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Home Worldwide Indonesia State ‘must stay away …
State ‘must stay away from religious debate’

HEADLINE NEWS July 18, 2005 

State ‘must stay away from religious debate’

The government has been pressed by religious leaders and scholars to take a clear stance on religious fanaticism. The Jakarta Post’s Hera Diani talked with Abdul Kader Tayob, a professor of Islamic studies from the University of Nijmegen’s International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Netherlands. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Question: What are your observations of the contemporary Muslim movement in Indonesia?

Answer: What is remarkable about Indonesia is the extent to which Nurcholish Madjid — and more recently the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) — have thought through modern Islam, so both non-Muslims and Muslims who have different perspectives (are accommodated).

It is striking for me to see debates and discussions taking place among academics and the members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) —and how Indonesians can step back and actually look at Islamic ideas, the history of Islamic thought.

I know Indonesians are worried about radicalization and I do not blame them. You can look at them (radicals) as opportunists or a social phenomena. In a way, they are coming back from the institutions, they don’t have a place in modern society, so they make a place for themselves.

In a way they are also forcing the limits and challenges of the democratization process. And I think that kind of challenge has to be looked at from a different point of view.

From the state’s point of view, it usually wants to control radical groups — the state tend to support the moderate. However, the state needs to keep its distance from the religious debate as its (involvement) would only cause more trouble. The state cannot make a decision about what is correct or incorrect in Islam.

But the state can and should establish limits. You can say whatever you like, but you cannot attack somebody for what they are saying. That is the basic liberty that a state can define.

From an intellectual point of view, one has to historicize intellectual tradition. You need to look at all Islamic ideas as coming from a particular historical context.

From the little bit I know — I’m not an expert — some say that Nurcholish is followed by JIL, but they are actually different. When speaking about secularization, for example, he was speaking about values, issues that brought human values supported by Islam. Therefore, we can take a secular approach to politics, economics, as long as we have (Islamic) values.

But the JIL that I’ve seen so far seems to have a hermeunetical approach.

I have my own sympathy with the liberal, but their approach is hermeunetical, which means you cannot choose between one interpretation and another. So, they really will have to accept that there are going to be conservatives, other Muslims who want sharia and those who say that sharia is impossible. That is where the state comes in. The state has to allow for all of that, as long as there are some basic values. And that is basically the challenge.

What is the role of the ulema council and its fatwain the state?

Twenty to 30 years ago, people said that the ulema organization was going to disappear. But in fact it has survived.

I think mullahs are playing a role in the public morality issue.

In many cases the mullahs agree with the state, so they are not going to play a critical role in the state. But they are also responding to what maybe called a narrow sense of individuals’ religious needs. Like, for example, whether Muslims could attend Christian celebrations in the early 1980s — they took a stance.

In that sense, the disbandment of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) has been suggested. What do you think?

On the one hand I can see the value of criticism. But on the other hand, while the council is not to have the final say, its value is to bring a consensus and to assure people they are not alone.

You cannot reach a consensus in Islam, but you can, maybe, reach a basic agreement on something that is essential. And I can see how it might work here, like, for instance, how to decide when Ramadhan starts.

What about the adoption of sharia law, the caning of gamblers? Should the state interfere in that?

When somebody introduces sharia, it should be clear how it relates to other laws. You cannot have sharia without recognition of the Constitution. If it was going to be state law, the legal implications for non-Muslims would need to be considered.

Sharia itself is not as comprehensive as people think it is. It doesn’t detail legal procedures, nor rehabilitation.

Sharia does not necessarily solve problems, and can cause more problems. It often targets women and is more about punishments and restrictions.

People who are applying sharia think they can determine public morality. I think what they do not take into consideration is individual morality, they are not thinking about how to address and respond to the various influences in society.

I think the state should interfere in the caning of gamblers (in Aceh).

If people want to solve the problems of crimes, lawlessness, morality, I think the approach should be that sharia should add value to the legal system. Only then would people support it.

Everyone talks about the purification of Islam, both radical and liberal groups. How would you bridge the gap between those groups? Is that the state’s job?

I don’t know whether it’s going to be possible to bridge it. I think the diversity of Muslims is an inherent part of Islam. Diversity, pluralism these are unavoidable in Islam.

The basic principle in Islamic thought is that when one holds an opinion, it is possible that the opinion is wrong. Unfortunately, somebody always want to be an authority. But the reality is nobody can claim authority. So, right in the heart of Islamic thought you will find pluralism.

When people say that Koran says no to pluralism, actually they have not even read the Koran. Because there are verses that are not very clear and verses that appear to be contradictory, but Muslim scholars say you have to look at the historical context.

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