By: Muhammad As’ad
Facebook and Twitter have been used as a tool of communication between friends, a medium for business and, most importantly, as a means of political resistance, as evident in the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring.
We have seen many examples of how social media helped people to communicate, gather, criticize and even liberate their societies from despotic and undemocratic governments, starting in Tunisia and then in Egypt and Libya.
The movement has presented us with much to ponder about the impact of borderless new media.
The emerging political situation inspired the Muslim World League to convene its second International Conference on Islamic Media in Jakarta — exactly 32 years after its first iteration, which Jakarta also hosted.
Why on earth have Arab countries (i.e. the Muslim World League) waited for so long to have another conference? Naturally, the Arab Spring forced Arab countries in particular and Muslim countries in general, to respond to situation in their own countries.
Instead of talking about what happened in the Middle East, I want to look at the impact of new media on Indonesian Muslim society, especially in Islamic boarding schools or pondok pesantren.
Indonesian pesantren especially those affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama, the nation’s largest Muslim social and political organization, are famous. The schools are proponents of a moderate form of Islam that promotes democracy, interfaith dialog and conflict resolution, among other things. Many researchers, both Indonesian and foreigners, have agreed on this.
Nevertheless, that is not enough. We need to do more, particularly in educating people to have, understand and believe in the principles of moderate Islam. This would be more effective if moderate message were disseminated over the Internet, either via new media websites such as Facebook or Twitter. However one question emerges: Are pesantren even aware of the power of new media and social networking websites?
The answer is not encouraging. Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia are mostly unaware of the importance of new media. Essentially, pesantren students are “new-media illiterate”. This is evident via a simple Google search. Type “Pondok Pesantren” or name of another Islamic boarding school and you will find a host of websites.
Click through and observe how their sites are configured. Usually the websites are modest; some are a bit more complicated. Most merely provide information about their institutions, their histories and maybe some recent activities.
If we ask about the schools’ teachings, religious guidance, opinions or even edicts (fatwa), most, if not all of the websites, have no answers. This is unfortunate. In reality, guidance is something that is very much needed by most Indonesian Muslims.
This little experiment shows that most pesantren use the Internet as mode of communication, although it looks like they are not aware of its massive power, especially to educate other Indonesian Muslims about moderate Islam.
Now let’s take a look at the websites affiliated with hard-liners. What we find is a contrast in style. They are very literate and effective in their use of the Internet. Look at arrahmah.com, for example, now under scrutiny from the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) and which may soon be banned, or suara-islam.com. Both disseminate radical thoughts that endanger Indonesia as a plural and democratic society.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that some in the West think that Islam is a violent and intolerant religion when they browse through those radical websites. Moderate groups such pesantren simply do not have the capability or the awareness to disseminate their teachings through new media.
Many things must be done. First, pondok pesantren — perhaps under the aegis of Nahdlatul Ulama, as their sponsor, or Muhammadiyah — must educate their followers to be more literate about the Internet, especially in how to use new media as a tool to disseminate moderate ideas.
Second, it is obvious that the government, specifically the Religious Affairs Ministry and the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), must cooperate to educate and train pesantren to use new media properly and effectively.
By mastering such digital skills, pesantren can create new ways to spread religious authority, such as through question-and-answer forums, as we find in local newspapers, where ulema answer questions related to any problem in society.
Education would be more effective than banning radical websites, which runs counter to the hard-won rights of freedom of the press and freedom of speech in this country.
Notes: This opinion article was quoted in the online newspaper The Jakarta Post, on Wednesday, 21 December 2011. It is able to be reached at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 23 December 2011].
Muhammad As’ad is the Director of A. Wahid Hasyim Library at the Tebuireng Islamic Boarding School in Jombang, East Java, Indonesia.