8 Questions for Ulil Abshar Abdalla

Ulil Abshar Abdalla wanted to give me more pictures, but I suspect this is the only one that his wife approved.

“Liberal Islam”? What does it mean, actually? Perhaps only God and Ulil Abshar Abdalla know. The co-founder of Liberal Islam Network has no doubt in displaying his friendship with the politically and religiously incorrect beings on Twitter. He also adores Luna Maya, while when it comes to his wife he only talks about her banana muffins. This one of a kind man had some near death experiences due to his stance, but let’s see now how he can escape these questions.

You’re a religious person. I can’t believe that on Twitter you’re engaging with perverts like @missciccone and @gandrasta. And @vehandojo, too.

Although I grew up in a traditional Muslim family with a strong tinge of strict religious observance, I developed a mind-set of “rebellion” in a positive sense. I love my tradition, but I also found many things in it that needed more critical probing. Since early on in my upbringing in pesantren milieu (pesantren being Islamic boarding school), I started questioning many things. Why did certain things go this way, and not that way? For instance, I recall back then that I cannot “swallow” the idea that women’s voice is an aurat – meaning something men should stay clear of it. Otherwise men will fell prey to the sexual arousal that might emanate from it. There was a strong tendency in the kind of tradition I grew up to treat women as a source of fitna or social disturbance. Hence the urgency of putting women in a social control, lest the whole social fabric of the community would unravel.

This critical mind-set I developed early on during my teenage had instilled in me a deep sympathy for all kinds of social “renegade” or dissenter. I sympathize deeply with  people who pose unusual questions, who probe, who question, who are skeptical of status quo (be it political, economic, or religious), who look at things in a different ways. Those people tend to be considered “perverted” from the point of view of the power that be.

This, I hope, can explain why I engage with “perverted” people like @missciccone, @gandrasta and you, ha ha ha …

I even consider myself as a person with certain degree of “perversion”, ha ha ha …. Scholars of religious studies have a serious and “spooky” term for such phenomenon, namely “Heresy”. Heresy is perversion to certain extent, and vice versa.

Look, irrespective of tense relationship that obtains among many religious groups, it seems that all of them converge on one thing. They don’t like people who have perverted ideas that do not conform to what they call “ajaran yang benar”, the true doctrine. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs – all of them have the same mindset.

Meanwhile, I believe that the source of dynamism and progress in any society is always those “renegade” who think out side the room, I mean the box.

If those three perverts invite you to an Obnoxious and Godless Gay Union conference to deliver an opening speech, what will you say?

Why not? The religion I adhere to is Islam which teaches me to spread the message of love and compassion (rahmat) to all God creatures. Who say that the message of compassion only applies to people with “straight” sexual orientation? At the end of the day, God has no gender. The culture of “gendering” or “sexualizing” God which figures so prominently in nearly all religious communities today is not right at all.

Were I given an opportunity to give such speech, my message would be a “perverted” one: Guys, life full of diversity – sexual orientation is included, of course – is fun and good, as long as we respect each others. I may not agree with you, but I respect you to lead the kind of life you choose to live.

This is the kind of attitude I suggest all Muslim particularly to embrace. I mean the attitude of letting other people to be who they are, learn from their unique ways of living, and let go of self-righteous mentality that is so typical of most of “religious” people.

So, that means you’ll definitely come. Alright. And, when was the last time you were with Luna Maya alone without your wife?

Ha ha ha. Let me reveal the biggest secret of the magician. I am big fan of Luna Maya for no apparent reason. If you ask me why, I don’t know. But I never met her in person. I exchanged messages with her on Twitter. That is it. And I like the way the denizen of Twitter land made fun of me doing it, like, you know, “Cie cie cie …!” and stuff like that.

Do I wish to meet her alone? I am not sure. Maybe I need my lawyer to answer this question, ha ha ha …

Being an intelligent man with a good conscience in this country is pretty dangerous. What will you send back to those who tried to send you a bomb?

I forgive those people. I don’t know what exactly their intentions were. It is very likely that it is related to my way of thinking on Islam and religion in general. They may think that I have done “perversion” to Islam and I deserve “red card” as a punishment. But again, what service will they do to Islam by harming other people like this?

I think that Islamic cause would never be served by violence in any form. Islam, or any religion for that matter, is best served by peaceful engagement with others, thoughtful discussion, and consensus-seeking dialogue.

Election is coming. What’s stopping you from running for President? Because I think you have a better wife.

Actually politics is not my natural habitat. My passion is always for ideas, thoughts, books, etc. In other words: the life of intellect. I don’t belong to politics. Why did I decide to enter into political life then? Well, that is a long story to tell.

But to cut the long story short, my mission to enter into politics is to test my hypothesis that politics and intellectual activity can go hand in hand. People often think that politics is a dirty world full of crook guys.

They think that the life of intellect doesn’t fit into politics. I want to prove that this is wrong. I think intellectualism and politics can go together. We need good politics, not a cheap one. Of course, what we have hitherto is a cheap politics that stirs disgust among people.

I understand why people are so cynical about politics and political parties now. The blame is on us the politicians who do “cheap politics”. I think Indonesian world of politics needs an injection of smart ideas. I don’t know when this kind of idea-driven politics will finally prevails over the existing money-driven politics. I don’t know. What I know is that somebody has to do something about it and start new habit of practicing politics.

As for presidential candidacy, I don’t think I qualify for it. Somehow I feel that people of “renegade” character like me don’t fit into such job.

If you want to be a president, you need to be seen as “nice guy” by all people from different walks of life. If you have too much inclination towards the “left” or “right”, people won’t like you.

At the end of the day, Ralph Nader is seemingly good for the protest against the status quo, but doesn’t fit into being a president. That is why he never did well on his independent candidacy in the US presidential election so far.

This is the destiny of renegades anywhere. And I know where I belong. The only “renegade” who was lucky enough to have been exempted from this verdict was Abdurrahman Wahid a.k.a. Gus Dur. As we all know, he didn’t stay long on his “throne”, which vindicated my thesis anyway.

In your perfect world, what happens to FPI?

It should be dissolved as an organization, period. But we should also think about its members, of course. You know, most of its followers are unemployed young people who have no idea where to go after they finish elementary or middle school. It’s about economy, at the end of the day. They need to have things to be busy with. They need job. The government should think about it.

But the responsibility is not only on the shoulder of the government. The community also bears its share of burden by creating productive activities for its youth so that they don’t fell prey to lure of radical ideology. The community has to be vigilant about any swing towards radical ideology that may occur in its midst.

What are the limits for a Muslim to be liberal?

You don’t know the limit until you strip yourself and jump into the pool and swim. After a while, you’ll know how far you can try your luck in swimming. That is just an analogy. You don’t know how far you can go in promoting liberalism within Islam until you try it.

Now as I have tried myself, I came to a conclusion that liberalism and Islam are not mutually exclusive. They can go together. What is the essence of liberalism? The essence of liberalism is the idea of human dignity; that all men and women are entitled to rights that anyone else cannot trample on.

The only issue people always have with liberalism is that it’ll end up in a bizarre “everything is okay”-situation. That is not true. Freedom and liberty always require by itself responsibility, and also rule of law. The rule of thumb in liberalism is “don’t do unto others what you don’t like others do unto you”. As we all know, this’s a golden rule that is so well known in many religious traditions. You have it in Confucianism, Christianity, and also in Islam.

Your @ulil account has less followers than @tifsembiring. Isn’t that upsetting?

As many followers as Pak Tif may collect, the fact remains that I beat him off on one thing: I have “perverted” guys like you, @missciccone or @gandrasta on my list of followers. And that counts much more than anything else, ha ha ha …


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