Ayang Utriza Yakin | Islam in Indonesia: Its Roles and Challenges


Indonesia, the country which embraces the largest Muslim population in the world, enjoys a profound level of religious, cultural, and linguistic diversity within its boundaries under the national motto of “Unity in Diversity.” While the Indonesian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it is undeniable that Islam has played an important role in the stability and development of the nation. For instance, Islamic civil organizations in Indonesia are active in organizing and providing social services for the community, which, in Japan, are usually delivered by educational institutions or non-religious organizations. In this interview, Dr. Ayang Utriza Yakin, the young intellectual of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, talked about Islam in Indonesia, its distinctiveness and social contribution, what the true jihad is, and his future aspirations for the following generations to come.

Interview and Text:Emiko Fujioka (Secretary General and Co-founder, Fukushima Beacon for Global Citizens Network [Fukuden])

Published:April 18, 2017

Ayang Utriza Yakin

Born in Jakarta in 1978. Graduated in Islamic law from the State Islamic University (UIN Jakarta), Jakarta. Studied Islamic law at the Al-Azhar University, Cairo, and completed his MA and PhD in History and Philology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. He was a visiting research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OCIS) of the University of Oxford (spring 2012), and a visiting fellow at the Islamic Legal Studies Program (ILSP) at Harvard Law School (spring 2013). He was Saiful Mujani Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) and is lecturer at the Faculty of Sharia and Law at UIN Jakarta. He has been teaching and conducting research on a wide variety of topics in Islamic Law, Adat [customary] Law, legal history, Islamic philology, Islamic history, and Islam and the Muslim communities in Indonesia. He serves as vice chairman of the Mosque Management Institute (LTM) of the Central Board of Nahdlatul Ulama (PBNU), the largest Islamic mass organization with almost thirty to eighty million members in Indonesia and abroad. He was a fellow of the Asia Leadership Fellow Program (ALFP) in 2016 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.


From the Global Academic World to a Local Primary School

Emiko Fujioka (hereinafter Emiko) : First, could you tell us about your past experiences and your present activities?

Ayang Utriza Yakin (hereinafter Ayang) : I spent a lot of time studying in Indonesia, Egypt, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Besides that, I participated in many activities to serve my community as the ustaz [teacher of Islamic religion] for children and their mothers. In Indonesia, many mothers do not work outside; they stay at home and take care of their children. In the afternoon, they go to the nearest mosque to attend a gathering of a pengajian [Islamic community] where I always give some lessons. This is a very important involvement within our society. As you know, Indonesia is a very large country with a population of 250 million. We are trying to empower women and to give our children the best education, but the government cannot provide everything. So, as members of a civil society, we have to contribute even though our role may be small. That’s why we teach the children in the mosque or in a small hall about religious and general sciences.

I have also been acting as director for a private primary school in Bekasi, West Java. I took over the role of director of this primary school three years ago, in 2013, after I returned from France and the United States. Can you imagine? Right after obtaining a PhD from Paris and a post doctorate in Harvard, I got a job at a primary school in a rural part of Indonesia. It was very difficult at first. The question is, “Why do I do this?” Many Indonesian Muslim intellectuals are reluctant to work on grassroots levels after getting their MAs or PhDs; they live in an ivory tower. So what I have been doing for the last twenty years is to be actively engaged with the community, contrary to many of my colleagues and friends.

Emiko : Yes, I can imagine. You jumped into a totally different world: from Western academia which requires a high level of intellectual thinking, to a local primary school in Indonesia where you have to take care of small children.

Ayang : I did a lot of things for the primary school. I developed the curriculum and management system, equipped the school with computers, and empowered the teachers. I cooperated with my colleagues who are working in universities and also with embassies, especially with the French Embassy. I have a good network in France as I graduated from a French institution and lived there for seven years.



Emiko : How have you used your French networks for the children?

Ayang : In the first year, we decided to teach the French language and culture in addition to Arabic and English. But some of the parents complained. They said, “What are you doing? French is not an international language. What we need is more English courses, not French.” Nevertheless, I was really stubborn and kept fighting to implement this cultural exchange. After one year, the children were able to speak simple French conversations and sing French songs and the parents were very delighted with the outcome. Children from six to twelve years old in our school were exposed to diverse languages and cultures which helped to open their minds. Children should be educated to be open-minded from the early stages, I think, so that it can lead to create a better future for the country.

Education is the Key

Emiko : Could you tell us about your own childhood?

Ayang : I was born and raised in a family where I was taught that the most important things in life are honesty, knowledge, and wisdom. My father used to work for a private company, but then he left the job to be a ustaz. He still preaches even now. My mother was a very simple housewife with five children. Seeing my father, I knew how difficult it was to live as a teacher: when I was small, we could eat only rice with some salt because we didn’t have anything. From that point, I thought the only way to overcome our precarious condition and make our lives better is to get educated. Wisdom and knowledge will make you rich. “Rich” not in monetary terms, but in terms of life experiences, contributions to the society, and networking. I said to myself that I would do my best in my studies and dreamed of studying abroad to even earn an MA and PhD.



Besides being the ustaz for my community and the director for the primary school, I am also giving lectures at the State Islamic University of Jakarta. To be honest, being a lecturer in Indonesia means you have to be ready to live as a poor man. In Indonesia, the wage of lecturers in universities or school teachers is very low. But I am prepared for that because I think this is how I can contribute to my country after studying in various countries. I have to provide our young generation with motivation and support them to “dream.” In Indonesian local wisdom, we have a proverb, “gantungkanlah cita-citamu setinggi bintang di langit” [dream the impossible to reach the stars.] My senior generation went abroad and they talked about their experiences to us and encouraged us. It is precisely their encouragement that gave us the dream to study abroad. Indeed, to dream is important, but you must also realize them.

Challenges in the Indonesian Society and the True Jihad

Emiko : I now understand why you are so enthusiastic about education. Now I would like to ask you about the currently emerging issues in Indonesia and how you are tackling them.



Ayang : Some issues of intolerance have been observed in the last ten years. There were attacks against religious minorities such as the Christian, Catholic, Shiite-Muslim, and Ahmadiyya-Muslim*1 communities. Scholars from State Islamic Universities (UIN/IAIN/STAIN) and ulama [religious scholars] from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhamadiyah, and other Muslim civil society organizations are struggling to defend the minority’s rights and everybody’s beliefs in order to show that democracy still prevails.

*1 Ahmadiyya is an Islamic religious branch founded in the second half of the nineteenth century in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) which is considered heretic by the majority of Muslims in the world.

Now, we are close to the regional election in Jakarta.*2 The incumbent is of Christian-Chinese descent, and the two challengers—one is Muslim-Arab descent and the other is Javanese-Muslim—are perceived as indigenous Indonesian. Some Muslim splinter groups and Muslim politicians use Islam as a political means to counter this incumbent because of his ethnicity and religion. Peaceful demonstrations that abide by the law are allowed according to the principles of democracy in Indonesia. But what I criticize and disagree with is how some ulama and vocal minority Muslims organizations target this incumbent just because of ethnic and religious reasons. I cannot tolerate this.

*2 On February 15th, 2017, the first round of the gubernatorial election was held in Jakarta to elect the Governor of Jakarta.

Bringing in religion into the political arena is very dangerous because politics is something of the mundane. Attacking the mundane with the sacred to justify your actions is tremendously fatal and perilous. Those politicized Muslims of the ancient Orde Baru [New Order regime of Suharto] are going to organize a large demonstration on November 4th*3 and December 2nd in Jakarta, saying that what they are doing is the “big jihad” against the non-Muslims. We are afraid that some provocative actors will make the demonstration too chaotic.

*3 On November 4th, 2016, violent conflict erupted in Jakarta as protesters demanding the ouster of the incumbent clashed with the police. At least 160 protestors and seventy-nine police officers were injured during the clash.


Emiko : I think in many places, the word “jihad” is frequently used for attacking other groups. Because of this, many people misunderstand Islam that it is a very violent religion or that its followers are extremists.

Ayang : Yes, I think one of the most misunderstood concepts in Islam is jihad. What the Daesh or ISIS is doing in the Middle Eastern countries has nothing to do with jihad. They hijacked Islam for their own agenda: they are using Islam, but they do not understand what Islam is. Jihad is not that what they are doing. What is happening in the Middle East has to do with economy and I don’t want to speak about geopolitics and international relationships. But we are now seeing that using religion in politics is becoming the most effective and efficient destructive factor for one country. I think it is our own duty to educate Muslims that the best jihad is not going to war but to manage the waste, to provide clean water and employment, to give better education for our children, to lead a “rooted” life to contribute and support the nation. That is the true jihad.

Distinctiveness of Islam in Indonesia

Emiko : Let’s talk more about Indonesia and Islam. Indonesian Islam is thought to be very moderate and tolerant. Is there a historic background for that? Is it different from Islam in other countries? And how do you think these characteristics have contributed in building the Indonesian society?

Ayang : The arrival of Islam to Indonesia was done in two stages. The first stage was the dakwah [indirect-proselytism] by Arab and Persian Muslim merchants who passed through the Indonesian archipelago, then called Nusantara, to go to the Far East. This happened until the twelfth century. The second stage was the direct-proselytism by devout Muslim preachers who yielded to the establishment of a Muslim community and Islamic political institution in the second half of thirteenth century in Aceh, Sumatra. The presence of the sultanate is confirmed by the discovery of the tombstone of its first sultan, Malik al-Saleh, dated 696 A.H. (1297 A.D.) These two stages of arrival of Islam were peaceful and gradual.

Emiko : You mean it was not by war or by invasion?



Ayang : That’s right. Islam was carried into Nusantara by merchants and zealous Muslim proselytizers in a peaceful manner. From the beginning of its arrival, Islam in Indonesia is already very distinct. In addition, Islam was also smoothly adapted into the cultures and traditions of the archipelago too. I think the basic thing that makes Indonesian Islam different is how these indigenous cultures are deeply respected by Muslims. I sincerely do believe that indigenous cultures and traditions in the Indonesian archipelago have greatly contributed in shaping its moderate version of Islam. Beside that, I am assuming the nice tropical Indonesian weather has also greatly impacted Indonesian religious behavior since we do not have severe climate conditions—very hot weather in the summer or very cold weather in the winter—like in other Muslim countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Near East, North Africa, and South Asia.

Emiko : What are the teachings of Indonesian Islam like?

Ayang : Indonesian Islam or Islam Nusantara has three philosophical Islamic teachings: al-Ukhuwwah al-Islâmiyyah [solidarity of Muslim brotherhood], al-Ukhuwwah al-Basyariyyah [solidarity of human brotherhood], and al-Ukhuwwah al-Wathaniyyah [solidarity of nation brotherhood]. These three concepts of solidarity mean, “We are Muslim, but before being Muslim, we are human beings and brothers in this nation.”
Indonesian Islam also promotes three values which are tawâzun [balance], tawassuth [moderation] and tasâmuh [tolerance], and among the three, I’d like to elaborate a bit on the first, tawâzun. In terms of the relationship between Islam and the state, Indonesia is neither a theocratic nor secular country: we are not a theocratic country like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, some states in Nigeria and so forth where their constitutions state very clearly that their countries are Islamic and that their constitutions follow sharia [Islamic] law. In our constitution, we do not say that we are an Islamic country or that Islam is the only official religion. We recognize six official religions, namely Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. And we also recognize hundreds of local beliefs. Having said that, we are not secular in the way that it is understood in France or Japan where a state or the government cannot intervene in religious matters. We make a balance between the two: that is one of the ways tawâzun is a valuable notion for us.

The Main Agents who Promote Moderate Islam in Indonesia

In order to implement these teachings and values on the level of the nation state, two large Muslim mass organizations play important roles in Indonesia: Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. I myself serve as vice chairman for the Mosque Management Institute at NU. We don’t exactly know the number of members and adherents of these two organizations. Some claim that Muhammadiyah has more than twenty to forty million members, while NU has between thirty to eighty million members. There are also many small- and medium-scaled Islamic organizations based in some Indonesian provinces such as Nahdlatul Wathan in West Nusa-Tenggara, al-Jamiyyatul Washliyyah in North Sumatra, al-Khairat in Central Sulawesi, Persatuan Islam in West-Java. Mathlaul Anwar in Banten, and al-Irsyad al-Islamiyyah and Jamiat al-Khayr in Jakarta. All these Islamic organizations are working very hard to disseminate and spread a peaceful, tolerant, and just Islam. The NU and Muhammadiyah have their own Islamic schools to educate Indonesian Muslims and they also have hospitals and orphanages located around the country.



Emiko : Not only schools, but hospitals and orphanages too? The roles of Islamic organizations in the people’s lives in Indonesia are so big, isn’t it?

Ayang : Yes. They have philanthropic associations too. They have a huge body of networks that empower and educate people in Indonesia which has greatly contributed to the success of Indonesian Islam. Happily, our government and these two organizations cooperate together.
NU and Muhammadiyah also have Islamic institutions which consist of madrasah [Islamic schools], pesantren [Islamic boarding schools], and Islamic universities. These institutions are owned either by the government or by the said Islamic organizations including NU and Muhammadiyah. These Islamic institutions contribute widely and largely to practice and teach what Indonesian Islam is. In the same vein, the State Islamic University in Jakarta where I come from and other State Islamic Universities in the country really act as a bulwark against fundamentalism and radicalism.
Intellectual Muslim figures and moderate ulama who lecture in universities, write in newspapers, or appear on national television are also important in defending and disseminating moderate Islam. Their writings and thinking are very influential. When I was at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, for example, publications by Muslim intellectuals, such as Nurcholish Madjid (also known as Cak Nur), Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia (also known as Gus Dur), Ahmad Syafii Maarif, the former chairman of Muhammadiyah, and Jalaluddin Rahmat (also known as Kang Jalal) and by ulama such as Sahal Mahfudz, Ali Yafi, and Quraish Shihab influenced us very much. Especially the role of the ulama is important as they have deep knowledge on Islam and are considered to be the source of Islamic authority by the society.
These three elements—Islamic organizations, Islamic institutions, and intellectual Muslims and ulama—have been working together to shape and structure the identity of our Indonesian Islam. To sum up, Indonesian Islam is the convergence of Islam and local cultures. In other words, we take the essence of Islamic teachings so that it could interact positively and actively with local customs, wisdoms, and traditions. Taking Islam as a source of inspiration, values, norms, and ethics, we wrap it together with the local cultures. In this way, Islam would not contradict with local cultures.

Emiko : Do you think that Indonesian Islam could be a model for other Muslim countries?

Ayang : Yes. Indonesian Islam could show how Islam can interact actively and positively with local cultures. I would say that we might “export” the ideas of Indonesian Islam to other Muslim countries.



Japan and Islam—The Halal Issue

Emiko : I also would like to ask you about Japanese society and Islam, especially what you have found through your interviews about Halal*4 in Japan.

*4 The word Halal literally means “permissible” and is translated as “lawful” in Islamic law (sharia). It refers to the Muslim way of life from legal matters to the everyday life such determining permissible food and beverages for its followers.

Ayang : First of all, I thought the policy of the Japanese government toward Muslim communities is very warm and welcoming. I felt that there is little Islamophobia in Japan or, at least, the degree is certainly not that high as European countries. As I lived for seven years in Europe as a Muslim, I have become to understand how Islamophobia happens in a non-Muslim country. There, I observed Islam as a victim and target of criticism every day. Media plays a critical role in this. Why don’t European and American media turn their eyes to the peaceful image of Indonesian Islam instead? Why do they always take up conflicts in the Middle East as if they represent the whole of Islam?
I am happy that Japan’s view on Islam is wide open to Southeast Asia. Nowadays, the majority of non-Japanese Muslims who reside in Japan are Indonesian, so Indonesian Muslims here can contribute to provide a good impression of Islam for the Japanese society. My second impression, to be honest, is that information about Islam is not well-spread here in Japan. I found many Japanese do not know about Islam as a religion. Actually this was revealed during my research on Halal in Japan.

Emiko : I heard so many Japanese companies and businesses are interested in dealing with Halal now. Why is this, do you think?



Ayang : After conducting many interviews and observations, I found that, for the business practitioners, Halal is something that is profitable. They are not interested in Halal itself, dealing with the Islamic teachings and Islam as a religion. I don’t criticize it though as it can be a door to introduce Japanese people to Islam.

Emiko : You said that now there are so many organizations that issue Halal certificates but people don’t really know what Halal itself is. Don’t you think that can create problems?

Ayang : Yes, when I started to conduct my research, I got confused because in Muslim countries, there is only one single authority that certify Halal and issue a Halal certificate. In Indonesia, for example, the sole authority lies with the Majelis Ulama Indonesia [The Indonesian Council of Ulama]. It is the same in Malaysia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. In Japan, however, there are many Halal organizations and associations. But I can understand that situation because Japan is not a Muslim country. Besides, the government cannot intervene in religious matters as it is forbidden by the constitution. This situation has allowed Muslim communities or Japanese who are interested in dealing with Halal to establish their own Halal associations or organizations. At the same time, it has created a chaotic and messy situation, as well as tension among those concerned. For your information, based on my research, there are in fact less than ten active halal certification organizations in Japan.

Emiko : What is your recommendation to improve the situation?

Ayang : First, all these Halal organizations should gather in one assembly and create one single Halal consortium. My second suggestion is to create a Japanese council of ulama. If they cannot find a Japanese ulama, they may invite the Indonesian ulama to sit in that council. Once this Japanese council of ulama is created, they will make the standards for Japanese Halal. Then all the decision of the Japanese council of ulama will be followed by this Japanese Halal consortium. Currently Japanese companies really get confused as to which association they should go to, and which standard they should follow. During my research, I found one or two organizations that even sell Halal certificates to Japanese companies. I must say that that is against sharia (Islamic law). Halal certificates are not for sale, but are something that are given to you, to permit and allow you to produce one specific product that is in compliance with sharia. Again, creating a Japanese council of ulama may be the solution to prevent this kind of misunderstanding; a council based on “Japanese Islam” which embraces Islam as a religion of your philosophical way of life while also respecting Japanese culture and traditions.



Emiko : What did you think and learn from participating in the Asia Leadership Fellow Program? And what are your future aspirations or message to the younger generations in Japan and Indonesia?

Ayang : I learned a lot from this program. The most important thing is that I met with other Asian fellows and discussed many issues with them. I found that we have many commonalities, be it positive or negative. For the younger generation both in Japan and in Indonesia, I recommend that they visit each other and travel together in these two countries. Japanese students can visit Indonesian schools or Islamic boarding schools. In 2030, Indonesia will have almost 300 million people while Japan will become a super-aging society. The Japanese government may consider opening its doors toward immigrants and one of the people you may want to welcome are the Indonesians, as we easily adopt new values. We have to work closely and cooperate together to produce fruitful results for both countries; not only for Japan, but also for Indonesia.

Emiko : Thank you so much for today. I was very impressed by your passion and sense of responsibility which made you decide to jump into the world of grassroots education after getting a high level of education abroad.
When the religious extremists threaten the world and prejudice and misunderstanding against Islam are spreading, it is encouraging for us to know such an internationally active young Muslim leader of Indonesia is trying very hard to disseminate mild and tolerant Islam and educate young people with a broader vision.
I am looking forward to reading your paper on the Halal issue of Japan.


The International House of Japan
October 25, 2016

Interviewer: Emiko Fujioka
Emiko Fujioka is the secretary general and co-founder of the Fukushima Beacon for Global Citizens Network (Fukuden), a Fukushima-based non-profit organization. Fukuden’s main mission is to share the lessons learned from Fukushima after the nuclear accident with the world from the citizen’s viewpoint. Served at the Shapla Neer Bangladesh Office as a country representative from 2005 to 2009. Moved to Fukushima from Tokyo in 2012 as a member of the disaster response task force of the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC) and started Fukuden after JANIC closed its operations in Fukushima in 2014. Also a board member of Shapla Neer=Citizens’ Committee in Japan for Overseas Support, an NGO working for underprivileged people in South Asia. Fellow of Asia Leadership Fellow Program (ALFP) in 2016.

Editors: Kazumi Yagi, Kana Yamanishi (The Japan Foundation Asia Center)
Plates: Courtesy of Ayang Utriza Yakin
Photo (Interview): Jouji Suzuki


Source: http://jfac.jp/en/culture/features/asiahundreds022/


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