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Islamic conversations

Published: Sep 22, 2007
Islam is more important today than ever before. Four leading individuals state their case.

Hisanori Kato

'Milik pribumi', owned by natives. I saw this sign on the shutters of shops from the window of a city minibus. Its owners first put up the sign to avoid the wrath of rioters targeting Chinese businesses last May. At the end of September 1998, everything in Jakarta seemed normal, except this sign and some ruined buildings.

I knew something significant was going on in this society. Democratisation? Reformation? Or political manoeuvre for survival? I really wanted to find out what it was. So I decided to visit the people who would be key players in this 'something'.

Gus Dur

His doctor advised Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately known as Gus Dur and the chairperson of Nahdatul Ulama, to work less. But his life seemed as hectic as before his operation in January 1998. I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with him. His warm, friendly and humorous nature made me feel at home, and brought lots of laughs to our discussion.

Yet he became serious when I asked him about racial and religious tension in Indonesia. 'Muslims blame non-Muslims (mainly ethnic Chinese), and also non-Muslims complain about their condition. This needs to be reconciled.' He went on: 'I am very much willing to head a National Reconciliation Committee if it is formed.'

'What do you think Suharto should do now?' I asked him. 'He should return all the money he collected during his presidency to the treasury of Indonesia, and apologise to the people.' 'That is a good idea. Would you tell Suharto to do it?' 'It might be hard for Suharto to come to me directly. But if he sends his daughter Tutut to me, I would pass on the message. If Suharto does it, I will do everything to clear his name.' And he laughed.

Gus Dur talked about the wrongdoings of Suharto's government - human rights abuses and corruption. But he is realistic about the prospects of immediate change. 'Change is a process. It takes a long time to change something. I think it might take two more elections to have civilians for both president and vice- president. Also, Abri's dual function can not be abolished right away.'

Knowing that some Nahdatul Ulama (NU) intellectuals are frustrated with Gus Dur's 'realist' political stance and autocratic attitude, I asked him about conflict within NU. 'I listen to other people's opinions, but I have to make a decision in the end. I know some people, especially young intellectuals, are not happy with my "slow" approach to reformation. But we talk about it. We also laugh about it. It is OK to have different attitudes and ideas because I belong to "Today's Generation" while they belong to "Tomorrow's Generation".'

I just nodded because I knew that although some NU people are critical of Gus Dur, they love him as they do their own fathers. He mentioned several NU young people as Tomorrow's Generation, and he also added Amien Rais. This was rather surprising to me.

Amien Rais

TV crews from Korea and America, journalists from Italy and three Indonesian magazines were waiting for Amien Rais when I had an appointment with him. He was a major player in the movement that brought down Suharto, and is now a presidential candidate as chairperson of the National Mandate Party. The party is based in the religious organisation Muhammadiyah, which Amien Rais chaired until recently.

I had little confidence I would be able to interview him on that day. However, I managed to catch him when he stepped out of his office. 'Pak Amien, do you remember when you were writing your PhD dissertation in Chicago? I am now in the same position. Would you spare some time for me?' He looked at me, and smiled. 'OK, I can give you some time.'

My first question to him was very simple. 'Did you change?' I had in mind the reports in times past that he was anti-Christian. He immediately said: 'Yes, it is a natural process. A stone never changes, I am not a stone.' 'In what way did you change?', I asked. 'I now have more appreciation of the plurality of the nation, and feel the necessity of building a strong nation.'

He told me of the time about three months earlier when Jakob Oetama, chief editor of the largely Catholic daily Kompas, came to visit him. He said: 'Amien, you are moving from a leader of Muhammadiyah to a leader of the nation. You need to make a step to be a leader of this nation'. 'It was exactly what I was feeling', Amien Rais went on, 'so I agreed with him, and here I am now.'

His willingness to lead the country was expressed throughout our conversation. As his ideas sounded very much like Gus Dur's, I asked him what he thought about the difference between the two. 'Probably, Gus Dur would be happy if more positions go to NU. But I want more than that, I want the leadership of the nation.'

At the same time, he was aware of criticism of his political style. 'I know that I am too straight and "un-Indonesian",' he said. 'But it doesn't really matter to me. It is better to express my opinions explicitly rather than hiding them.'

My last question to him was also simple. 'Who are your political heroes?' After a short pause, he said: 'J F Kennedy, Churchill, Gorbachev, Neru... of course, Sukarno, too.' Fadli Zon

Fadli Zon probably has a reputation as a hard-line Muslim. This young intellectual is one of the chairpersons of the recently established Moon and Star Party (Partai Bulan Bintang), which brings together some of the ideals and personalities of the intensely Islamic Masyumi party of the 1950s. He is always willing to explain his political stance. The main goal of his party, he said diplomatically, is to establish a 'better system'.

'I think Indonesian farmers should be protected. For example, wheat imports from America hinder the prosperity of Indonesian farmers. This has to be changed. To establish a fair system is important,' he said.

According to him, the pribumi (native Indonesians) are lagging behind in the economy. 'Affirmative action is necessary until the pribumi can stand on the same line as the non-pribumi,' he explained.

However, he said he did not approve of the anti-Chinese violence symbolised by the 'Milik pribumi' signs. 'Islamic principle is to protect minority peoples', he said clearly. 'This should be done by law.'

His party is regarded as more Islamic-oriented than the others, so I wanted to know about his idea of an Islamic state. 'We are not proposing an Islamic state, but are promoting a better system.'

'How about Pancasila?' I asked, referring to the ideology that has since 1945 been seen as a bulwark against both a communist and an Islamic state. 'We agree with it as a basic idea of the nation, but disagree that everyone has to accept it as a principle. Let political parties choose their own ideologies except communism.'

The last conversation I had with him was about his stay in America as an exchange student when he was in high school. 'I was in Texas for a year. My host family was Christian and they are nice people. I still keep in touch with them. They are my friends.'

Bismar Siregar

'I love Suharto.' It was not in the early 1990s, but September 1998. I was stunned when a seventy-year old former Supreme Court judge said this to me. For Bismar Siregar, Islamic moral principle is crucial in Indonesia today. 'In Islam, forgiveness is very important. Love others as you do yourself.' Looking at his gentle eyes, I remembered a Japanese Buddhist word: jihi, compassion.

As a legal expert, Bismar is of course well aware of Suharto's misdeeds. However, he dares to say that reconciliation can not be realised without forgiveness. He believes that forgiving Suharto would make him repent. It seems that almost everyone in Indonesia today hates Suharto. But Bismar thinks it is hypocrisy when people who enjoyed the New Order now criticise Suharto. 'Suharto's fault is one part of our fault, too', he added, as if he were telling himself.

When I left his office, he said 'Goodbye' in Japanese. He learned it during the Japanese occupation. I believe that he has already forgiven Japanese militarism. I thanked him for his compassion. And I wondered how Suharto would respond to Bismar.

Political development in Indonesia is rapid. Gus Dur, Amien Rais, and Fadli Zon are associated with major political parties such as the NU-based National Awakening Party PKB, the National Mandate Party PAN, and the Moon and Star Party PBB. We know that their path is not smooth. Just how PKB implements Gus Dur's modern and tolerant ideas will make a crucial difference. PAN is also struggling to maintain its inclusive orientation. The sensitive issue of the protection of minorities is always around PBB.

Only time will tell what will happen. Yet, one thing for sure is that the seeds of change and the will to create a better society exist in Indonesia. And the idea of democracy is ubiquitous. The conversations with four Muslims prove this.

Hisanori Kato is a PhD student in the School of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney. He comes from Japan.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999

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