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

Thursday, September 04, 2008


Confessions of a most misunderstood man

Other faiths and Westerners have nothing to fear from Indonesia, despite a fatwa (binding ruling) against pluralism by religious scholars. Nor should outsiders be concerned about nationalism, according to Professor Din Syamsuddin, head of the Muhammadiyah Islamic organization that claims 30 million members.

On a visit to Malang in central East Java the US trained scholar with a doctorate in political science spoke to Duncan Graham. This is an edited version of the interview on the eve of the possible presidential candidate’s 50th birthday.

The West tends to label you a moderate. Is that accurate and what does it mean?

I don’t come with labels. I don’t know whether I am a moderate or not – that’s for others to decide. I have a principle of taking the median position between left and right in terms of balance.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding – all Muslim organizations suffer from attribution, generalization and stigmatisation.

However I have been strongly against the war on terror. I was misquoted as saying President George W Bush was a drunken horse. I used the metaphor of the kuda lumping (the Javanese hobby-horse trance dance). That was changed in translation and my statement misunderstood.

Now many in the US and the West are supporting my position.

You say you support pluralism, but the MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia - the Council of Religious Scholars), where you’ve long held senior positions, has issued a fatwa against pluralism.

I’m still in the MUI, though not active – I have too many other duties. I wasn’t involved in the fatwa. Most of the members of the MUI committee that pronounced the fatwa were members of NU (Nahdlatul Ulama - a second Islamic organization that claims 40 million members.)

(Syamsuddin was raised in a prominent NU family but moved to Muhammadiyah as a student. He said this was “a rational choice based on my understanding of Islam – I was drawn to Muhammadiyah by the combination of ideas and action with our schools, hospitals and other institutions – what some have called ‘Protestant Islam’.”)

So is the fatwa wrong?

The title of the fatwa is wrong. The context and the title are different. The position has been distorted. The truth of religion is in relativism. It was a mistake of the committee in using the term pluralism and not relativism.

What do you mean by relativism?

This is a semantic problem. The Holy Koran has many verses about religious pluralism. It has also been a mistake made by outsiders to exaggerate by saying the fatwa is against pluralism. I am active in many national and international inter-faith groups and promoting dialogue.

At the top level there seems to be no problem. After every inter-faith conference we see media photos of happy leaders from different religions embracing and passing resolutions of tolerance. Meanwhile in some kampongs and villages people of different faiths keep fighting.

There has to be a new paradigm on inter-faith dialogue. We have to include the excluded. We should focus on the state of being, not believing. We should all be in one big tent. The only exceptions are those who encourage violence. The government must deal with them.

But how do you include extremists of any faith who refuse to even discuss other people’s positions?

This is the dilemma. Everything is in a state of change and we must involve the non-religious sectors of society in these problem-solving discussions. Let me make it very clear: I am totally against terrorism and I took an active and very tough stand against the tragic events (the World Trade Center attacks) in the US. I did not escape my responsibilities, like some others.

The West often finds the apparent inferiority complex of some Muslims in Indonesia puzzling. You are the overwhelming majority. Why should you fear other beliefs?

Islam was put in a corner by the Soeharto government. After reform started (in 1998) Islam in Indonesia faced multi-level problems and new challenges. We have been like the Indonesian proverb about a man who falls from a ladder, gets hurt, causes breakages and is then blamed by the ladder’s owner.

I agree there is a need for reform in Islam, but I do not support the Liberal Islamic movement. They confuse liberal with liberated.

We don’t want our society to be divided. I tell Muslims not to feel inferior, not to loose hope and blame others. The Arabs took Islam into the golden age. I see Muslims in South-East Asia leading the way into a new age of tolerance and understanding. Of course there’s a place for other faiths.

The next time we meet will you by a candidate for the vice presidency?

Why the number two position? Nothing is definite yet, but I think I’m able. I’m the president of a great and complex organization that is almost like a state. Many have asked me – probably yes, maybe no. I must be whole hearted.

If you did get the top job what changes would you make?

I’d like to see Indonesia as the world’s third largest democracy enforcing freedom …


No, that’s too strong a word. Promoting freedom and the people’s social, political and economic rights, and having religious freedom. We need overseas investment from those who accept our sovereign position.

Sounds like nationalism …

I only want what is the most favourable and best possible position for all Indonesians.

I’ve met Kevin Rudd (Australian Prime Minister) and he is a very good man. I like him a lot. We must be good friends with Australia and work together. We are not a threat to each other. Australia needs to become more Asian.

I didn’t get enough time with him. I want to go to Australia soon and propose Australia working with Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan to counterbalance the growing power of China and India.

My obsession if for a peaceful and prosperous world. I want to see a mature, modern and moderate Indonesia facing the world with self-confidence. But at times I feel that I have been a most misunderstood person.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 September 2008)