Indonesia: Nusantara Islam and social justice
Paolo Affatato 5 December 2017

The future of Indonesian Islam, and with it that of the entire nation, involves the issue of addressing social justice. The 82-year-old Muslim leader Ahmad Syafii Maarif, now a member of the Presidential Committee for the Application of the Pancasila Ideology, a committee of ten members created by President Joko Widodo to preserve and implement the “Charter of five principles” (Pancasila) at the foundations of this nation, is convinced of this.

Maarif is the eminence grise of Indonesian Islam and the incarnation of those principles of profound wisdom and farsightedness that younger Islamic leaders and thinkers often lack. This because they are all too often influenced by a greatly mediatised culture and conditioned by a search for consensus that is achieved using new means such as social networks, even in the vast and comprehensive Indonesian Islamic world.

Syafii Maarif has seen much water flow under the bridges. He grew up and was educated during Indonesia’s post-independence period, marked by President Sukarno. He lived through the times of General Suharto’s dictatorship and then experienced, as a protagonist, the country’s democratic reawakening, leading one of Indonesian civil society’s most important Islamic organisations, the Muhammadiyah, towards ideas and actions oriented at coexistence and religious pluralism which is also anchored to the principles of the Pancasila.

It must be added, as he likes to candidly admit, that Ahmad Syafii Maarif was not born a pluralist. He was obliged to travel to the ends of the earth to achieve his own very personal “conversion” to a vision of Islam that encourages and even fosters peaceful coexistence, human rights, respect for all religious traditions, as well as the principles of tolerance and pluralism.

Born on the island of Sumatra, where a rather traditionalist Islamic practice is widespread – and there is now one province, Aceh, in the north of the island where sharia is applied – Maarif never dreamt of becoming a political and religious leader. Born to a family of humble origins, his life changed when he moved to Java to continue his studies at the Mu’allimin Islamic College, run by the Muhammadiyah in the city of Yogyakarta. It was 1955 and Indonesia was a young nation about to hold its first democratic elections. Just like many of his companions in the Muhammadiyah, Maarif was enthusiastic about the birth of the Masyumi Islamic Party, which even advocated the creation of an Islamic state. As a vigorous activist during those turbulent years, Maarif often wrote articles to support the Masyumi Party’s vision and plans. With Sukarno’s ascent to power and his ideas of a “guided democracy”, Maarif became even more convinced that a more markedly Islamic state could be the panacea for the country.

At the end of the Seventies, when Indonesia had been ruled by Suharto for fifteen years, Maarif travelled to the United States and met with the Pakistani philosopher Fazlur Rahman, at the time a professor at the University of Chicago. Thanks to a heated debate with Rahman, Maarif radically changed his approach and formed religious ideas and a philosophical outlook very different from those of his past. He was to say, “I have never found the expression “Islamic state” in the Koran or in classical Islamic literature. This expression started to circulate in the mid-20th century. There are no references to this in Islam’s primary sources.”

On his return to Indonesia, he was greatly criticised, but the changes that had developed not without intellectual and spiritual affliction, permeate his Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxy, remaining a crucial moment in his personal history.

Maarif found himself appointed president of the Muhammadiyah, a position he held until 2005. Nowadays he is an icon of pluralism, a strenuous defender of the Pancasila and a beacon of hope for Indonesian democracy, thanks to his intense activity as a contributing editor and columnist that has made him one of the most influential and ever-present commentators on the Indonesian political stage. Maarif is well-aware of the challenges his country must now face, such as extreme poverty or the exploitation of religion in the political arena. After leaving the leadership of the Muhammadiyah and free of all institutional assignments, Maarif has continued to intervene in the public debate, especially about Islam’s role in society and in politics, without ever losing his optimism as far as the nation’s future is concerned. Reset met with him in Yogyakarta so as to better understand the historical phase now experienced by Indonesian Islam.

Professor Maarif, the international community is worried about the appeal of Islamic radicalism that seems to be infecting Indonesia. Is this perception correct? What phase is Indonesian Islam, and therefore Indonesian society, currently experiencing?

Alarm in the international mass media has been caused by some news and events such as the election of the governor of Jakarta (where the former Christian governor of Chinese ethnic origin, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, was defeated by the Muslim Anies Baswedan and put in prison, charged with blasphemy against Islam, Editor’s note).This is all the result of the increasingly visible and loud presence of Islamic radical groups on the political stage. These groups not only provide a mistaken interpretation of Islam, but also exploit religion and use it for political objectives. According to some surveys, 10% of Indonesians are supposedly supporters of groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Front Pembela Islam. On the basis of my experience, I believe the percentage is lower and not destined to rise. The government, on the other hand, has adopted clear provisions to contain and oppose these groups, which risk being banned. One is under the clear impression that they consist of a small, albeit visible, minority that is well-organised and makes itself heard. The vast majority of the Indonesian people do not appreciate radical Islamism and do not want a Caliphate. After a long period of history that started with Sukarno and extends to the current democratic season, Indonesians are clear as far as  the national ideology of the Pancasila is concerned. That charter remains the compass that will never be abandoned; on the contrary, we are working on strengthening it so that it penetrates the consciousness of every citizen and is really implemented throughout society.

The Pancasila is now seventy years old. You are a member of the committee created by President Widodo to increase its impact on society. However, considering the country as it stands, is it really respected in today’s Indonesia? Have the five principles been put into practice in these past decades? What deficiencies are there?

We believe firmly in the Pancasila as the basis for national coexistence. The five principles (belief in the One and Only God; a just and civilized humanity; a unified Indonesia; democracy, led by the wisdom of the representatives of the People; social justice for all Indonesians) remain a beacon, and inspiration for the younger generations, within the framework of fostering tolerance and opposing fanaticism in every form. The Pancasila has characterised our history and guarantees a bright future for pluralism and democracy in our country.

Unfortunately, nowadays in Indonesia too many people and too many political leaders praise the Pancasila with their words, but betray it with their actions. One of the five principles is social justice and I believe this is a principle we have not yet achieved. The challenge faced by the nation today is that of bridging the gap between the wealthy elite and the mass of poor people. This is a problem that is closely linked to Islamic radicalism. Poverty is the mother of radicalism and the battle against poverty is crucial for containing terrorism. Many of our problems and our social disorder are a consequence of a combination of social injustice and deviated Arabism. However, if the principle of social justice becomes reality, I am convinced that radical groups will vanish of their own accord and have no more followers. I am certain that these extremist Islamic groups have nothing to offer this country. They are funded by foreign nations, they organise their propaganda, but do not have deep roots in Indonesia’s Islam and social fabric. Although I am well-aware of the present challenges, and the issue should not be remotely underestimated, I am certain that Islamic radicalism is anti-historical and not very farsighted. I consider myself an optimist; it is only a question of time before extremist groups vanish. Our future is strongly anchored to the Pancasila. Indonesians will understand that and that is why the presidential committee I am a member of, will work on programmes involving development, welfare and the eradication of poverty.

When one speaks of Indonesian Islam, the main references are two historical organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nadhaltul Ulama. Could you enlighten us regards to their positions today? Do you think they are implementing an effective and incisive policy to oppose radical and jihadist propaganda?

With its over one hundred years of history and 35 million members, the Muhammadiyah is the oldest Indonesian Islamic organisation, with a great tradition of social commitment both in the fields of education and welfare. It is now called upon to rediscover its roots and its history, sailing a straight course against all radical temptation or contamination. In recent times, it has been criticised, but I believe the Muhammadiyah must take such criticism seriously and learn from it, re-emphasising its real identity as a modern, moderate organisation, open to dialogue and a promotor of Indonesian Islam. Our Islam, although free of all syncretism, has particular aspects and differs from Arabic Islam. It should be said that some of the organisation’s influential members have studied in Saudi Arabia, bringing to the Muhammadiyah ideas typical of the Wahhabi doctrine. I believe, however, that the moderate current will prevail and win the internal debate. The radical tendencies present in some local leaders are not predominant and the current leadership is in a search of a balance between the various schools of thought. I remain convinced that the line enhancing the Pancasila, and that is interested directly in the population’s living standards, is the one that will prevail. I sincerely hope so, also because that is the organisation’s original spirit, characterised by a “social philosophy” that emphasises action over ideas. If not transformed into action, faith and philosophy are useless and mean nothing; the founding fathers of the Muhammadiyah were all aware of the people’s unfortunate conditions, not only under colonial rule, but also being poor and illiterate. The Muhammadiyah has untiringly spread its network and social, educational and humanitarian work, convinced that poverty, illiteracy and superstition are the real enemies of humankind’s progress. This revolution has effectively taken place and schools, madrassas, hospitals, orphanages and other forms of social aid have been created all across the archipelagos, alongside hospitals, clinics, centres to assist families and centres for community development. The history of the Muhammaddiyah proves that, from the very beginning, Indonesian Islam has been the driving force for social reform and for the creation of an ethically just society. Faith and social justice cannot be separated and it is from that concept that we now need to start again.

What can you tell us about Nadhaltul Ulama?

It is the largest Indonesian Islamic organisation with 50 million members and therefore its contribution to this historical period is crucial. I believe it is doing well in maintaining a position opposed to all forms of radicalism and extremism, always sponsoring “Islam Nusantara”, which is the typical version and vision of Islam experienced in Indonesia. Islamic values have merged with local cultures and traditions and it is this process that has resulted in the social system known as “Islam Nusantara”, which is not a new sect or belief, but the result of this peculiar blending process. In this sense, Islam Nusantara is not only a geographical concept, but rather a philosophical concept or intuition as far as mentality and values are concerned. Our Islam is characterised by a culture of encounters, of dialogue and peace, of establishing friendly relations with different cultures and religions. In the name of this characteristic form of Islam, the Nahdlatul Ulama has clearly assumed a position against all forms of radical Islam, relying on a reawakening among Muslim Indonesians of a sense of nationalism and commitment to the values of the Pancasila, which are indeed “ours” and not imported from abroad.

Do you believe that Islam is fully compatible with human rights?

I believe that Islam is fully and naturally compatible with democracy, human rights and human dignity. Fundamental rights and freedoms are integrally part of the Islamic religion. No one has the power or the right to violate or ignore them, since these are divine commandments contained in the Book of Revelation. Every Muslim is personally responsible just as the Ummah is collectively responsible for safeguarding them. Indonesia is the land of religious pluralism and will remain so. It will be able to embody within the international community a real example of Islam’s full compatibility with democracy and universal human rights.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Credit: Tarko Sudiarno / AFP