Live and let live
If he wasn’t an academic sparring with language, Professor Komaruddin Hidayat would make a fine boxer.
Not because the Rector of the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta would be landing knockout blows. Instead he’d be deflecting punches, sidestepping wild swings and never letting his opponents get close enough for an upper cut.
Example: He supports pluralism. So how does his position fit with the fatwa (prohibition) on pluralism issued by the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI – Council of Indonesian Islamic Scholars)?
“The MUI has a different understanding of pluralism. I look at it in terms of sociology and anthropology. Maybe they consider it theologically.”
Try again: What’s the solution to the problem of Ahmadiyah (the sect under attack for claiming to be Islamic)?
“The government should take action. The police should give them protection.”
Try yet again: At a formal seminar he didn’t use the traditional assalam alaikum (peace be unto you) to address an audience dominated by Muslims.
“Assalam alaikum is just a cultural greeting. You can spread peace through behavior, such as smiling and being friendly.”
So would it be right to label him a liberal Muslim, along with people like prominent activist Ulil Abshar Abdalla from the Liberal Islamic Network (JIL).
“You can call me a rational Muslim.”
Does this mean he’s opposed to JIL?
“It’s just a group, and so small. I appreciate that it’s good for intellectual exercises, but nothing else. It has so few followers. It’s difficult to be successful without government support.”
State-funding backs Dr Komaruddin’s university of 22,000 students. He reckons UIN is the finest tertiary institution of its kind in the Republic, and well positioned to create bonds with its counterparts elsewhere.
“We want to conduct research with Western campuses so staff and students can better understand Southeast Asian Islam, as opposed to Islam from the Middle East,” he said.
“We want to build ties based on education, business and good neighbourliness’, explaining Islam as a sociological and historical phenomenon.”
This was one of the reasons Mas Komar (as he’s known) has been in New Zealand with two colleagues. They’ve been presenting the rational face of Islam and hopefully to eclipse the image of tiger-eyed fundamentalists tugging their wispy beards as they demonise everything that’s not Muslim.
On the surface it’s a grand idea, but in discussions with Professor Paul Morris, head of Inter-Religious Understanding at Wellington’s Victoria University it became clear there’s a major obstacle to overcome.
Universities in NZ and many other Western countries teach religious studies, but not specific religions. Graduates do not have the qualifications to get leadership roles in mosques, churches or temples. A taxpayer-funded university like UIN could not exist in NZ.
The separation of religion and State would not have surprised Mas Komar because he’s filled his passport with inky stamps from more than 40 countries.
While many have been nations with Muslim majorities, others have been Western democracies where religion if of little importance.
Globetrotting as an ambassador-at-large for tolerant Islam would have seemed an unlikely career for the third of eight children born in Magelang, Central Java, 57 years ago.
His dad was a soldier, but that was a career the bright lad didn’t favor, and his parents didn’t push.
“My father was quite liberal, a good man,” Mas Komar said. “It was serendipity that put me into the academic life.
“I was sent to the cheapest and closest village pesantren (Islamic boarding school) where I was influenced by a very wonderful teacher. He told us that we had the right to enjoy life, and the good life is Islam. We should be vice-generals of God.
“He taught us about the dignity of human beings, the need for life-long learning and to live decently. God has given us heads to think, hearts to feel and hands to do good things.
“It’s death that creates religion, that makes life meaningful. If you don’t believe in an afterlife then there’s no incentive to do good.
“Everyone wants truth, beauty, peace and goodness. These are values implanted in us by God.”
After doing well at school the inspired student moved to Jakarta and the institution he now heads. Here he gained his first degree (in Islamic education) and then applied for an overseas scholarship.
He was successful (“by accident”) and headed to Turkey where he completed a doctorate in Western philosophy. Back home he returned to the UIN and in 1990 became a professor. Four years ago he was elected rector.
Apart from teaching and touring the world, Mas Komar is an occasional commentator in the mass media promoting his friendly and benign brand of Islam.
“”It’s no longer relevant to talk about conflict between Christianity and Islam,” he said. “Good religion means being a good citizen.
“We don’t like the aggression of global capitalism, but democracy and Islam are compatible. Marginalized Muslims get the benefit of democracy because they can get close to local decision makers.
“The problems we’ve had in Indonesia have not been created by democracy, but by the poor quality of politicians and failure of the political process.
“I’m an optimist. The people (voters) are getting wiser and more selective in evaluating candidates. A lot of lessons have been learned, but I think it will take three more elections to grow the maturity to evaluate politicians.
“The issue is this: How do we articulate the way to behave in a modern state, and how do we manage?
“Don’t make religion part of the problem, but the solution. Religion can solve the problems of society, and Indonesia could be a model, a world leader.
“My philosophy is live and let live. Life is a game. We can live together in a pluralist society.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 November 2010)