Sat, 12 Feb 2000

Islam is politically difficult to describe

Acting chairman of Muhammadiyah, the country's second largest Muslim organization, Ahmad Syafii Maarif, shares his views with The Jakarta Post on Islam in politics today and the Maluku issue which has flared religious sentiments. Here is an excerpt:

Question:How do you see the position of Islam in current political life?

Answer: As a sociological phenomenon, Islam is just like other religions. As a political one, it's difficult to describe. As a doctrine, there is only one Islam. But there are many political expressions, so it's quite likely that different Muslim groups are in dispute with one another. That's the problem.

But that's not new, and it doesn't happen only in Indonesia. It has been a problem throughout history. So it's not easy to make conflicts stop immediately and avoid further generations from inheriting the disputes.

We cannot just tell the younger generation to be devout and respect other religions. Islam is a doctrine with no guarantee that it is applicable in daily life. The interpretation very much depends on the interpreters' interest. Just like in politics.

Could we say that the result of the last general election reflects the political position of Islam in the country?

What we have from the 1999 election is a result of shock. We have never had a real election since 1955. What we had over the 40 years since then was nothing but elections full of "engineering".

The result cannot yet be viewed as the real portrait of the actual power of the contesting political parties.

Why did the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) obtain 133 seats of the 462 seats contested? The party was very much helped by the incident of July 27, 1996.

People were sympathetic to the oppressed, and PDI Perjuangan happened to be oppressed by the government. That was more a psychological matter than a political one.

Some say that Islam is now more radical. Your comment?

Which Islam do you mean? There are so many in Islam. As far as I'm concerned, the radical ones are always minority groups. Major groups (like) Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, for example, have never been radical.

How do you define the term "radical"?

A radical group is a group that always wants to change things. They are usually revolutionary, too. They want to change things quickly and sometimes they have only hollow and immature considerations.

Can we say that the call for a jihad is a radical attitude?

You may say so. But in the case of Maluku jihad is the right thing to do. What is not right is if it is spread to other regions. Islam says that revenge should only be taken against the guilty party, not others. That is not allowed and it is unfair. But it was overflow from the late handling of Maluku; what happened in Mataram (capital of Lombok) recently obviously had nothing to do with what happened in Maluku.

This is exactly what we all are concerned about. Why? It was mostly the Sundanese community from the West Java town of Sukabumi which was chased from Maluku. Our concern is the possibility of a riot elsewhere, like in Sukabumi, given our paralyzed security personnel. ... They have not taken the role of the state apparatus but are (tools) of particular individuals, families or conglomerates ...

However, the (Mataram) case has been quickly handled. Some have been arrested. You see, when it was Muslims (who incited the riot), it (the government) could quickly arrest them ...

A call for jihad has emerged because Muslims think they have been treated cruelly for too long. I have supporting data that Muslims have suffered the most in Maluku.

The Muslim community there clearly was not ready for such an attack. There is also evidence that the attackers have used military weapons probably gained from RMS (the Republic of South Maluku) group. (A high-ranking officer) who happens to be from one of the province's islands provided me with data about the attackers. I also obtained the same data from some Ambonese.

Is there any special requirement in order for Muslims to conduct a jihad?

Yes, it is when we are being treated tyrannically. The Koran says whoever is acting outlandishly, then make him or her pay as much as what he or she has done (to you). If they destroy your house and kill your brothers or sisters, you may also burn their houses and kill them. Of course, it would be better if you could forgive them.

The Maluku case also indicates that the police and the military have failed to keep the peace. They took sides ... (non- Muslims have also accused security personnel of siding with Muslims -- Ed.). It's very critical. The burning of places of worship, the killings, it's been like hell.

How has Muhammadiyah reacted?

We have repeatedly said that it's no longer enough for the government to just make statements. They have to do something. Thank God they finally did, by sending at least 17 battalions there. They won't be withdrawn before a peaceful situation is obtained there. That's very good. What Muslims are asking for is just neutral troops. That's all.

What should the government do to guarantee troops' neutrality?

It has to be selective. If necessary only Hindu troops should be sent there. Experience shows that the local Chief Police who is a Hindu, gained a very good image among Muslims there because he truly has not sided with any group.

Some said that what happened in Maluku is a legacy of sin of the previous regime. Do you agree?

It started in the 16th century when the Portuguese, who were Catholics, arrived, followed by the Dutch, who were Christians.

What has been happening is nothing but the abuse of religion. Religion has been used as a political vehicle. Once religion is abused, its basic values are betrayed.

Which party abused religion in this case?

Mostly the attackers, in this case the Christians (the same allegations have come from non-Muslims -- Ed.) There are many indications. One is that they (the attackers) cried out "RMS" (Republic of South Maluku) while attacking Muslims.

They also do not like their Muslim governor although the percentage of the Muslim population was 59.5 percent, while that of non-Muslims was 40.5 percent. The latter comprises 35.5 percent Protestant and the rest are Catholics. Since most Muslims have been chased from Ambon, the ratio of the Muslim and non- Muslim community in Ambon is now maybe 35 percent to 65 percent. Do you see the involvement of Jakarta's elite in the conflict?

It's very probable. There are three dominant groups in the region: the Maluku Protestant Church, RMS and supporters of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) who are mostly Christian. In a recent meeting at Borobudur Hotel in Jakarta, (TNI Chief of General Affairs and former commander of the Wirabuana military command) Lt. Gen. Suaidi Marasabessy provided clear elaboration on the matter. No one could deny that.

Why do you think the government has been so slow in handling the sectarian conflict in the region?

It's because of the inability of both President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri. It's a new thing for both of them to manage the state ...

Do you see a solution to the conflict?

In the short term, the sending of a large number of troops is the best solution. Hopefully they can be a mediator to restore peace.

In the long term, it could take one or two generations to make all the conflicting parties really cool down. Blood relations (among conflicting parties) no longer means anything to them.

It was initially not a problem of religion. Rather, it was a matter of socioeconomic jealousy between Muslims and Christians, as most Muslims were prosperous. There is also an everlasting historical grudge; Christians have wanted to increase the ratio of their population.

The first thing to do, therefore, is to stop the slaughter right away. Then approaches based on tradition, religion and economic recovery could be done eventually.

How do you see the distancing in relations between President Abdurrahman Wahid and "reformist" Muslim leader Amien Rais?

I don't see it as a problem. It was just something that the media blew up.

The President said the "one million" gathering of Muslims last month, in which Amien Rais was a speaker, was part of the effort to remove him from office.

That's just because the President didn't get complete information about the event. He might have got it from somebody who whispered it to him, not from a written official report.

What about growing public allegations that Amien Rais, the former Muhammadiyah chairman and leader of the Muslim "axis force", is sectarian?

It's an irresponsible accusation stated without clear reason. Amien is indeed a very accommodative figure. It's a big mistake to call him a provocateur. I'm not defending him; he is obviously able to defend himself. Amien has always been responsible for everything he does. He probably gave partial comments regarding the accusation. Yet, when he sees the time has come, he will surely provide us with a comprehensive explanation.

Regarding his outspoken remarks, could we say that Amien is radical in the sense that he has always wanted to make change?

Radical in thinking, probably yes, but not in action. The nation surely has to thank Amien for being radical in thinking. Could you imagine what the nation would be if Soeharto was still in power up to 2004? We have to differentiate between radical in thinking and in action. Acting radically without taking into account the existing political and social situation would only result in destruction. I believe Amien Rais is not such a person. (Sri Wahyuni)