Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Interview with Din Syamsuddin

Dr. Din Syamsuddin, President, Muhammadiyah
Washington DC, April 21, 2006

American-educated, politically ambitious, extremely articulate, Din
Syamsuddin is a compact, attractive man with graying sideburns and a
quiet manner. He has a past reputation as an ultra conservative
Islamist, but now, as president of the moderate modernist
Muhammadiyah organization, he described himself as primarily a
mediator and dialogue facilitator between the widely disparate
segments of the Islamic community. "I don't want the Muslim
community to be divided because of this democratic era of euphoria"
following the repression of Soeharto's New Order.

He said that this new assertiveness, coupled with the complications
created by reactions to the 9/11 attacks in the United States and
its subsequent invasion of Iraq, contribute to fractiousness in the
Muslim community in Indonesia today. "If this divides our community
it will destroy Indonesia," he said.

He placed himself firmly in the camp of Muslim moderates who oppose
an Islamic state and therefore oppose the "Jakarta Charter" concept,
referring to a constitutional amendment that would require Muslims
to observe shari'a (Islamic law). "For Muhammadiyah, the Pancasila
state is the final form," he said. Pancasila is the state doctrine,
embodied in the constitution, consisting of five principles, the
first of which affirms belief in a single God and qualifies six
religions (originally five) for official recognition.

He pointed out that Muhammadiyah, though a social and educational
organization and not a political party, has 151 members in the 500-
member parliament, (representing various Islamic and secular
political parties), making it an important voice in public
affairs. "We run 14,000 schools, 169 institutions of higher
education including 57 universities, and 430 health services
including 116 hospitals," he said. In addition to his Muhammadiyah
position Dr. Syamsuddin is general secretary of the Indonesian
Council of Ulama (MUI). He holds a PhD from the University of
California at Los Angeles.

He said the process of democratization in Indonesia is encouraged by
Islam, because Islam is "pro-democracy, and democracy is inherent in
Islamic teachings." He admitted, however, there is a "new trend" in
Indonesian Islam, the emergence of "so-called" radical Islam in
various groups that represent a "minority of the minority." He said
that some of these groups – militias and action groups – have also
been influenced by "outside forces," including the Iranian
revolution of 1979. "These groups have been used by political
figures in Indonesia for their own purposes," he said. "This
destroys the image of Islam. I invited these groups to meet and
representatives from 45 groups attended," he said.

He saw two fundamental problems in the Muslim community, originating
from keterbelakangan and kepurukan: backwardness, because of having
been marginalized by the Suharto regime, and economic hardship
following the financial crisis of 1997-98. "We must take steps to
ameliorate these problems," he said.

On the other hand, he saw three mistakes that the west makes in its
war on terror: attributing terror to Islam rather than the
perpetrators; generalizing too broadly about Islam; and consequently
creating a stigma for all Islamic societies.

He opposes state adoption of shari'a, and objects to conflating it
with hudud, criminal law. Shari'a means `path,' he said, toward
ethical and moral values. It does not specify what is criminal nor
what punishments apply. He also opposes the protests of radical
groups made in the name of jihad, emphasizing that jihad means
striving in the general sense. There are many points of view on the
meaning of jihad, he added, but the proper interpretation
as "struggling for" a worthy objective, not "struggling against,"
which leads to violence. He has convened diverse groups to reach
understanding on points of Islamic thought and law and recounted his
work under the aegis of the Ministry of Religious Affairs to achieve
agreement from Muslim scholars and preachers on the meaning of
terrorism. (He is also professor of Islamic political thought
at the National Islamic University in Jakarta.)

Islamic radicalism, he reiterated, is not ideological, but rather is
political. In Indonesia, Islamic causes were co-opted during the
Suharto regime and resulted in the formation of militias to
undertake actions in the name of religion. Today, the MUI does not
want Indonesian Islam to reflect the "extreme sense of jihad"
propounded by Hizbut Tahrir, the FPI (Front Pembela Islam or Islamic
Defenders' Front), and the MMI (Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia or the
Indonesian Jihadist Council founded by radical cleric Abu Bakar

His role as mediator extends to international affairs. "Our chance
now is a dialogue between civilizations," he said. "I do not
subscribe to Huntington's thesis" (referring Samuel Huntington's
Clash of Civilizations), but rather a clash of politics. He has
joined Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, in Moscow, to create a
new dialogue group, he said. Current extreme interpretations of
religion are based on the global situation and events in the Middle
East that have encouraged radicalization. His and the Muhammadiyah's
goal are to strive for a peaceful, prosperous and just international

Q: What relevance is there today of Clifford Geertz's abangan/santri
dichotomy in the Islamic community? (Published in 1959, Geertz's The
Religion of Java distinguished between the santri community,
primarily traders and small business people, living in urban
settings, and the abangan, agriculturalists in rural areas. These
threads can be seen today reflected in the respective
characteristics of the Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama, the two
largest Muslim social organizations.

A: It's good as a beginning concept, especially in Java. But we
don't see it as a state of being but of becoming. There's a
possibility of convergence: santris can attract abangan, for example
in the organization of Indonesian Muslim intellectuals (ICMI, a
Suharto creation in late 1990). In a sense, there is a "neo-santri"
view emerging that is modernist, less traditionalist, and more
integrated with society.

A second trend is the emergence of spiritual Islam in the 1990s.
Those who were marginalized by Suharto withdrew from politics but
contributed to the cultural revival of Islam using symbols such as
the jilbab (headscarf). Another strain is the students, usually a
more radical group. In between is the mainstream, like the

Q: Religious tolerance today seems weighted against Christians.
It's difficult to set up a church now in Indonesia. Regarding
upholding Pancasila vs. shari'a, there is more shari'a now in Aceh
and West Sumatra. As a promising leader, what do you think?

A: I like that term. Thank you for your support. We need a
mechanism to prevent conflict between religious groups. I don't
believe the conflicts in Ambon and Poso were religious, but
conflicts where religion was being used. I invited religious leaders
of all denominations to a 6 hour dialogue at my home. I am working
on Muslim-Christian, Muslim-Chinese relations. The government is not
doing this. It has no strategic vision.

Q: Americans will be watching the release of Abu Bakar Ba'ashir with
interest. What will be the reaction in Indonesia?

A: There will be no reaction. He is a small fry, but you have made
him into a big fish. The MUI has issued a fatwa against terrorism
and ihtishad ("martyrdom operations," i.e. suicide bombings). We
oppose terror and violence, like the bar closings carried out by the
Front Pembela Islam group. It's up to the government to enforce the
law, not private groups.

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