Book Discussion of “Islam and Liberty” in Yogyakarta


On Friday 27 April, Suara Kebebasan (SK) in collaboration with the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) of Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and the Gusdurian Network were hosting the discussion of the book “Islam and Liberty” at CRCS in UGM, which was our first ever partnership with our colleagues in the city. The discussion itself was our second one with regards to the book, which was issued by Institute of Economic Affairs, which we had translated and disseminated with the support from Network for A Free Society.

In the discussion Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir, Head of CRCS UGM, acted as the main speaker discussant of the book, and it was moderated by Azis Anwar. More than 50 participants took part in the discussion. Dr. Zainal argued that liberalism is all about freedom, especially the freedom to decide one’s own destiny.

The argument in the book states that Islam and liberalism run in parallel. With regard to this, Dr. Zainal argued that liberalism is not necessarily hostile to religion and it actually provides a platform for the conservatives to speak their mind in order to improve themselves. He also pointed out that liberalism is not as simple as granting one’s unlimited liberty as liberalism is complex in nature and involves many actors.

Furthermore, Dr. Zainal also critized the liberals or progressives for not devoting their attention to an issue that has been ongoing and threatening the existence of the mankind: the environment issue. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the International Human Rights Declaration of 1948 is not a static idea as in the development human rights do not only cover individual rights, but also societal rights. It is therefore important to hold religions as relevant, in this case to contribute to counter the environmental issues, for which he advocates an “ecological Islam”.

During the question and answer session, there were interesting topics brought by the participants. Amongst theme where on the definition of moderate perception within Islam as compared to ladies rights to driving and watching movies in cinema that have been recently implemented in Saudi Arabia. Besides that, there is a fact that the Nahdliyin generation has been active in contributing for the environment. Another question revolved around who is dependable authority with regards to freedom, as the kyai are usually the go-to person with their religious edicts, known as fatwa. With this regard, it is worth taking note that, as stated by Azyumardi Azra, with so many Islamic boarding schools (pesantren), the approach to freedom does not have to be done exclusively with the Western interpretation.

Dr. Zainal also stated that liberalism should not stop as a mere label. Furthermore, re-reading the book “Islam and Freedom” would help us to create own own choice. What do we want when we are labeled liberals? In reality, liberalism is too often tagged together with the other often-undesirable labels such as communism. He suggested to return to the idea and to see the benefits of ideologies to diversify thoughts, which does not have to be dogmatic. Other important notes are to understand liberalism in a comprehensive way, taking into account that the idea is more complex than the simplistic meaning about unlimited freedom, which does not even exist in the first place.

Furthermore, the critics to this book came from Azis Anwar, which pointed out the rather inaccurate descriptions in the book. As an example he cited the idea of Mu’tazilah being an unreliable example of freedom in relation to persecutions, which disqualifies it to be cited in the case of individual liberalism within Islam. He also recommends the author to be more careful with the citations and to include the perspective of Islam from other Indonesian authors.