THE BLOG

Devotion and Service: Liberation Theology, Indonesian Style

10/25/2013 11:37 am ET | Updated Dec 25, 2013

We arrived at the pesantran in the late afternoon. A rather unruly group of boys greeted the visitors, leading us through a maze of buildings, to a house where the headmistress and her staff were waiting. In short order we were introduced to the school and guided through the premises. As the sun began to set the excitement built, as it was Ramadan, the fasting season, and the moment to break the day's fast was approaching. A group of laughing girls crowded around the women among our group. Food appeared and with prayers we shared in the daily Ramadan ritual. After dinner, dancers entertained us all. In some respects it could have been a thriving school anywhere. In others, it was distinctly Indonesian, clearly Muslim, and wonderfully positive.

Our motley team of visitors, from Georgetown University and a foundation board, was in Indonesia on a mission: to learn about the Fahmina Institute, a finalist for the Opus Prize, which honors spiritually driven entrepreneurship that works for social good. The visit took us to the port city of Cirebon and the surrounding region, where Fahmina works.

Fahmina grew out of the pesantran tradition, Muslim boarding schools where for centuries poor communities have sent their children. Fahmina builds on what is best in the educational focus and values of the pesantrans. But Fahmina has far broader ambitions: It represents a deliberate and determined effort to build on what its founders (four Islamic scholars) see as the true values of Islam, both globally and as they have evolved through Indonesian history. That means careful scholarship, faithful religious practice, and active involvement in the community. Fahmina teaches religious scholars but also works with a remarkable range of local groups, lending them both moral and organizing support. They include street vendors threatened with eviction, frightened women about to embark for the Middle East as domestic workers, and different religious groups threatened by radicals.

Fahmina came to life in 2000, shortly after the political upheavals that led to the fall of Indonesia's long-standing, autocratic government. "Fahmina" is the Arabic word for "Our Understanding." Indonesia's transition from a military regime to what has become a new democracy was accompanied by a country-wide upsurge in civil violence. Religious intolerance burst into outright violent radicalism. Events inspired by religious radicals such as the Bali and Marriott bombings were just the tip of the iceberg of religious and ethnic conflicts that left more than a million people homeless and thousands killed, often in communities that previously had co-existed harmoniously for decades.

The challenges that Fahmina addresses today are thus far from abstract. In Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, radical versions of Islam are on the rise in many regions and violent clashes are all too common. Fahmina is a deeply innovative effort for religious scholars and their communities to understand and interpret contemporary issues of religious pluralism, gender, democratization, human rights, and other social issues in ways that are true to their faith traditions but also take account of human rights and the opportunities that go with modernization. Fahmina's long-term plans highlight the importance of education and the role that humanistic religious scholarship can play in providing a faith-inspired alternative to polarization and to a more radical Islam (radical is the term Indonesians tend to use for what is elsewhere termed fundamentalism).

Among its diverse activities, Fahmina supports the values of pluralism as an advocate for different religious groups that find themselves under threat. A vivid example was a local dispute in Cirebon over a permit for a Christian group to expand its overcrowded graveyard. Despite a long series of needed certifications the formal approval was stuck. The solution? Take bodies to city hall. The matter was swiftly resolved. Fahmina has supported Muslim communities that are threatened by radicals (Shia and Ahmadiyya, notably). Fahmina has formed a network to monitor discrimination based on religion and belief across Indonesia.

Another marked feature of Fahmina is its support for women's rights and welfare, ranging from academic analysis of roots of Islam that speak to equality and the dignity of women to active support for victims of trafficking. Indonesia's feminist movements had essentially taken for granted that women's rights were well enshrined, thus reacted in shock as radical trends threatened to reverse many gains. Local governments are passing restrictive regulations and violence against women is on the rise. But the women's groups, colored by the secular culture of urban Indonesia, lacked the religious vocabulary they needed to engage and contest. That explains a productive alliance with Fahmina, which grounds its advocacy for women's equality in Islamic teachings.

Well-funded, more radical and less tolerant religious movements have dominated public discourse in Indonesia for the past decade. Fahmina represents a different voice, and, because it is so well-rooted in Indonesia's rural communities and the national network of religious schools, it has a stature and level of credibility that stand out, in Indonesia and beyond, across Southeast Asia. Because Fahmina is grounded in Indonesia's own Islamic traditions, it is able to play a unique role in promoting values of tolerance, pluralism, democracy, and inter-religious understanding. Fahmina today has become a leading light of an Islamic "liberation theology."