanto Taslam echoes that assessment. He said in an interview with Asia Times Online that during a recent village visit Prabowo bought up palm oil stocks – at above the market price – from farmers who had complained about falling prices.

He has also distributed fertilizer directly to farmers and tried to get cheaper rice seed than that on offer from a government-appointe d company, according to Haryanto.

In many ways, Haryanto is central to Prabowo’s image-conscious electoral strategy. As a former democracy activist, Haryanto was kidnapped and held for 40 days during the waning days of the Suharto regime. In his capacity as former Kopassus commander, Prabowo has since personally apologized to him for his detention, Haryanto says.

“The issue is not personal, but [it was] the system at that time,” he said. “Prabowo asked me to join him to fight together to fix Indonesia. And I wanted to join because my political attitude is parallel with Prabowo’s, wanting to give the best for Indonesian people. I think there is no problem working together with him.”

Prabowo has in the past admitted responsibility for kidnapping pro-democracy activists. Speaking recently to foreign journalists, Prabowo said of the government’s past political kidnapping policy: “Under one regime it is preventative detention, then there is regime change and it is called kidnapping.”

Controversial past
Such elliptical wordplay does little to assuage the activists who recall Prabowo’s controversial history. He stands most pointedly accused of organizing thugs who terrorized pro-independence figures in East Timor, as well as involvement in orchestrating the riots that targeted ethnic Chinese Indonesians in 1998.

In a fully embedded democracy, “a candidate like him would not stand a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Kingsbury. “Indonesia is on a reformist political and economic path and Prabowo represents the opposite of that.”

But for most of Indonesia’s rural poor, activists’ kidnappings and communal riots are a world away. Their hardships have not eased in the decade of democracy and among many there is nostalgia for Suharto’s strong leadership and policies that helped to uplift tens of millions out of poverty.

“Some people are harking back to the New Order. I think there has been some re-swinging of the pendulum,” said one Jakarta-based commentator, who requested anonymity. “My fear [of Prabowo’s candidacy] is a reversion to fascism.”

Prabowo’s campaign appeals to the masses through promises to reschedule foreign debt payments and put the cash into education and healthcare. He has also taken a nationalistic line in vowing to stop the sale of strategic state assets to foreigners and review perceived unfavorable existing government contracts.

“The message is so concrete, so real, so relevant with the situation of his audience, especially the farmers, the people at the grassroots … He provides a clear vision to solve all the real problems that they are facing in their everyday life,” added Pelita Harapan University’s Jemadu.

“He’s making some very basic appeals to popular nationalism and populist economics,” said Tim Lindsey at Melbourne University’s Asian Law Center. He warns that if some of Prabowo’s proposed policies were actually implemented, Indonesia would risk being cut off from international credit markets.

Some analysts fear that a Prabowo-led or influenced government could bid to turn back the clock on Indonesian democracy. Prabowo has said he wants to revert to the original form of Indonesia’s constitution, which gives strong powers to the executive and lacks checks and balances. Others, such as Lindsey, believe Indonesia has moved past Suharto’s and his former New Order regime’s legacy.

“The time for New Order leftovers is running out. In 2014, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll be seeing the same array of politicians. We’re witnessing a generational shift,” said Lindsey. “Young ones are not aware of Prabowo’s record, but it also works against them because the ideas they stand for resonate with fewer people. Rather than being the re-emergence of New Order politicians, perhaps this is their last hurrah.”

Katherine Demopoulos is a journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She works as a freelance reporter for the BBC and Guardian, and also writes extensively on Asian energy markets.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing)

Memo to Peace and Justice Activists: Can We Create a Movement for Change?

Weekend Edition
November 28-30, 2008

Memo to Peace and Justice Activists

Can We Create a Movement for Change?


“If you want peace, work for justice.”

– Pope John Paul IV

There are literally thousands of organizations in the United States alone working for peace and justice.  I would probably think of them as constituting a movement but for Alexander Cockburn’s occasional but repeated and for me, telling remarks to the contrary. A couple of recent developments lead me to think there may be an opening for an appropriate catalyst to move these disparate groups and their activists, and those of us who comprise their membership and support, in the direction of becoming a movement.  Or perhaps more than one.

What is a movement?  While I invite help with my working definition, it seems to me a movement is a humongous number of people able to move collectively, more or less together, and thus magnify exponentially the impact of their actions, because they are motivated by a common vision, comprised of common values, goals, and perceptions of reality.  Not only do they hold this vision and its integral components in common, but they also articulate these things to themselves and each other in common terms.  They not only share them, but are aware that they do.

Noam Chomsky says to produce change we need understanding, organizing, and action.  We arrive at understanding by research and other means of perceiving and analyzing reality – and learning to ignore the ubiquitous disinformation, including the overload of irrelevancies, dispensed by the instruments of propaganda.  Moving from understanding to organizing is a process of sharing that information and analysis, disseminating them to others who share our values, so that collective action becomes possible.  That’s what those thousands of organizations already are: groups of people with a common understanding of one or several problems and issues, organized by mutual understanding and shared values so as to be able to act together for their common goals.

Anyone with a mailbox who has ever made a donation to a few organizations dedicated to peace and/or justice has some idea what I have in mind.  Resist, Inc., alone has funded literally thousands of small organizations in its 40-year history, and receives hundreds of new grant applications every year.  And we all know of the big organizations.  They’re working for peace, or on environmental problems, or for social equity, for human rights, and so on.  But can we tie all this together?  And where to begin?  As Chomsky once remarked, in essence, in reply to someone who asked that question:  Anywhere is a good place to begin.  What we have been hearing for years now is that we have no interests in common, and that our own interests are best served by seeking wealth, ignoring all but self.  So any action that affirms that we have interests in common is a move against the spirit of the age and the machine, and for the common good.

As for how we might begin to move together, recent events have included several over-arching developments of enormous scale that may be making popular consciousness more receptive than usual to the idea that we have interests in common, and may even facilitate agreement on common goals and actions we might take, by defining the elements of a program as well as illustrating how it might be achieved.

In an extraordinarily illuminating and useful article in the November issue of Z Magazine (“Bush’s Ten Toxic Economic Legacies”), Jack Rasmus remarks that in the wake of the staggering expenditures occasioned by the global financial crisis, critical programs like health care reform, student loans, sustainable environmental initiatives, jobs creation and protection, mortgage foreclosure relief, retirement systems reform and funding, etc., will all likely be sidelined more or less permanently.  However, viewing this differently – and as I see it – Rasmus has outlined many of the core components of a comprehensive program.  And if you add tax reform, extended unemployment benefits and food stamp eligibility, plus funding to state and local governments to continue increasingly needed social welfare and other programs and at least slow down the process of contraction now accelerating throughout the economy, you have an agenda that would serve the needs and interests of young people, older people, workers, women, people of color, people with disabilities, people who breathe, eat food and drink water – all of whom the media and political elites call “special interests” – that is, the general population.

How is this comprehensive agenda a plus, without the funding?  Well, another key insight was provided in a recent column in CounterPunch, when Chris Floyd pointed out that perhaps the most striking fact revealed by the reaction to the global financial crash is the “staggering, astonishing, gargantuan” amounts of money that the governments of the world have at their command. As Floyd points out, this revelation gives the lie to the argument that’s been made nearly ad infinitum and certainly ad nauseam over the years, that “we” simply can’t afford programs that meet the needs and serve the interests of the general population, because there just isn’t enough money.

The Trillions that are being thrown at Wall Street and other investor servants and interests on a daily basis gives the lie to that argument.  Moreover, the general public is keenly aware of it, as evidenced by the veritable tsunami of opposition that arose overnight to the Bush-Paulson bailout plan – to the point where it was even defeated on the first go-round in Congress, before new, improved disinformation undermined the opposition.

Of course, some of these Trillions remain to be borrowed, and questions are being raised in some quarters as to whether foreign central banks and others who have thus far financed the already staggering US budget and current account deficits may throw a monkey wrench into the proliferation of bailout plans by withholding their cash.  In that case, the Treasury could wind up printing the money, leading to hyperinflation.  None of this is to be too easily denied, but I think there are no less than several plausible answers to it.

First, it’s becoming increasingly clear that at least near-term and for the foreseeable future, investors worldwide have become loathe to put their cash anywhere else but in government bonds, despite the massive pending supply and persistently low yields.  Financial Times 11/14/08, p. 25.  Second, perhaps investors being asked to finance continuing US deficits – I have in mind here foreign central banks in particular – might have less disincentive to do so if the payoff is to be a rebuilt America whose consumers can go back to buying their products. After all, a major reason for the global impact of our current slow-motion train wreck is that US consumers are totally tapped out, and thus no longer able to buy the foreign stuff, our purchase of which has been helping to keep the economies of Europe and emerging countries such as China going and growing.  Throwing Trillions down a rat hole in a vain effort to re-inflate the global bubble economy might well be an unwise investment.  On the other hand, genuinely rebuilding the US middle class, manufacturing base and infrastructure – in the process fostering the growth of community and a more equitable society – would be a much wiser use of capital, apart from its immediate benefits to Us the People.

Will that approach fly?  Well, it remains to be seen, of course.  But I think it has a lot more going for it than much of what is presently being done, which both serves the interests of no one but Wall Street and appears to be in the process of failing on a truly grand scale.

But there’s yet another place to look for the hundreds of billions it will take to rebuild our country (and of course, the two are not mutually exclusive):  the defense (sic: empire, hegemony and war; in a word, military) budget.  Granted, hundreds of organizations working to promote peace have been making this point for years.  But the general public wasn’t staring into the abyss of what may become the Really Great Depression until now.  Recent events should – with the right focus – throw a spotlight of a somewhat new and different hue on the $600 Billion we spend each year on goods and services that are wholly unproductive from an economic viewpoint, and indeed contribute massively both to our national decline and the destruction of “the environment,” aka planet Earth and the only home we have.  That’s where the hundreds of peace organizations come in:  There are many ways to promote peace, but perhaps right now a concerted focus on the military budget, on its gargantuan size and its utter uselessness (and worse), is the most productive approach and one on which there might be substantial agreement among peace organizers and activists.  There is also a natural potential symbiosis between peace and environmental preservation and restoration.

Finally, we have the promise of Change in which so many people came to believe that they almost seem to constitute a movement.  Perhaps they were, but it’s a movement that will not maintain coherence or momentum of its own accord, and I haven’t seen signs the Obama campaign that facilitated its creation is working to keep it intact.  Others have made the point that if the Obama administration is to achieve the potential its supporters among the general population (as opposed to elite interests) desire, those who supported Obama’s election will have to stay focused and active.  That means, in part, organized.

There you have it:  The power structure has disclosed it has access to truly vast amounts of capital.  Very recently, there was a mobilization of enormous popular opposition to a bailout focused on Wall Street, and more bailouts continue to unfold.  Pretty much the entire population has some understanding and considerable fear of the economic catastrophe in process of unfolding, and there is seemingly universal recognition of the need for massive government intervention to minimize its severity and duration.  Enter the thousands of organizations already working for peace and justice, who might – possibly? – perceive these events as the occasion for concerted focus and action on a common theme, and in particular, the hundreds of organizations specifically devoted to peace whose organizers and activists can highlight another source of funding for such programs.  Could we build a movement or two from these components, under these circumstances?

If we don’t do it, who will?  And if not now, when?

Robert Roth is a retired public interest lawyer who worked on civil rights for institutionalized people, antipoverty energy policy, and financial fraud and consumer protection during his 35-year career.  He can be reached at Robert.roth99@

There are of course other views.  For example, a special issue of WIN, the magazine of the War Resisters League, titled “Where To From Here?” reports on WRL’s Listening Process, a project of interviews with nearly 100 grassroots organizers and activists from across the country assessing the state of the antiwar movement.  Contact WRL at 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, (212) 228-0450.

It’s a question beyond this essay to articulate our common values, or even to assign labels to our politics.  In recent years I’ve come to think compassion and justice may cover it all, but you may have your own formulation.  Nor is it clear to me that “progressive” describes my vision entirely, since it has many conservative components.  While I don’t necessarily agree with him in all particulars, I recommend Robert Jensen’s articulation of his political philosophy in his Writing Dissent, pp. 9-16, both as an outline of values I find substantially congenial personally, and as a model of one way in which it’s useful to articulate our politics.  I also like Riane Eisler’s suggestions in The Real Wealth of Nations, and especially recommend the section at pp. 146-164 titled “From Capitalism to Socialism to Partnerism,” for a discussion of values and an alternative vision, as grounds for a politics that may be as useful as it is beautiful.  As for analysis, while there are of course many excellent ones out there, the best with which I’m familiar is Chomsky’s, whose Understanding Power, Hegemony or Survival, and Failed States (among his dozens of invaluable volumes) together present an analysis and critique of systems of power that is systematic, comprehensive and deep, and of course well documented.

“The God That Failed, 10/13/08.

Of course, such a rebuilt America, if it were as profligate and destructive as the old one, would present its own problems.  But those are issues for another day.  Getting from here to there is hard enough, and besides, there are bound to be differences, indeed fundamental ones, in an America rebuilt on the blueprints I’m suggesting.  See also and further, Eisler’s Real Wealth of Nations.  Another alternative vision I find helpful is presented by Sharon Astyk in Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front, or, One Woman’s Solutions to Finding Abundance for Your Family while Coming to Terms with Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times. Sharon also has a great website at http://sharonastyk. com/.

And of course there are other promising places to look, such as the billions in annual subsidies to increasingly dysfunctional and destructive agribusiness.  See, e.g., the writings of Wendell Berry.

Apparently the Obama organization sent a survey to supporters on 11/18/08 asking how they would like to see “this organization move forward in the months and years ahead,” and asked them to rank four objectives:  helping the Obama administration “pass legislation through grass-roots efforts”; helping elect state and local candidates “who share the same vision for our country”; training others in the organizing techniques perfected by the campaign; and “working on local issues that impact our communities.”  This is not the place for a full discussion, but suffice it to say that, much as I wanted Obama to defeat McCain, I do not see him as having consistently articulated a progressive agenda, and am wary of the many Clinton people around him now.  For what I would call a real progressive agenda, I’d suggest the excellent outline of issues at the website of the Nader 2008 campaign, http://www.votenade  Nader’s issues constitute a comprehensive program, with which Obama was not in agreement on any point that I’m aware of.  So I’m thinking more in terms of encouraging or pressuring the administration and Congress from the left than of working with them, though of course the latter is preferable if we agree on goals.  It’s clear that even the sort of modest goals Obama did adopt during the campaign will encounter opposition of enormous force from the right.  See, e.g., Thomas Frank, “It’s Time to Give Voters the Liberalism They Want,” Wall Street Journal, 11/19/08 (regarding the business interests’ plans to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, aka “card check,” which a Chamber of Commerce official has dubbed “Armageddon,” and Bernie Marcus, co-founder and CEO of The Home Depot, has lamented as “the demise of a civilization”).  I’m sure they’re not the only one, but Progressive Democrats of America is one group I’ve heard from that intends to try to maintain the momentum from the left.


“Anti-porn” bill could threaten Indonesian women

“Anti-porn” bill could threaten Indonesian women

by Soe Tjen Marching
25 November 2008

Jakarta – Two weeks ago, Indonesia’s parliament passed an “anti-porn”
bill, which bans anyone from wearing clothes or promoting material
that could incite “sexual desire”.

Although regulations regarding pornography are important, there is
some concern that there will be other implications, for instance for
women’s rights, even down to what is permissible to wear in public. In
addition, the law also criminalises homosexual activities which
previously were not illegal in Indonesia.

The head of the special committee that drafted the bill, Balkan
Kaplale, insists that it will protect Indonesians’ morality, and guard
women and children against sexual exploitation.

But by putting the blame on the “cause” of sexual arousal, this law
victimises women rather than protects them, allowing perpetrators to
argue, for example, that the victim provoked incidents of rape or
sexual harassment.

In Indonesia, a passed bill becomes law after it is signed by the
president or 30 days after it is ratified by Parliament.

However, only three days after the law was ratified, three exotic
dancers in Mangga Besar, West Jakarta were arrested, while the
managers and owner of the club were left alone.

In fact, the police detained these women based on a provision from a
previous draft of this bill.

Unfortunately, this victimisation and negative stereotyping of women
in relation to sexuality is not new in Indonesia.

Under former president Soeharto’s “New Order” government, which was
dominated by the military and characterised by a weakened civil
society, emphasis was put on the purity of women, stressing the
importance of their roles as loyal wives and good mothers.

After Soeharto’s resignation in 1998, however, Indonesians took
advantage of their newfound liberties to express their opinions and
criticise authority.

Several female Indonesian authors, including Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari,
Clara Ng, Djenar Maesa Ayu and Herlinatiens, gained popularity,
writing new roles for women, particularly when it comes to sexuality.
Similarly, Indonesian film directors, such as Mira Lesmana, Nia
Dinata, and Sekar Ayu Asmara, have become widely known in the
Indonesian film industry for portraying multi-faceted, complex
Indonesian women.

In their works, many of them expressed criticism against sexual
restrictions placed on women in Indonesia. If the anti-porn bill is
ratified, the works of these women may be affected, since the new law
could label their books pornographic.

Since early 2006, several women’s groups — Komnas Perempuan (Forum on
Women), Kapal Perempuan (Women’s Boat) and Aliansi Mawar Putih (White
Rose Alliance) — have protested against the bill, which has been
pending for several years. On 22 April 2006, thousands of artists,
activists, students and civilians gathered at Monas Monument in
Jakarta carrying giant posters which read: “Indonesia is not America,
but it is not Saudi Arabia either.

We reject the anti-porn bill.” And “We reject pornography, but we
reject the anti-porn bill.”

More recently, Ayu Utami wrote a play, Sidang Susila (Susila’s Trial),
which demonstrates how the bill could violate women’s rights.

A week after the bill was passed in parliament, a well-known actor,
Butet Kartaredjasa, performed the work in Sidang Susila Teater Gandrik
in Jakarta to protest the new law.

Despite the prevailing impression that this bill is widely supported
by all Muslims, Islamic organisations like the Liberal Islam Network
(JIL) in Jakarta, the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies (LKIS)
in Yogyakarta and the Institute for Religion and Social Studies (LKAS)
in Surabaya have voiced their strong opposition to the bill.

They claim that the bill will limit freedom of expression in art,
including film and literature, and that Islam has been inaccurately
used by certain groups to justify the ratification of the bill. These
groups have created blogs highlighting articles criticising the bill
and organised demonstrations and press conferences.

Non-Muslim minority groups, especially in West Papua, Bali, East Nusa
Tenggara and North Sumatra, have also fiercely opposed this law
because they claim that their local customs and traditions will be
threatened by it. In West Papua, for instance, men and women go

In Bali, nude statues proliferate and the Balinese people are also
worried that the new law will negatively affect their tourism
industry, as many foreigners may no longer be able to wear bathing
suits, sundresses or shorts at the beaches.

Recently, governmental officials from these regions have gone so far
as to threaten to split from the Republic of Indonesia in protest.

If the president signs the bill into law, the government may gain more
popularity amongst the conservatives. However, it will simultaneously
offend minority religious groups, as well as women, splitting its
support base and potentially threatening the unity of the nation.

To achieve common ground between different groups, the law must be
completely revised. The term “pornography” must be made more specific
and implicitly or explicitly encourage respect for women’s bodies.

A national dialogue with minority groups — as well as feminists — to
define exactly what pornography is will definitely help. The issue of
subordination of women in pornography must be the bill’s primary focus.


* Soe Tjen Marching is a researcher and tutor at the School of
Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and a
composer of avant-garde music. This article was written for the Common
Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 November 2008,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

http://www.commongr oundnews. org/article. php?id=24428& lan=en&sid= 1&sp=0&isNew= 1

Scholarship or Sophistry? Bernard Lewis and the New Orientalism

CounterPunch, June 28, 2003

Scholarship or Sophistry?
Bernard Lewis and the New Orientalism


It would appear from the fulsome praise heaped by mainstream reviewers on Bernard Lewis’s most recent and well-timed book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press, 2002), that the demand for Orientalism has reached a new peak. America’s search for new enemies that began soon after the end of the Cold War very quickly resurrected the ghost of an old, though now decrepit, enemy, Islam. Slowly but surely, this revived the sagging fort1unes of Orientalism, so that it speaks again with the treble voice of authority.

The mainstream reviewers describe Bernard Lewis as “the doyen of Middle Eastern studies,” the “father” of Islamic studies, “[a]rguably the West’s most distinguished scholar on the Middle East,” and “[a] Sage for the Age.” It would appear that Lewis is still the reigning monarch of Orientalism, as he was some twenty-five years back when Edward Said, in his Orientalism, dissected and exposed the intentions, modalities, deceptions, and imperialist connections of this ideological enterprise. This Orientalist tiger has not changed his stripes over the fifty-odd years that he has been honing his skills. Now at the end of his long career-only coincidentally, also the peak-he presents the summation, the quintessence of his scholarship and wisdom on Islam and the Middle East, gathered, compressed in the pages of this slim book that sets out to explain what went wrong with Islamic history, and that has so mesmerized reviewers on the right.

Who Is Bernard Lewis?

We will return to the book in a moment, but before that, we need to step back some twenty-five years and examine how Edward Said, in Orientalism, has described this Orientalist tiger’s stripes and his cunning ploys at concealment. Edward Said gets to the nub of Lewis’s Orientalist project when he writes that his “work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material.” Lewis’s work is “aggressively ideological. ” He has dedicated his entire career, spanning more than five decades, to a “project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam.” Said writes:

The core of Lewis’s ideology about Islam is that it never changes, and his whole mission is to inform conservative segments of the Jewish reading public, and anyone else who cares to listen, that any political, historical, and scholarly account of Muslims must begin and end with the fact that Muslims are Muslims.

Although Lewis’s objectives are ominous, his methods are quite subtle; he prefers to work “by suggestion and insinuation. ” In order to disarm his readers and win their trust and admiration, he delivers frequent “sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian.” This is only a cover, a camouflage, for his political propaganda. Once he is seated on his high Orientalist perch, he goes about cleverly insinuating how Islam is deficient in and opposed to universal values, which, of course, always originate in the West. It is because of this deficiency in values that Arabs have trouble accepting a democratic Israel-it is always “democratic” Israel. Lewis can write “objectively” about the Arab’s “ingrained” opposition to Israel without ever telling his readers that Israel is an imperialist creation, and an expansionist, colonial-settler state that was founded on terror, wars, and ethnic cleansing. Lewis’s work on Islam represents
the “culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter but also blinds its practitioners. ”

Lewis’s scholarly mask slips off rather abruptly when he appears on television, a feat that he accomplishes with predictable regularity. Once he is on the air, his polemical self, the Orientalist crouching tiger, takes over, all his sermons about objectivity forgotten, and then he does not shrink from displaying his sneering contempt for the Arabs and Muslims more generally, his blind partisanship for Israel, or his bristling hostility toward Iran. One recent example will suffice here. In a PBS interview broadcast on 16 April 2002, hosted by Charlie Rose, he offered this gem: “Asking Arafat to give up terrorism would be like asking Tiger to give up golf.” That is a statement whose malicious intent and vindictive meanness might have been excusable if it came from an official Israeli spokesman.

After this background check, do we really want to hear from this “sage” about “what went wrong” with Islamic societies; why, after nearly a thousand years of expansive power and world leadership in many branches of the arts and sciences, they began to lose their élan, their military advantage, and their creativity and, starting in the nineteenth century, capitulated to their historical adversary, the West? And, though Islamic societies have regained their political independence, why has their economic and cultural decline proved so difficult to reverse? Yet, although our stomachs turn at the prospect, we must sample the gruel Lewis offers, taste it, and analyze it, if only to identify the toxins that it contains and that have poisoned far too many Western minds for more than fifty years.

Where is the Context?

What went wrong with the Islamic societies? When this question is asked by our “doyen of Middle Eastern studies,” especially when it is asked right after the attacks of 11 September, it is hard not to notice that this manner of framing the problem of the eclipse of Islamic societies by the West is loaded with biases, value judgments, and preconceptions, and even contains its own answer. There are two sets of “wrongs” in What Went Wrong? The first consists of “wrongs,” deviations from what is just and good, that we confront in contemporary Islamic societies. Lewis undoubtedly has in mind a whole slew of problems, including the political, economic, and cultural failings of the Islamic world. In addition, this question seeks to discover deeper “wrongs,” deviations from what is just and good that are prior to and at the root of the present “wrongs.” Lewis is concerned primarily with this second set of “wrongs.”

The first problem one encounters in Lewis’s narrative of Middle Eastern decline is the absence of any context. He seeks to create the impression that the failure of Islam to catch up with the accelerating pace of changes in Western Europe is a problem specific to this region; there is no attempt to locate this problem in a global context. This exclusive Middle Eastern focus reveals to all but the blinkered the mala fides of What Went Wrong? Lewis cannot hide behind pious claims that a historian’s “loyalties may well influence his choice of subject of research; they should not influence his treatment of it.” His exclusive focus on the decline of the Middle East is not legitimate precisely because it is designed to-and it unavoidably must-“influence his treatment of it.”

Once Western Europe began to make the transition from a feudal-agrarian to a capitalist-industri al society, starting in the sixteenth century, the millennial balance of power among the world’s major civilizations shifted inexorably in favor of Western Europe. A society that was shifting to a capitalist-industri al base, capable of cumulative growth, commanded greater social power than slow-growing societies still operating on feudal-agrarian foundations. Under the circumstances, it was unlikely that non-Western societies could simultaneously alter the foundations of their societies while also fending off attacks from Western states whose social power was expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Even as these feudal-agrarian societies sought to reorganize their economies and institutions, Western onslaughts against them deepened, and this made their reorganization increasingly difficult. It is scarcely surprising that the growing asymmetry between the two
sides eventually led to the eclipse, decline, or subjugation of nearly all non-Western societies.

While Lewis studiously avoids any reference to this disequalizing dynamic, another Western historian of Islam not driven by a compulsion “to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam” understood this tendency quite well. I am referring here to Marshall Hodgson, whose The Venture of Islam shows a deep and, for its time, rare understanding of the interconnectedness, across space and time, amongst all societies in the Eastern hemisphere. He understood very clearly that the epochal changes under way in parts of Western Europe between 1600 and 1800 were creating an altogether new order based on markets, capital accumulation, and technological changes, which acted upon each other to produce cumulative growth. Moreover, this endowed the most powerful Western states with a degree of social power that no one could resist. In his Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson writes, Hence, the Western Transmutation, once it got well under way, could
neither be paralleled independently nor be borrowed wholesale. Yet it could not, in most cases, be escaped. The millennial parity of social power broke down, with results that were disastrous everywhere.

Clearly, Lewis’s presentation of his narrative of Middle Eastern decline without any context is a ploy. His objective is to whittle down world history, to reduce it to a primordial contest between two historical adversaries, the West and Islam. This is historiography in the crusading mode, one that purports to resume the Crusades-interrupte d in the thirteenth century-and carry them to their unfinished conclusion, the triumph of the West or, conversely, the humiliation and defeat of Middle Eastern Islam. Once this framework has been established, with its exclusive focus on a failing Islamic civilization, it is quite easy to cast the narrative of this decay as a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, which must then be explained in terms of specifically Islamic failures. Thus Lewis’s agenda in What Went Wrong? is to discover all that was and is “wrong” with Islamic societies and to explain their decline and present troubles in terms of these “wrongs.”

If Lewis had an interest in exploring the decline of the Middle East, he would be asking why the new, more dynamic historical system that lay behind the rise of the West had not emerged in the Middle East, India, China, Italy, or Africa. If he had asked this question, it may have directed him to the source and origins of Western hegemony. But Lewis ducks this issue altogether. Instead, he takes the growing power of the West-its advances in science and technology-as the starting point of his narrative and concentrates on demonstrating why the efforts of Islamic societies to catch up with the West were both too little and too late. In other words, he seeks to explain a generic phenomenon-the overthrow of agrarian societies before the rise of a new historical system, based on capital, markets, and technological change-as one that is specific to Islam and is due to specifically Islamic “wrongs.”

If one focuses only on the Middle Eastern response to the Western challenge, it does appear to be too little and too late. The Ottoman Empire, once the most powerful in the Islamic world, had lost nearly all its European territories by the end of the nineteenth century, and the remnants of its Arab territories were lost after its defeat in the First World War. At this point, the Ottoman Empire had been reduced to a rump state in northern Anatolia, with the British and French occupying Istanbul, the Greeks pushing to occupy central Anatolia, the Armenians extending their boundaries in eastern Anatolia, and the French pushing north in Silesia. Yet, after defeating the Greeks, the French, and the Armenians, the victorious Turks managed to establish in 1922 a new and modern Turkish nation-state over Istanbul, Thrace, and all of Anatolia. The Iranians were more successful in preserving their territories, though, like the Ottomans, they too had lost control
over their economic policies in the first decades of the nineteenth century. However, if one compares these outcomes with the fate suffered by other regions-barring Japan, China, and Thailand, nearly all of Asia and Africa was directly colonized by the Europeans-one has to conclude that the results for the Middle East could have been worse.

Uncurious Ottomans

There is even less substance to Lewis’s claims about Middle Eastern inertia in the face of Western threats, especially when we compare their responses to these threats with the record of East Asian societies.

First, consider Lewis’s charge that the Muslims showed little curiosity about the West. He attributes this failing to Muslim bigotry that frowned upon contacts with the infidels. This is a curious charge against “a world civilization” that Lewis admits was “polyethnic, multiracial, international, one might even say intercontinental. ” It also seems strange that the Ottomans, and other Middle Eastern states before them, were quite happy to employ their Christian and Jewish subjects-as high officials, diplomats, physicians, and bankers-traded with the Europeans themselves, bought arms and borrowed money from them, and yet, somehow, loathed learning anything from the same infidels. In addition, Muslim philosophers, historians and travelers have left several very valuable accounts of non-Islamic societies. One of these, Al-Biruni’s monumental study of India, still remains without a rival for its encyclopedic coverage, objectivity, and sympathy for its
subject. Clearly, Lewis has fallen prey to the Orientalist temptation: when something demands a carefully researched explanation, an understanding of material and social conditions, better pin it on some cultural propensity.

Lewis is little aware how his book is littered with contradictions. If the Muslims were not a little curious about developments in the West, it is odd that the oldest map of the Americas-which dates from 1513 and is the most accurate map from the sixteenth century-was prepared by Piri Reis, a Turkish admiral and cartographer. It would also appear that the number of Muslims who had left accounts of their observations on Europe were not such a rarity either. Lewis himself mentions no fewer than ten names, nearly all of them Ottomans, spanning the period from 1665 to 1840; and this is far an from exhaustive list. One of them, Ratib Effendi, who was in Vienna from 1791 to 1792, left a report that “ran to 245 manuscript folios, ten times or more than ten times those of his predecessors, and it goes into immense detail, primarily on military matters, but also, to quite a considerable extent, on civil affairs.” Diplomatic contacts provide another indicator of
the early growth of Ottoman interest and involvement in the affairs of European states. Between 1703 and 1774, the Ottomans signed sixty-eight treaties or agreements with sovereign, mostly European states. Since each treaty must have involved at least one diplomatic exchange, the Ottomans could hardly be accused of neglecting diplomatic contacts with Europe.

According to Lewis, the Ottoman decision not to challenge the Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century was a failure of vision. Despite some early warnings from elder statesmen, the Ottomans did not anticipate that the Portuguese incursion would translate some 250 years later into a broader and more serious European challenge to their power. As a result, they chose to concentrate their war efforts on acquiring territory in Europe, which, Lewis claims, they saw as “the principal battleground between Islam and Europe, the rival faiths competing for enlightenment- and mastery-of the world.” It is of no interest to Lewis that the Ottomans, departing from their own tradition of land warfare, had built a powerful navy starting in the fifteenth century and created a seaborne empire in the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Red Sea. If the Ottomans chose to concentrate their resources on land wars in Central Europe rather than
challenge Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean, this was not the result of religious zealotry. It reflected the balance of class interests in the Ottoman political structure. In an empire that had traditionally been land-based, the interests of the landowning classes prevailed against commercial interests that looked to the Indian Ocean for their livelihood. Although the decision not to contest the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century was fateful, that policy was rational for the Ottomans.

A Military Decline?

Several Orientalists- Lewis amongst them-have argued that the military decline of the Ottoman Empire became irreversible after its second failed siege of Vienna in 1683, or perhaps earlier, after its naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571. In an earlier work, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Lewis declared that “[t]he Ottomans found it more and more difficult to keep up with the rapidly advancing Western technological innovations, and in the course of the eighteenth century the Ottoman Empire, itself far ahead of the Islamic world, fell decisively behind Europe in virtually all arts of war.”

This thesis of an early and inexorable decline has now been convincingly questioned. Jonathan Grant has shown that the Ottomans occupied the third tier in the hierarchy of military technology, behind innovators and exporters, at the beginning of the fifteenth century; they could reproduce the latest military technology with the help of foreign expertise but they never graduated into export or introduced any significant innovations. The Ottomans succeeded in maintaining this relative position, through two waves of technology diffusion, until the early nineteenth century. However, they failed to keep up with the third wave of technology diffusion, based upon the technology of the industrial revolution, that began in the mid-nineteenth century. The Ottomans fell below their third-tier status only toward the end of the nineteenth century, when they became totally dependent on imported weaponry.

If we put together the evidence made available by Lewis, it becomes clear that the Ottomans were not slow in recognizing the institutional superiority enjoyed by Europe’s military. A debate about the causes of Ottoman weakness began after the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699, growing more intense over time. A document from the early seventeenth century recognized that “it was no longer sufficient, as in the past, to adopt Western weapons. It was also necessary to adopt Western training, structures, and tactics for their effective use.” The Ottomans began to dispatch special envoys to European capitals “with instructions to observe and to learn and, more particularly, to report on anything that might be useful to the Muslim state in coping with its difficulties and confronting its enemies.” Several of these envoys wrote reports, occasionally quite extensive and detailed, on their European visits, and these reports had an important impact on thinking in Ottoman
circles. The first mathematical school for the military was founded in 1734, and a second one followed in the 1770s.

While Ottoman military technology generally kept pace with the advances in Europe, at least into the first decades of the nineteenth century, it took the Ottomans longer to introduce organizational changes in the military since they ran into powerful social obstacles. As a result, the first serious attempts at modernizing the army did not begin until the late eighteenth century, during the reign of Selim III, who sought to bypass the problems of reforming the existing military corps by recruiting and training a new European-style army. Although, by 1806, he had raised a modern army of nearly twenty-five thousand, he had to abandon his efforts in the face of resistance from the ulama and a Janissary rebellion. The task of modernizing the Ottoman army was taken up again in 1826 after the Janissary corps was disbanded, and in two years, the new Ottoman army included seventy-five thousand regular troops. Simultaneously, the Ottomans introduced reforms in the
bureaucracy and also reformed land-tenure policies with the objective of raising revenues.

And yet these efforts at modernizing the Ottoman military-quite early by most standards-failed to avert the progressive fragmentation and eventual demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. One might join Hodgson in thinking that this was inevitable, that agrarian societies in Asia and Africa could not modernize fast enough in the face of the ever increasing economic and military power of the modern Western nation-states. But, perhaps, this assessment is too fatalistic; and it is contradicted by the case of-among others-Russia, which was spared colonization or subjection to open-door treaties. A comparison of the two quickly reveals that the Ottomans’ efforts at modernization were undermined by several extraneous factors. The Ottoman Empire, which straddled three continents, lacked the compactness that might have made its territories more defensible. What proved more fatal to the Ottoman Empire was the fact that the Ottoman Turks, though
they constituted its ethnic core, made up less than a third of its population and occupied an even smaller part of its territories. Once nationalism reared its head in the nineteenth century, the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire was well-nigh unavoidable. The Ottomans faced one insurrection after another in the Balkans, each backed by some European power, until the last of these territories had broken free in the early decades of the twentieth century. Not only did these insurrections reduce the revenues of the empire, but by diverting its attention and resources to war, they delayed the modernization of the military and economy. Eventually, during World War I, the Arab territories of the empire were wrested away by the British and French, with support from Arab nationalists.

The Egyptian program to modernize its military, started in 1815 under the leadership of Muhammad Ali, was more ambitious and more successful. It was part of an integrated program of modernization and industrial development financed through state ownership of lands, development of new export crops, and state-owned monopolies over the marketing of the major agricultural products. In 1831, Egypt’s Europeanized army consisted of one hundred thousand officers and men, and in 1833, having conquered Syria, it was penetrating deep into Anatolia when its march was halted by Russian naval intervention. When the Ottomans resumed the Syrian war in 1839, the Egyptians routed the Ottoman forces and were rapidly marching westward, poised to capture Istanbul for Muhammad Ali. At this point, all the great European powers, except France, intervened, forcing the Egyptians to withdraw, give up their acquisitions in Syria and Arabia, reduce their military force to eighteen
thousand, and enforce the Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Convention, which required the lowering of tariffs to 3 percent and the dismantling of all state monopolies. By depriving Egypt of its revenues and dramatically reducing the military’s demand for its manufactures, these measures abruptly terminated the career of the earliest and most ambitious program to build a modern, industrial society in the Periphery.

Lewis faults the Ottomans and Egyptians of the nineteenth century for seeking to build an effective military response on the foundations of a modern industrial economy. He thinks it odd that these countries “tried to catch up with Europe by building factories, principally to equip and clothe their armies.” Apparently, Lewis is unaware that the Ottomans-and especially Egypt-were breaking new ground in their efforts to modernize their manufactures, a road that would soon be taken by most European countries. Nearly every country that lagged behind in the nineteenth century and was forced to catch up with Britain, built its strategy around industrialization, and the military in many of these countries formed an important initial market for their nascent industries. Of course, Lewis had no choice but to demean the military and industrial responses to the Western threat. As we will see, he believes that the Ottomans should have been working harder to remedy
their cultural deficiencies, such as their less-than-enthusias tic appreciation for European harmonies.

Industrial Failure-But Why?

Lewis declares that the industrialization programs launched by the Ottomans and Egypt “failed, and most of the early factories became derelict.” These programs were doomed from the outset because their promoters lacked a proper regard for time, measurement, harmonies, secularism, and women’s rights-values upon which Western industrial success was founded.

We must correct these jaundiced observations. Far from being a failure, the Egyptian “program of industrialization and military expansion,” according to Immanuel Wallerstein (Unthinking Social Science), “seriously undermined the Ottoman Empire and almost established a powerful state in the Middle East capable eventually of playing a major role in the interstate system.” Muhammad Ali’s fiscal and economic reforms, between 1805 and 1847, brought about a more than ninefold increase in government revenues. At their height in the 1830s, Egypt’s state monopolies had made investments worth $12 million and employed thirty thousand workers in a broad range of industries that included foundries, textiles, paper, chemicals, shipyards, glassware, and arsenals. By the early 1830s, Egyptian arsenals and naval yards had acquired the ability to “produce appreciable amounts of warships, guns and munitions,” elevating Egypt “to a major regional power.” Naturally, these
developments in Egypt were raising concerns in British government circles. A report submitted to the British foreign office in 1837 sounded the right note: “A manufacturing country Egypt never can become-or at least for ages.” Three years later, when Istanbul was within the grasp of Muhammad Ali’s forces, a coalition of European powers intervened to roll back his gains, downsize his military, and dismantle his state monopolies. These measures successfully reversed the Periphery’s first industrial revolution.

The Ottomans launched an ambitious program of industrialization in the early 1840s, but it had little chance of success and was abandoned within a few years of its inauguration. Since the early nineteenth century, the unequal treaties limited the Ottomans to import tariffs under 3 percent, severely limiting their ability to protect their manufactures or raise revenues for investments in development projects. In 1838, the Anglo-Turkish Commercial Convention forced them to dismantle all state monopolies, dealing another blow to their fiscal autonomy. It speaks to the determination of the Ottomans that they sought to launch an industrial revolution despite their adverse fiscal circumstances. In the decade starting in 1841, the Ottomans had set up, to the west of Istanbul, a complex of state-owned industries that included spinning and weaving mills, a foundry, steam-operated machine works, and a boatyard for the construction of small steamships. In the words
of Edward Clark (International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 1974): “In variety as well as in number, in planning, in investment, and in attention given to internal sources of raw materials these manufacturing enterprises far surpassed the scope of all previous efforts and mark this period as unique in Ottoman history.” Several foreign observers saw in the Istanbul industrial complex the potential to evolve into “a Turkish Manchester and Leeds, a Turkish Birmingham and Sheffield,” all wrapped in one. In addition, other modern industrial, mining, and agricultural projects were initiated during the same period in several other parts of the Ottoman Empire. But these grand projects could not be sustained for long. Once the Crimean War started, the Ottomans were forced to borrow heavily from foreign banks, and, strapped for funds, they abandoned most of these industrial projects. Thus ended another bold experiment in industrialization, early even by
European standards, but whose failure was linked to the loss of Ottoman fiscal sovereignty.

It’s in Their Culture

The real culprit behind the political, economic, and military failures of the Middle East over the past half a millennium was their culture. Lewis identifies a whole slew of problematic cultural traits, but two are singled out for special attention: the mixing of religion and politics and the unequal treatment of women, unbelievers, and slaves. Both, according to Lewis, are Islamic flaws.

Lewis argues that secularism constitutes a great divide between Islam and the West: the West always had it and Islamic societies never did. Secularism, as the separation of church and state, “is, in a profound sense, Christian.” Its origins go back to Jesus-his injunction to give God and Caesar, each, their due-and to the early history of the Christians when, as a minority persecuted by the Roman state, they developed the institutions of the Church with its “own laws and courts, its own hierarchy and chain of authority.” This was quite unique, setting Europe apart from anything that went before and from its competitors. In particular, the Muslims never created an “institution corresponding to, or even remotely resembling, the Church in Christendom. ”

These claims about a secular Christendom- an oxymoron in itself-and a theocratic Islam are problematic. Lewis rests his case upon two propositions. First, he contrasts the presence of the Church in Christendom against its absence in Islamic societies. Second, he works on the presumption that the existence of a Church, a hierarchical religious organization different from the state, necessarily implies a separation between religion and political authority. For the most part, these claims are contestable.

The existence of a Church in Christendom is not in dispute, but the contention that there existed nothing like it in Islamic societies is contradicted by history. The Prophet and the first four Caliphs combined religious and mundane authority in their persons. In addition, most Islamic thinkers have maintained that the ideal Islamic state, modeled after the state in Medina, must be guided by the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah. The Islamic practice in the centuries following the pious Caliphs, however, departed quite sharply from the canonical model as well as the theory.

In one of his numerous attempts at distortion, Lewis asserts that the “pietists” retreated into “radical opposition or quietist withdrawal” when they failed to impose “ecclesiastical constraints on political and military authority.” This is only part of the picture. In the bigger picture, we find that the pietists turned vigorously to scholarship. Starting from a scratch, and independently of state authority and without state funding, the early pietists developed the Islamic sciences, which included the Traditions of the Prophet, biographies of the Prophet and his companions, Arabic grammar, and theology. Most significantly, these pious scholars elaborated several competing systems of Islamic laws-regulating every aspect of individual, social, and business life-on the premise that legislative authority was vested in the consensus of the pious scholars-or, in the case of Shi’ites, in the rulings of the imams. The state had executive powers but it
possessed no legislative authority. In effect, Islam had evolved not only separate political and religious institutions, but separate executive and legislative powers as well. It was the pious scholars-with their competing schools of jurisprudence- who constituted the informal legislatures of Islam, long before these institutions had evolved in Europe.

Lewis’s second proposition- that separation between religion and political authority flows from the presence of a Church-is equally dubious. There can be no separation between religion and political authority if religion is organized into a Church with power over the lives of people. If the Church itself commands power, ipso facto, it becomes a rival of the state. It follows that the Church can and will exercise its power directly to regulate the religious, economic, and social affairs of the community, and indirectly by using the state for its own ends. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state, the Church progressively increased its power: it used the power of the state to eliminate or marginalize all competing religions; it gained the exclusive right to define all religious dogma and rituals; it acquired properties, privileges, and exclusive control over education; it expanded its legislative control over different spheres of
society. In time, since the Church and state recruited their higher personnel from the same classes, they also developed an identity of class interests. In other words, although they remained organizationally distinct, the Church and the state mixed religion and politics.

One expects that a separation of religion and political authority would produce a measure of tolerance. Yet, the adoption of Christianity as its official creed led the Roman state, hitherto tolerant of all religious communities, to inaugurate a regime of growing intolerance toward other religions, and even toward any dissent within Christianity. As Daniel Schowalter (Oxford History of the Biblical World) says, “By the end of the fourth century, both anti-pagan and anti-Jewish legislation would serve as licenses for the increasing number of acts of vandalism and violent destruction directed against pagan and Jewish places of worship carried out by Christian mobs, often at the instigation of the local clergy.” Although the practice of Judaism was not banned, by the end of the fourth century C.E., a variety of decrees prohibited conversion to Judaism, Jewish ownership of non-Jewish slaves, and marriage between Jews and Christians, and Jews were excluded
from most imperial offices. In dogma, theology, legislation, and practice, the Church and state crafted a regime that suppressed paganism and marginalized all other non-Christian forms of worship.

According to Lewis, modernization in Islamic societies was set back by a second set of cultural barriers-namely, the inferior status of unbelievers, slaves, and, especially, women. It is not that these groups labored under stricter restraints than their counterparts in Europe, but that their unequal status was “sacrosanct” in that they “were seen as part of the structure of Islam, buttressed by revelation, by the precept and practice of the Prophet, and by the classical and scriptural history of the Islamic community.” As a result, these three inequalities have endured; they were not challenged even by the radical Islamic movements that arose from time to time to protest social and economic inequalities.
Lewis’s claims are problematic for several reasons. The first problem is their lack of historicity. Implicitly, Lewis bases his case on a reading of European history that inverts causation between economic development and social equality. He would have us believe that Europeans developed because their flexible legal systems moved faster to create a more egalitarian society, a necessary basis for rapid progress. This shows a curious indifference to chronology. While Europe was establishing its global capitalist empire it was conducting the Inquisition, expelling the Moors and Jews from Spain, waging unending religious wars, burning witches at the stake, and granted few legal rights to women. In addition, they were creating in the Americas economic systems based on slavery that would be abolished only after the 1860s. In Russia, serfdom remained the basis of the economy at least until the 1860s. The equality Lewis speaks of began to arrive in slow
increments at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it was a byproduct of economic development, not its precursor.

Lewis’s claims about inequalities in Muslim societies lack historicity on another score. It is a bit surprising that “the doyen of Middle Eastern studies,” who has spent more than fifty years studying the history of the region, is unaware of at least a few challenges to the alleged inferior status of women or unbelievers. In the early centuries of Islam, there were at least three groups-the Kharijis, the Qarmatians and the Sufis-that did not accept the legal interpretations of the four traditional schools of Islamic law as sacrosanct. Instead, they looked for inspiration to the Qur’anic precepts on the moral and spiritual equality of men and women, claiming that the early applications of these precepts were time-bound. The Kharijis and Qarmatians rejected concubinage and child marriage, and the Qarmatians went further in rejecting polygamy and the veil. In a similar spirit, the Sufis welcomed women travelers on the spiritual path, permitting women “to
give a central place in their lives to their spiritual vocation.” In sixteenth-century India, the Mughal emperor Akbar abolished the jizyah (the poll tax imposed by Islamic law on all non-Muslims) , banned child marriage, and repealed a law that forced Islam on prisoners of war.

The “most profound single difference” between Islam and the West, however, concerns the status of women. In particular, Lewis argues that Islam permits polygamy and concubinage and that the Christian Churches prohibit it. Once again, Lewis is exaggerating the differences. In nearly all societies, not excluding the Western, men of wealth and power have always had access to multiple sexual partners, although within different legal frameworks. Islam gave equal rights to all the free sexual partners of men as well as to their children. The West, driven by a concern for primogeniture, adopted an opposite solution by vesting all the rights in a man’s primary sexual partner and her offspring. All the other sexual partners-a man’s mistresses-and their children had no legal rights. Arguably, Europe’s mistresses might think that the Islamic practice favored women.

It would appear from Lewis’s emphasis on polygamy and concubinage that they were very common in Islamic societies. In fact, both were quite rare outside the ruling class. Among others, this is attested by European visitors to eighteenth-century Aleppo and nineteenth-century Cairo. A study of documents relating to two thousands estates in seventeenth- century Turkey could identify only twenty cases of polygamy. Keeping concubines was most likely even rarer.

Lewis quotes from the reports of Muslim visitors who were startled to see European men curtsying to women in public places; this is supposed to validate the “striking contrasts” in women’s status in Europe and Islam. Once the bowing and curtsying are done, we need to compare the property rights enjoyed by women in Europe and Islam, a quite reliable index of the social power of women inside the household and outside. In this matter, too, it is the Muslim women who had the advantage until quite recently. Unlike her European counterpart, a married Muslim woman could own property, and she enjoyed exclusive rights to income from her property as well as the wages she earned. In Britain, the most advanced country in Europe, married women did not acquire the right to own property until 1882.
The ownership of property gave Muslim women a measure of social power that was not available to women in Europe. A Muslim woman of independent means had a stronger hand in marriage: she could initiate a divorce or craft a marriage contract that prevented her husband from taking another wife. Muslim women often engaged in trading activities, buying and selling property, lending money, or renting out stores. They created waqfs, charitable foundations financed by earnings from property, which they also administered. A small number of women distinguished themselves as scholars of the religious sciences. According to one report from the early nineteenth century, women attended al-Azhar, the leading university in the Islamic world. Ahmed concludes, on the basis of such evidence, that Muslim “women were not, after all, the passive creatures, wholly without material resources or legal rights, that the Western world once imagined them to be.”

What Went Wrong?

In an earlier era, before the Zionists developed a proprietary interest in Palestine, the least bigoted voices in the field of Oriental studies were often those of European Jews. Ironically, Lewis himself has written that these pro-Islamic Jews “were among the first who attempted to present Islam to European readers as Muslims themselves see it and to stress, to recognize, and indeed sometimes to romanticize the merits and achievements of Muslim civilization in its great days.” At a time when most Orientalists took Muhammad for a scheming imposter, equated Islam with fanaticism, thought that the Qur’an was a crude and incoherent text, and believed that the Arabs were incapable of abstract thought, a growing number of Jewish scholars often took opposite positions. They accepted the sincerity of Muhammad’s mission, described Arabs as “Jews on horseback” and Islam as an evolving faith that was more democratic than other religions, and debunked Orientalist
claims about a static Islam and a dynamic West. It would appear that these Jews were anti-Orientalists long before Edward Said.

These contrarian positions had a variety of motives behind them. Even as the Jews began to enter the European mainstream, starting in the nineteenth century, they were still outsiders, having only recently emerged from the confinement of ghettos, and it would be scarcely surprising if they were seeking to maintain their distinctiveness by emphasizing and identifying with the achievements of another Semitic people, the Arabs. In celebrating Arab civilization, these Jewish scholars were perhaps sending a non-too-subtle message to the Europeans that their civilization was not unique, that Arab achievements often excelled theirs, and that Europeans were building upon Islamic achievements in science and philosophy. In addition, Jewish scholars’ discussions of religious and racial tolerance in Islamic societies, toward Jews in particular, may have offered hope that such tolerance was attainable in Europe too. The discussions may also have been an invitation to
Europeans to incorporate religious and racial tolerance in their standards of civilization.

Yet the vigor of this early anti-Orientalism of Jewish scholars would not last; it would not survive the logic of the Zionist movement as it sought to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Such a state could only emerge as a child of Western imperialist powers, and it could only come into existence by displacing the greater part of the Palestinian population, by incorporating them into an apartheid state, or through some combination of the two. In addition, once created, Israel could only survive as a military, expansionist, and hegemonic state, constantly at war with its neighbors. In other words, as the Zionist project gathered momentum it was inevitable that the European Jews’ attraction for Islam was not going to endure. In fact, it would be replaced by a bitter contest, one in which the Jews, as junior partners of the imperialist powers, would seek to deepen the Orientalist project in the service of Western power. Bernard Lewis played a leading part
in this Jewish reorientation. In the words of Martin Kramer, Bernard Lewis “came to personify the post-war shift from a sympathetic to a critical posture.”

Ironically, this shift occurred when many Orientalists had begun to shed their Christian prejudice against Islam, even making amends for the excesses of their forebears. Another factor aiding this shift toward a less polemical Orientalism was the entry of a growing number of Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, into the field of Middle Eastern studies. The most visible upshot of these divergent trends was a polarization of the field of Middle Eastern studies into two opposing camps. One camp, consisting mostly of Christians and Muslims, has sought to bring greater objectivity to their study of Islam and Islamic societies. They make an effort to locate Islamic societies in their historical context, arguing that Islamic responses to Western challenges have been diverse and evolving over time, and they do not derive from an innate hostility to the West or some unchanging Islamic mindset. The second camp, now led mostly by Jews, has reverted to Orientalism’ s
original mission of subordinating knowledge to Western power, now filtered through the prism of Zionist interests. This Zionist Orientalism has assiduously sought to paint Islam and Islamic societies as innately hostile to the West, modernism, democracy, tolerance, scientific advance, and women’s rights.

This Zionist camp has been led for more than fifty years by Bernard Lewis, who has enjoyed an intimate relationship with power that would be the envy of the most distinguished Orientalists of an earlier generation. He has been strongly supported by a contingent of able lieutenants, whose ranks have included the likes of Elie Kedourie, David Pryce-Jones, Raphael Patai, Daniel Pipes, and Martin Kramer. There are many foot soldiers, too, who have provided distinguished service to this new Orientalism. And no compendium of these foot soldiers would be complete without the names of Thomas Friedman, Martin Peretz, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, and Judith Miller.

In my mind’s eye, I try to visualize an encounter between this distinguished crowd and some of their eminent predecessors, like Hienrich Heine, Abraham Geiger, Gustav Weil, Franz Rosenthal, and the great Ignaz Goldziher. What would these pro-Islamic Jews have to say to their descendants, whose scholarship demeans and denigrates the societies they study? Would Geiger and Goldziher embrace Lewis and Kedourie, or would they be repelled by the latter’s new brand of Zionist Orientalism? ***

M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. A more complete version of this essay, with footnotes and references, has appeared in Studies in Contemporary Islam 4 (2002), 1:51-78. He may be reached at
Visit his webpage at http://msalam. net.