Suppose for a moment that the single most influential religious leader in the Muslim world openly says "I am for Israel." Suppose he believes not only in democracy but in the liberalism of America's founding fathers. Suppose that, unlike so many self-described moderate Muslims who say one thing in English and another in their native language, his message never alters. Suppose this, and you might feel as if you've descended into Neocon Neverland.
In fact, you have arrived in Jakarta and are sitting in the small office of an almost totally blind man of 66 named Abdurrahman Wahid. A former president of Indonesia, he is the spiritual leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic organization of some 40 million members.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Wahid, whose paternal grandfather founded the NU in 1926 and whose father was Indonesia's first minister of religious affairs, won a scholarship to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which for 1,000 years had been Sunni Islam's premier institution of higher learning. Mr. Wahid hated it.
As Mr. Wahid saw it, the basic problem with Al-Azhar was that the state interfered in its affairs and demanded intellectual conformity--a lesson he carries with him to the present day. In 1966 he left Cairo for Baghdad University, where he encountered much the same thing: "The teaching [suffered from] conventionalism. You were not allowed to go your own way."
What really concerns Mr. Wahid is what he sees as the increasingly degraded state of the Muslim mind. That problem is becoming especially acute at Indonesian universities and in the pesantren--the religious boarding schools that graduate hundreds of thousands of students every year. "We are experiencing the shallowing of religion," he says, bemoaning the fact that the boarding schools persist in teaching "conventional"--that word again--Islam.
But Mr. Wahid's critique is not just of formal Islamic education. He also attacks the West's philosophy of positivism, which, he says, "relies too much on the idea of conquering knowledge and mastering scientific principles alone." This purely empirical and essentially soulless view of things, broadly adopted by Indonesia's secular state universities, gives its students a bleak choice: "Either they follow the process or they are outside the process."
Hey, various abuses of reason created problems in the West too.
As a result, Western-style education in Indonesia has come to represent not just secularism but the negation of religion, to which too many students have responded by embracing fundamentalism.
Yes, fundamentalist version of both traditional and non-traditional religions have arisen (calling G.H.Chesterton)
"For us, an Islamic party is not a thing to follow," he says, adding that "religion and morality is tied to person, not a party."
"Only those general and abstract rules that one must take into account in individual decisions in accordance with individual aims deserve the name of morals." (F.A. Hayek) Morals are about individual conduct, not the collective field of politics.
He also believes that the "only solution" to the challenge of Islamic radicalization in Indonesia is more democracy. But what about the example of Hamas, which came to power through democratic means, and of other groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood that would probably do the same if given the chance? Mr. Wahid's answer is to distinguish between what he calls "full democratization" and the "hollow imitation of democracy" that he sees taking place in Indonesia as well as among Arabs in Palestine and Iraq.
"The problem is not personalities, it is institutions," he says. "For the past 250 years the Americans have had not just Jefferson's concept of the rights of the individual but also Alexander Hamilton's belief in a strong state." In order to function properly, democracy requires competent government that can effectively uphold the rule of law. It also requires a broadly understood concept of self-rule, which is missing in too much of the developing world: "Here, ordinary citizens expect the government to do everything for them."
An infantalized population has a hard time achieving and maintaining freedom.
He therefore takes a fairly dim view of Iraq's democratic prospects. "Iraqis understood that Saddam had caused them trouble," and were grateful to be rid of him, he says. "But as for the U.S. concept of democracy, they don't understand it at all." The problem, he adds, goes double in the rest of the Arab world, where, he says, the prevailing view is that being a democracy is an expression of weakness, while being a dictatorship is a sign of strength.
What's needed, in other words, is for countries like Indonesia and Iraq to find a way to combine effective government with a powerful respect for the rights of the citizen. But how one goes about doing that is itself a deeper problem, a problem of culture. "How do we follow the West without [becoming] Westerners? How do you do that? I don't know."
"Hundreds of thousands of Muslim youth learn in countries where there is technological modernity. We need to [nurture] the emergence of a new kind of people who think in terms of being modern but still relate to the past."
"Right now, the fundamentalists think they're winning," he once told a friend. "But they're going to wake up one day and realize we beat them."
Yes, but it will take quite some time.