The writer and academic speaks to Najwa Abdullah about countering misrepresentations of Islam in the West and the need for better understanding.
Having read her views on changing the perception of Islam in the West[i] and her extensive research on international disputes, I was intrigued by Laura Schuurmans. I had the opportunity to speak to her at the recent ASEAN Literary Festival 2014 in Jakarta, where she served as a moderator in a discussion on ethnicity, religion and literature.
Born and raised in the Netherlands, the writer and research analyst has lived in Jakarta since 1996. She researches and analyses political and cross-cultural issues – specialising in the Kashmir dispute, Afghanistan, China and Iran – and frequently participates in international conferences in Europe and Asia.[ii] She is also a freelance writer in Indonesia’s leading English-language newspapers, The Jakarta Post and The Jakarta Globe.
An academic and writer on the topics of religion and geopolitics, Laura explains that her interests in these subjects have been growing since she moved to Indonesia, opening her eyes to the misrepresentation of Islam in the West.
“It is the lack of understanding in the West that has caused this and it upsets me because some people use religion as a tool to generate hatred among people while the facts tell differently. I believe we should be building bridges instead. Being here in Indonesia, immersed in the Muslim culture, I realise that what Western people say about Islam is incorrect,” she says.
She explains that in the West, Islam is spoken of as a series of negative issues as a result of a lack of understanding, which incites criticism. Islam, in the Western consciousness, is represented by countries with geopolitical interests: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Kashmir. These perceptions are often peppered with religious stereotypes that are conflated with any social oppression in these countries. For example, many Westerners view the headscarf as oppressive and going against women’s freedom, unaware that Islam stretches beyond the Arab-speaking region and that donning the headscarf is a personal choice.
Laura believes that the West should shift its attention to Indonesia, as she considers the country to be the best example of how democracy and Islam can stand side by side. She also believes that Indonesian women should advocate their religious rights across the globe, in order to redress Western misconceptions of Muslim women.
“One should realise that oppression of women is not a religious thing; it is cultural. Women oppressed in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, who can neither go out of their house nor drive a car, is something from the patriarchal culture. If it has anything to do with religion, I believe it is being misinterpreted and used to fulfill one’s particular interests,” she says.
In a nutshell, she believes that the West has shaped its perspectives about Islam by generalising particular incidents and not noticing the diversity of Islam, as offered by Muslims outside the Arab-speaking region.
“It is the duty of Muslims in other parts of the world to show what Islam is about,” she says.
As for the state of international conflict resolution, Laura thinks that the West has clearly failed to bring peace and democracy where they claim to, causing more conflict instead. While she understands that the fine details of democracy may be somewhat different across the world, democracy cannot be imposed – people have to fight for it themselves. Both sides must concede the long-term strategic importance of promoting interfaith dialogues in the struggle to establish democracy – it boils down to patience and understanding.
“Given that the unsolved political situation in Kashmir has lasted for decades, I hope that Western politicians will not look at Kashmir as being the land of terrorists and militants. They also have to accept the fact that Muslims have been oppressed and are suffering a lot and that they want their voices to be heard.”