I wish I could talk with Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who was responsible for the controversial 2008 film Fitna, for his scathing reaction to a speech by the Netherlands Ambassador for Indonesia Nikolaos van Dam at a graduation ceremony of Qur'anic Studies in Indonesia.
Van Dam's speech appeared in The Jakarta Post on 1 May 2009, titled, "Understanding Islam: What is Islamic and what [is] not?" Van Dam – presenting a balanced view of Islam – argued that Islam itself must be differentiated from the way in which Muslims practice it.
I wish I could tell Wilders, who called van Dam an "advocate of Islam" in a recent press release, that although I know little about him personally, I am very willing to have an intimate dialogue with him.
I would start with something mild but meaningful. In Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, people love to watch live Dutch football matches on the weekends because a local television station broadcasts them regularly. We also spend our time watching Spanish La Liga, English Premier League, Serie A Italia and German Bundesliga
Does Wilders know that nobody cares whether the players are Muslims or Christians, Jews or atheists? It seems that we have been unintentionally united by football with our counterparts in all over the world.
Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven are two football clubs that still have many fans here, in a country where Islam has different local interpretations, as Ambassador van Dam discussed in his speech. I have had an Ajax sticker on my Vespa's steering wheel for more than five years.
I wish I could talk directly to Wilders about how I was educated in a town suspected as the beehive of terrorists.
My hometown is Bukittinggi, a town in the West Sumatra province of western Indonesia. If Wilders ever visited this town he would see many Westerners and tourists from all over the world. The town's history is intertwined with Dutch colonialism, and it has many historical artefacts from that era, as well as memories that attract many Dutch visitors.
I guarantee you, Mr. Wilders, the town's people will offer you a hospitable welcome. We are accustomed to accepting other people with warmth and without suspicion. There are two big churches in the middle of the town, situated in more strategic areas than the local mosques.
If you would come to the pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) and meet the teachers, they would receive you with even more friendliness than they would their own guests or students!
I remember bringing three American tourists from one of the tourist sites in Bukittinggi to a pesantren where I used to study and introducing them to one of my teachers. He welcomed them warmly, offered them drinks and tried to speak with them – in very broken English. The three guests were wearing tank tops and shorts, and despite the obvious differences in appearance and culture, we laughed a lot in conversation with one another.
The 13th century Persian poet Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi wrote a beautiful story in which he explained that people look for the truth as if they are blind men trying to describe an elephant. When one of the blind men touched an elephant's tail, he told the others that the elephant is similar to a snake.
Perhaps you have only touched a side of Islam – the practice of which varies from region to region and culture to culture – and made a hasty conclusion.
You might not believe that many people here prefer the Dutch - or Russian or English - football team to any of the teams from the Middle East. And, by the way, I have never heard of an Islamic jurist prohibiting Muslims from supporting European football teams.
Ambassador van Dam has suggested that we discuss and share what we have in common rather than accentuate our differences, so my last question to you, Mr. Wilders, is do you like football? If yes, what is your favourite team? Which team do you think will win this year's European Champions League?
* Khairil Azhar is a teacher at Lazuardi Global Islamic School in Depok, Indonesia. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.thejakartapost.com.