The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, October 08, 2006



On 8 October in Surabaya, Professor Achmad Jainuri will face about 600 Islamic clerics and scholars from across East Java. They’ll all be members of Muhammadiyah, the second biggest Muslim organisation in Indonesia with an estimated 30 million members.

In his address the Canadian-educated academic will be urging the ‘revitalisation’ of Muhammadiyah. He’ll be reminding delegates that Achmad Dahlan, the founder of Muhammadiyah early last century, regularly and freely discussed social and religious issues with Catholic and Protestant leaders.

Professor Jainuri, 54, dean of theology at the Islamic State University in Surabaya, will also stress that interfaith relations almost a century ago were harmonious and respectful, and that society was more liberal than today.

He talked to Duncan Graham in Surabaya before giving his speech:

How do you expect to be received?

Well, I hope. If not I’ll have to force them to listen! I expect them to have open minds, though some in Muhammadiyah don’t accept the ideas of my friends and myself. They think of us as foreigners.

When I was doing my doctorate in Montreal (at McGill University) I was accused by some of being an unbeliever just because I studied in the West. Yet I had access to classical texts not available in Indonesia.

We need to discuss things more openly with each other and other faiths. We used to do that – we don’t now. Since Achmad Dahlan’s time the conservatives have taken over.

How to return Muhammadiyah to its roots – that’s the question.

You’ve studied Islamic terrorism and now lecture on the topic. You’d know that not all Christians were dismayed at Pope Benedict XVI’s speech linking Islam and violence.

I have no problems with the Pope speaking like that. The difficulty is when his speech is heard and read by certain groups that don’t want to debate and argue.

Radical Muslims, the bombers and others, come from a small group in the community. They think they have the right and the power to solve political problems themselves.

They think the United Nations is powerless, that the Indonesian government is powerless, so they do it themselves. They never hear alternative opinions. They never read my articles in the newspapers. Their minds are shut. I can’t even get into their pesantren (Islamic boarding schools).

They think they have to fight unbelievers and the evils, and that they have to do this forever. This is their jihad.

The majority of Muslims believe that the jihad is within us, and the battle is to cleanse our minds and souls and do good work. That’s how we read the Koran.

Why don’t the radicals concentrate on the real evils in society – like poverty and the exploitation of children instead of trashing nightclubs? Just down the road from this religious campus little kids are begging at the traffic lights. That’s evil.

Yes, but if the radicals give money to the beggars they have to get money themselves. They don’t have any so it’s easier to throw stones. Maybe the religious elite is manipulating them. The civil law has to be stronger.

Do you condemn Islamic terrorism to your students?

Yes. Of course terrorism is wrong, 100 per cent. For me, that’s not the way to behave. Islam is peaceful and it’s most important to prove this through teaching. I know many in the West don’t understand that.

Why are Muslims seemingly so worried about Christians? Muslims are in the majority. If you’re firm in your faith you have nothing to fear from other religions.

In the past Islam was strong. In modern times it’s weak, economically and socially. In almost every aspect we are behind. My fellow Christians have long-term thinking and orientation.

Why are some afraid of Christians? I don’t know. Maybe because they know that Christianity, like Islam, is a missionary religion seeking to convert.

Our task is the Islamisation of Muslims, particularly the abangan. (People who are indifferent to their faith.)

We have to correct the social problems in Indonesia through building hospitals and schools and homes for old people. That’s what we’re doing in Muhammadiyah.

You’ve lived overseas. You know how Westerners think. How can Muslim’s and Christians communicate?

Please don’t be afraid of us. There are many misperceptions about Islam – and about the West, particularly on issues like individualism, which is not well understood. Indonesians think it means being egoistic – when it’s about being creative.

Most people get their information on other religions and cultures from secondary sources. Few know that even in the secular United States there are strong restrictions on children seeing pornography – though not here.

We need to preach mutual understanding. I will not interfere in your faith and ask why you believe Jesus Christ is God.

Where I live my neighbour on one side is a Chinese Protestant family – on the other side are Catholics. We all get on together, we help each other, but we don’t discuss our religious beliefs.

But isn’t this the point? We can’t keep religion a taboo topic at any level if we’re going to understand each other. Isn’t that why the Pope’s speech was important because it opened up debate?

In some areas we still have to avoid religious discussions to keep the peace. Change is going to take a long time. The target is still far away.

The present generation is better educated and can see things differently. If we concentrate on social activities we can then discuss pluralism, liberalism and rational thinking. It’s not easy.

A long time?

Maybe a generation.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 October 2006)



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