DR Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab is a prime example of Indonesia’s political legacy post-President Abdurrahman Wahid: he is not only a politician, but an intellectual to boot. Abdurrahman was himself a leading scholar before being elected to lead Southeast Asia’s largest democracy, and the world’s largest Muslim country.
Alwi is currently the President of Indonesia’s Envoy to the Middle East. He was the republic’s minister of foreign affairs from 1999 to 2001, and the minister for people’s welfare from 2004 to 2005.
He earned his first PhD from the University of Ains Shams in Cairo, Egypt in 1990, and a second PhD from Temple University in the US in 1995.
He has gone on to teach in various US universities, is a member of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta, Georgia, and was bestowed an academic award from the Egyptian government.
Alwi was recently in Malaysia to deliver a public lecture on the global challenges of religious extremism, with a special reference to Southeast Asia. The talk was organised by the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.
The Nut Graph spoke exclusively to Alwi on the recent legislative elections in Indonesia, Islamic laws, and the oft-demonised liberal Islam moniker.
TNG: In the legislative elections in Indonesia, the Islamist parties were effectively sidelined by the voters. What is your analysis? Was it really a rejection of Islamist politics, or was something else at play here?
Dr Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab: I do not discount the argument that people are not very much inclined for Islamic parties. But there are many other factors. I always say that to win elections, either parliamentary or presidential, you need to have three components — three Ms. [First] is media, the second is money, the third is momentum. There is no ideology here. Because in Indonesia you cannot [see a] big mark of ideological differences. We are all Muslim. Golkar is the old party. The head of Golkar is Muhammad Jusuf Kalla, [who] is actually the advisor of Nahdatul Ulama [and] who is very Islamist.
So, you know, the differences are, you have Muhammadiyah, you have Nahdatul Ulama, and they almost represent two big parties: Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, Parti Kebangkitan Nasional Ulama; and [there is also] Partai Matahari Bangsa, and they are not doing well. Because they lack the two other components — they lack media and they lack money. And therefore, the new emerging parties are scoring well. Prabowo (Subianto)‘s party (Gerindra) is no different from Golkar’s ideology. But momentum here [is] on the side of the president (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) because people like him, [therefore] many voters vote for the party of the president. It’s an indication that Indonesians would like to see continuity.
Trishaw with Gerindra logo (Pic by Farish A Noor)
So [it is] not so much that Indonesians reject Islamic parties, but Indonesians are not too strict [with] the Islamic sort of values. They feel that even [after] choosing [parties] other than Islamic parties, they are still good Muslims.
But do you think there is a place for Islam-centric, or Islam-based, religious-based parties? Do you think this is legitimate for a political party?
At the end of the day, people would like to get votes from Muslims. I am talking about Indonesians.
And they will see, who are the constituents? Who are the prospective constituents, who are the prospective voters? Some of them would say, okay, I may go for Muslims. Some would say, like Partai Damai Sejahtera — this is a Christian party — I may go for Christians; I want them to vote for my party. [But] you see Christian parties are not doing enough to pass the threshold.
So strict religious affiliation is not, I think, the way to get more votes. Either [for] Christians or Muslims.
You have said before that Indonesia is neither fully a secular state, nor is it fully a theocratic state. What do you mean by this?
Meaning we are neither like Iran, nor like maybe the US. Because we have a Ministry of Religious Affairs, and Islamic values are always considered during the adoption of legislation, laws and practices. So Islamic values are always there to be considered, and I think it is only logical because 90% of the population is Muslim. You cannot separate Islamic values from the political practices and daily practices of the people. And therefore, we are not secular in the stricter sense of the term.
Neither are we a theocratic state because we do not intend to discriminate against religions other than Islam.
But how would you draw the balance? Do you think it’s right for a state, if it draws its values from Islam for example, to legislate on those values? For instance, can you fine someone if they don’t pray five times a day? Can you jail them if they don’t go to mosque on Fridays, or [jail] a woman for not covering her hair?
No. Except for, say, local governments which instate these kinds of practices according to democratic procedures. I mean, [if] these practices were endorsed by the local parliament, by democratic procedures, anything can happen. But the central government [in Indonesia] will never do that.
Billboard on Muslim dress, Banda Acheh, 2005 (Pic by Nick Treacy; source: Wikimedia commons)
So, at the local government level, by consensus it’s okay.
Yes, let’s take the banning of [the] Ahmadiah [sect] in certain provinces — the government of the local provinces would ban them. But the central government would never do that.
Do you think Islam is facing a crisis in religious authority?
No, I don’t think so. Religious authority is always there to be referred to in certain occasions. But I think the concerns of the people, even Muslims, are to take Islamic values as the source of their daily life and lifestyle, but not strictly adhere to what people think is the only interpretation of Islam.
Let’s say, even in Iran there is no cutting of hands because it is a controversial issue.
But there is the death penalty, though.
There is the death penalty, but if you go back to the Quran, the death penalty in secular law cannot be abrogated, cannot be eliminated. But in Islam, you can, by forgiveness. You know, in the United States — [for example], where is capital punishment practised?
Texas, let’s say. Even if the relatives [of a murdered individual in Texas] forgive the wrongdoer, the law has to be implemented, but not in Islam. In Islam, if the relatives forgive [the murderer], the law can be abrogated because Islam opts for forgiveness and grace. And you see that is the difference.
Image comprising key words from the final statements of 330 Texas death row inmates
(livelife.breathe @ Flickr / wordle.net)
In Indonesia, you have been attacked as having no authority to speak on Islam because some people label you as a “liberal Muslim“, like it’s a bad thing to be a liberal Muslim. What is your response to this? How would you identify yourself?
What do you mean by liberal Islam? [Does] liberal mean rational Islam? [Does] liberal mean you are discarding the text? Or you are trying to interpret the text into a modern understanding, coping with current conditions? You really have to differentiate between those kinds of definitions.
The conservative Muslims would see liberal Islam as being a movement which will discard … the consensus of Muslims throughout history. And [to them], therefore, it is not acceptable. But liberal Islam in the sense of putting more rational thought in interpreting the text, I think it is valid.
Again, like fundamentalism, actually if you go to the real interpretation or meaning of fundamentalism, it has a very positive connotation — going back to the basics, to the fundamentals. But it was wrongly interpreted as extremism. So it is like that, [the term] liberal.
Islam with different interpretations is okay. Liberal, conservative, orthodox, or whatever; secular Islam, political Islam, sufi Islam, philosophical Islam. Diversity of interpretations — it is only logical. You have one text [in religion] — not only the Quran, the Bible as well, [for Christians]. And every text, historical text, you can interpret with so many diverse understandings. If you are a philosopher, you will take it from the philosophical point of view. If you are a jurist, [you will take it] from the legal aspect.