Amien Rais led and inspired the reform movement that forced the resignation of President Suharto in 1998, and ushered in an era of constitutional reform and democratization in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia. Rais was invited to Columbia University's Center for Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion (CDTR) to participate in the visitor program, "Democratic Voices in the World's Religions." As part of his stay, Rais delivered a university-wide lecture, met with faculty and students and had the chance to speak with CDTR director Alfred Stepan and doctoral candidate Miriam Künkler for a candid and informative interview. Rais offers his perspective on contemporary politics in Indonesia, and the intersection of the secular and religious in political affairs. He retells the story of the night of 20 May 1998, the events surrounding Suharto's resignation and his chairmanship of the country's largest modernist Islamic organization, the Muhammadiyah.
Stepan: In your biography, Putra Nusantara, by Amien Rais, Muhammad Najib and Irwin Omar, you are quoted with the following statement on page II:
The Quran does not say anything about the formation as an Islamic state, or about the necessity and obligations, both moral and political obligations on the part of Muslims to establish a Sharia or Islamic state. Secondly, the Quran is not a book of law, but a source of law. If the Quran is considered a book of law, Muslims will become the most wretched people in the world.
That is a very important statement. You obviously stand by it, or you would not have reprinted it in your book. When I spoke to our former dean, Professor Lisa Anderson, the past president of the Middle East Studies Association, earlier today, she said she believed that no comparable Muslim religious leader in the Middle East had ever made such a statement. Could you develop the reasoning that lies behind your position?
Rais: As a Muslim, I believe that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad in the early 7th century. But the Quran, to the Muslims, became a source of law, a source of moral and ethical principles, and the Muslims have to conform these Quranic moral and ethical principles with the world in which they live. Because if the Quran was a book of law, then after one or two centuries, the Quran would have become obsolete and outdated. But I believe that the Almighty God, by revealing the Quran to the whole of mankind, meant that our Quran must be treated as the reference for human beings in developing their day to day life, in accordance with the development of time.
So, by treating the Quran as a holy scripture, which gives us guidance in terms of moral and ethical principles, Muslims become very flexible. I believe that basically the Quran emphasizes, first of all, egalitarianism between humans, and then justice. This, of course, includes legal, economic, social and educational justice. The Quran, again and again, tells Muslims, and for that matter all of mankind, that life does not stop at the cemetery; instead, life exists beyond the cemetery and is eternal. On the Day of Judgment, every action, every activity done by every single human being will be held responsible in front of the Almighty God.
Stepan: You argue that the Quran does not say anything about the foundation of an Islamic state, or about the necessity on the part of Muslims to establish an Islamic state. Why do you insist on that?
Because as a Muslim who almost every day recites the Quran, I do not find any Quranic verse which instructs us to build an Islamic state. There is no verse that states, for example, "All believers must build an Islamic state for you, because God wills that." But, the problem is that the Quran is like poetry, not prose. Poetry is more or less eternal. Maybe the analogy does not fit perfectly, but prose will go around for two or three centuries, whereas sophisticated poetry is eternal. God gives us just the moral and ethical principals. You can build your political system and maybe you call that democracy or monarchy, or even sultanate or emirate, but justice must be upheld.
As long as every single citizen is given the opportunity to enjoy their freedom, as long as religious tolerance is guaranteed, I think that that is fully in accordance with the Quranic moral principles.
Stepan: In your reading and interpretation of the Quran, you say that there is the notion of tolerance of and within all religions. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes. I think there are at least two Quranic verses which say this. The first is, "la ikrah fi'd-din" (there is no compulsion in religion). And then, the Muslims are taught by the Quran to be tolerant of any other faith. There is also another verse which says that, "for you is your religion and for me is mine." In other words, the Quran teaches us this full coexistence among the followers of different religions. Even with the atheists, the Koran tells us to live in a peaceful life. Even with atheists (Sura 109).
Stepan: For a politician, and a spiritual leader, it is quite interesting that you went out of your way to assert, and then to reprint, that if the Quran is considered the source of legislation, rather than a source, that Muslims will become wretchedly unhappy. Were you attacked For saying that? Did you have to elaborate on that publicly?
If we treated our Quran as the book of law and then we give 100 percent literal interpretation, probably half of the Muslims, and maybe half of humankind, would have lost their hands. Because, in the Quran, a thief must be punished by having his or her hand cut off. While the more appropriate interpretation, I believe, is that the capacity, the ability to steal must be condemned, must be cut off. Not the literal, physical act of cutting off the hand, like some people interpret the verse.
Secondly, even if we want to take it as this, then we have to see the context. For example, Caliph Umar, instead of cutting the hand of the thief, he gives the thief a financial gift to survive, because the thief happened to be very poor and then he steals just to survive, to feed the children, his wife. So, I mean, we have to see the context.
Stepan: You also go further, and I'll quote, "We should not establish Islamic controversy and conflict. Indonesia should be built to be a modern state, every citizen of Indonesia to his or her own religion." How and why would a sharia state create conflict within the Indonesian political community and contradict Pancasila?
Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. We have six official religions, then we have more than 250 ethnic groups, more than 200 local languages, then every ethnic group has its own tradition, its own habit. I agree with those who argue that basically Pancasila is the greatest present from Muslims to the Indonesian brothers and sisters. We respect our Christian, Hindu, Buddhist brothers and sisters, and in Indonesia we know exactly as Muslims, if some try to transform Indonesia into a sharia state, religious minorities will never ever agree, and then the most possible result is the disintegration of Indonesia. So we try to find a win-win solution to maintain the pluralism of Indonesia and then to maintain, of course, the integration of the big country called Indonesia. Our founding fathers finally came to a consensus, to a wonderful and local agreement that Pancasila must become our state ideology. Pancasila would become a political and philosophical umbrella for different groups in Indonesia, accommodating every religion.
Pancasila, of course, is the five principles. The first is belief in one and only God. The second principle is humanism, which is just and civilized, the third is the unity of Indonesia. The fourth principle is people's sovereignty, and the fifth principle is social justice for the whole people of Indonesia. I think the majority of Muslims in Indonesia totally agree that not a single sila, or principle, of the five principles contradict the teachings of Islam.
Stepan: Interesting. Powerful. There is a relatively small but influential Chinese population in Indonesia. When you were chair of the People's Consultative Assembly (1999 to 2004), the constitution was revised and you were able to make-and I think this is very important--Confucianism a recognized religion. There used to be Five officially recognized, and to some extent supported, religions. Now that the law has come into effect, there are six such officially recognized religions. Why did you add Confucianism, and how difficult was it?
First of all, it is a fact of life that part of the Indonesian nation happens to be Confucian. And then every time I met my Chinese friends, my Chinese colleagues, they felt that they were discriminated against, because Confucianism is their faith, their religion, and it was not yet recognized officially. That's why I tried to contact different leaders from different groups, and taking important steps to make Confucianism one of our recognized religions. I talked to Abdurrahman Wahid, who was the country's president at the time, and he agreed with me. I also consulted with Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of Indonesian nationalists, and she also fully agreed. After some time it was decreed through government decree that Confucianism become an official religion. Then the Chinese were so relieved. There is no obstacle to giving Confucianism the full opportunity for the Confucians to fully live their faith.
Stepan: In the analytic categories I use, I call France a secular state where there is "freedom of the state From religion," but there's another major Form of secularism in the United States which I call "freedom of religion From the state." So, in both France and the United States there is a form of separation of religion and state, but for quite different purposes and with quite different consequences. Often forgotten, though, is that many long-standing democracies have an established church. In fact, in the 1990s, every single Scandinavian country had an established Evangelical Lutheran Church. So we can't say in emphatic terms that as a democratic state you need a strict separation of religion and state.…Beside a strict separation, several models of religion-state cooperation are also compatible with democracy. I tend to think about this issue in the terms of the multiple secularisms of modern democracies.
With regard to multiple secularisms, one of the great sociological inventions was in India. Their 1950 constitution created what the Indian social theorist Rajeev Bhargava calls a model of equal respect, equal support and principled distance for all religions, including the 140 million Muslims in the Hindu majority state of India. If Hinduism had been established as the official state religion in India, there would not have been social peace because, unlike Scandinavia, there was no religious homogeneity, and the intensity of religious practice in India was greater than in Scandinavia. But the key thing is that all religions are to some extent supported by the state in India.…
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