Wednesday, August 04, 2004

"I am for Islam. But I am against an Islamic state" 

Encouraging words from the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at an international gathering of religious scholars organised by the World Council of Churches in Kuala Lumpur:

"If we fail to [resist the extremists], we risk having our religion hijacked by those who promote hatred and violence. We risk ceding ground to those who do not see the need to live in peace with other religions... We cannot allow our religions to be torn apart by extremist impulses. We must be committed in promoting the values of peace, tolerance and plurality."
On the minus side: "Abdullah said that in the eyes of many Muslims, events in the last three years seem to lent credence to the view that the Christian West was again at war with the Muslim world." This despite of the fact that the current governments of both Afghanistan and Iraq are very much Islamic (though, fortunately not Islamist), and after the respective elections will hopefully resemble Malaysia's own government much more than their own predecessors. On the plus side: the conference included a delegate from Israel and an Israeli flag was included with others on the ceiling of the conference hall.

While we're on the topic of encouraging words, some two weeks ago an Israeli paper "Haaretz" ran an interview with
Abdurrahman Wahid, the former President of Indonesia and still an influential figure in what is the world's largest Muslim country (as well as a working democracy). Parts of the interview bear quoting at length:

Haaretz: You are known in Israel as a friend. This is quite unusual for an Islamic leader.

Wahid: I think there is a wrong perception that Islam is in disagreement with Israel. This is caused by Arab propaganda. We have to distinguish between Arabs and Islam. Some people in Indonesia claimed that I was a stooge for the West, but the fact that I am gaining in popularity all the time dispels this idea, and shows that this is the view of only a small minority of the elite. I always say that China and the Soviet Union have or had atheism as part of their constitution, but we have long-term relationships with both these countries. So then Israel has a reputation as a nation with a high regard for God and religion - there is then no reason we have to be against Israel.

Haaretz: What about the Koran's statements against the Jews?

Wahid: The Koran is an historical document. When Benazir Bhutto was president of Pakistan, a high-ranking Islamic clergyman from Pakistan came to visit me at the offices of the Nahdlatul Ulama, and asked me to issue a fatwa against Bhutto. But why? I asked him. 'Because the Koran says that it is a calamity for a woman to be a leader,' he answered. 'Yes,' I said. 'At the time when the Koran was written, leaders had to lead their men in battle, had to ride at the head of commercial caravans heading through the desert, and so on. That is why they were all males. Leadership was personalized. Now it is institutional. Bhutto can't make a decision without her cabinet, the cabinet must bend to the legislature, and the legislature to the Supreme Court - who are all male.' 'Yes, yes,' he said. 'I see your point.' But he still wanted the fatwa. It is hard sometimes to break with the past, but we can't avoid it. We must continuously reinterpret the Koran...

Haaretz: Is Islamic fundamentalism spreading in Indonesia?

Wahid: No. The bombings and terrorist activity were because of our weak governments that didn't want to take action. Now that the U.S. and Australia have become so angry about terrorism, action is being taken.

Haaretz: Why was the Indonesian government reluctant to take action before?

Wahid: Because Megawati was afraid, though as FDR said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Haaretz: Is Islamic fundamentalism spreading among the poor? Are TV stations such as Al Arabia and Al Jazeera, which are centered in the Middle East but have a global reach, helping Middle Eastern Islamic ideas to penetrate into Indonesia?

Wahid: No. Indonesian Muslims respond to moderation, not fundamentalism. And even the majority of the Arabs are against what is being broadcast or printed in the news. When you think that the Palestinians are ruled by the so-called suicidal bombers, you are wrong. The problem is how to cope with the militant minority. What is needed is moral courage, which Yasser Arafat has not shown. The current prime minister, [Ahmed] Qureia, is more moderate, and the fact that he was selected shows that the fundamentalists are having a hard time convincing people. What is needed now is an act of dismantling, piece by piece. I hope Qureia will last long enough...

Haaretz: What is your understanding about what is going on in Iraq right now?

Wahid: The Iraqi people have shown their disregard for Saddam Hussein. They have said that dictatorship must end, and human rights violations must be punished. But they have not developed the attitude of accepting western superiority in politics and civilization. That is important. I also think George W. Bush is bogged down in trying to create a civil society there because he miscalculated. He didn't realize the differences between Kurd, Sunni and Shi'ite. It's not that he was wrong. He just didn't consider those things...

Haaretz: What can Israel and the Jews do to create peace between Islam and Judaism?

Wahid: All sides have to do justice. Sometimes the Arabic governments act without justice, and sometimes the Israeli government acts unjustly. You have to examine yourself, and so do the Arabs, to see where you are wrong. What is more important is that you need leaders that trust the other side. With your leader against Arafat and Arafat against Israel, there is no hope. Negotiations can be held only by people that trust each other.

Haaretz: Does the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East pose a problem for Islam?

Wahid: Only if you think Islam dictates that we have an Islamic state. All the states that claim to be Islamic are in trouble. Muslims everywhere, if they could vote, would reject an Islamic state. Not because they are against Islam. I am for Islam. But I am against an Islamic state.

Haaretz: Can the moderate form of Islam found in Indonesia influence other Islamic countries?

Wahid: We have so many terrorists and Islamic militants because there is no leadership in the Islamic world. One of the objectives of my party is to make Indonesia the leader of the Islamic world, and thus prevent people like Osama bin Laden from emerging. He is heard only because there is no other voice. The voice of the Islamic kings and rulers are not heard because they are all despots.

Haaretz: Would you like a final word to say to Israel?

Wahid: Keep up your work, and be true to yourself. That is enough.
All I can say: less Osamas, more Wahids.


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