Working with Muslims for a better INDONESIA
Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ
When I came to Indonesia almost 52 years ago as a young German Jesuit scholastic I had no real idea about Indonesian Islam. I knew that most of the Indonesian Christians came from regions of the country that had not been Islamized. But I knew also that the Jesuits – at that time many of them were still Dutch missionaries – worked among Javanese Catholics, and the Javanese where regarded as Muslim. In fact, Javanese, presently about one million, are the biggest ethnically homogenous group among the Indonesian Catholics. Most of my Indonesian confreres are themselves Javanese. They were second or third generation Catholics, some of them even first generation Catholics, coming from formally Muslim families.
In fact, to my knowledge, the Javanese are the only Islamized ethnic group from where significant Christian Churches came into existence. The Javanese who became Christians came from what Clifford Geertz in his magisterial The Religion of Java (Glencoe 1961) had described as abangan and priyai, namely the Javanese peasant and aristocratic upper classes that had only superficially been Islamized. Against all new cultural and religious trends, they maintained their “Javanese religious” whose central experience is that the person will find the Divine at the bottom of his or her heart, that the faculty to be developed in order to be able to become aware of this divine ground of the soul was feeling (rasa). Hence people must feel attracted to God. That God guides a person is a cherished idea. Javanese culture gives high value to religious tolerance since a person feels herself in which direction she is drawn by God. Outer forms of religion were only ladders to discover the essence of religion, union with the Divine as one’s origin and final end.
Put into a more political context this meant that the Javanese, even Indonesians in general, distinguished between “nationalists” and “Islamists”. The former were, of course, also mostly Muslim, but they did not allow Islam to colour their political allegiances while the “Islamists” engaged in politics on the basis of their Islamic belief. Christians naturally kept to the “nationalists” who up to this day are the political majority in Indonesia. With the “real” Muslims we had almost no contact. An exception was where Catholic politicians always had very close personal relations with the big Muslim Masyumi Party. What united them was support for democracy and distrust of the communists.
This situation began to change under Indonesia’s second president, General Suharto. On the one hand, ongoing human rights violations made support for his regime more and more problematic. On the other hand some of the Catholics began to realize that as a minority, this would only have a securely accepted position in Indonesia if they succeeded in building up trusting relations with “real” Muslims. This called for a change from the old ‘win – lose’ relationship with “real” Islam to a ‘win – win’ relationship. This was a significant development in the Indonesian Catholic Church, where was later followed by the mainstream Protestant Churches also. We now have quite good relations with mainstream Islam which have proved themselves to be of invaluable help in the many smaller conflicts that arose.
My personal contacts with Muslims came through my profession as a political philosopher with specialization in ethics. Working with Indonesians meant working with Muslims, sunce 98% of Indonesia is Muslim. In 1977 I became an Indonesian citizen, contacts with Muslims became something normal happening everyday. I also got involved with Muslim organizations and Muslim personalities.
My first such encounter happened in 1971. A former pupil of mine at the Canisius high school in Jakarta, Akbar Tanjung who later became state minister under Suharto, and leader of Suharto’s Golkar party after Suharto’s fall. He is still very influential. He as a politician, in my eyes, has preserved his basic integrity. I am proud of him. He had become head of the mighty Islamic Student Association (HMI). He invited me to a meeting of the leaders of HMI to talk about democracy. Since then I had always close relationship to HMI, I was often invited to talk about democracy, human rights, social justice at their national caderization courses. I remember, somewhere during the 80s, under Suharto (where Marxism and communism were strictly forbidden) that HMI students invited me to talk about Marx and Lenin (where I am regarded as a specialist). We agreed to meet in front of the big Ciputat mosque. I came on my vespa. And indeed, there was a student waiting. He mounted the seat behind me and directed me into the kampung, through narrow lanes until we came to a house where about 40 male and women students, the latter with their head scarves, waited for me and we discussed Marx and Lenin for two hours. For a similar purpose I was invited by students to Lembang, a mountain resort outside the West Javanese city of Bandung, to the Kinderdorf, actually a place where children were helped. There we met in a big hall which made eavesdropping by government agents impossible. I had many unusual experiences. At another caderization course of HMI, somewhere behind the huge Islamic State University, I had, again to talk about democracy, when a student from Aceh asked me why Christians taught that Isa was the Son of God actually I was always prepared to these kind of questions. But the student moderator did not allow the question and afterwards they apologized, saying, that “some our students are still a bit fanatical”. Once during Ramadan I was invited at about 2’clock in the afternoon to talk to HMI students and they placed water and snacks on my table saying, Father (they use the Javanese word Romo), please do drink and eat, no problem with us (in the fasting season). I liked this (of course but I did not drink or eat something). Even at my advanced age of 76 years I am invited by Muslim students.
But my most important doors into Islam came from two of the most impressive intellectual Muslim leaders of Indonesia with whom I had the good fortune to become friendly. They were actually two of the most impressive persons I met in my life. The first one was Nurcholish Madjid. He had been leader of the HMI before Akbar Tanjung. He had already a name as a young daring Muslim leader because of his thesis that secularization is demanded by Islam, and especially because of his saying: "Islam yes, Islamic (political) parties no". I met him in 1973 at a meeting of Catholic student chaplains in the mountains South of Jakarta where Nucholish had been invited to talk to us. I used the opportunity to ask him to teach "Islamology" at my Driyarkara School of Philosophy which he accepted. After one year he found a replacement, young Djohan Effendi, who taught for twenty years at our place. Djohan Effendi later became, and up to now is, one of the leading figures in the Indonesian movement for pluralism, a co-founder of ICRP (Indonesian Conference of Religion and Peace) and under Abdurrachman Wahid secretary of the state.
Coming back to Nurcholish, he then went to study under Fazlur Rahman in Chicago. In the early 80s he returned and became the leading, if controversial Indonesian Muslim theologian. He was sharply attacked because of his inclusivistic views on salvation. According to him "Islam" means surrender, thus whoever surrenders to the Absolute is a Muslim and as such can go to heaven. He was the one chosen on May 20 1998 to tell President Suharto that it was time for him to step down. In the 80s he founded Paramadina where open lectures on Islam and other subjects were given. I also gave some lectures there, which later evolved into Paramadina University, where many female Muslim students go without covering their heads; Paramadina also used to offer an Islamic a marriage ceremony for mixed couples where the non-Muslim part was not obliged to embrace Islam. Among Muslims I was always regarded as his Catholic friend and a counterpart. I visited Nurcholish a few days before he died due to failure of a heart transplant. We were very close which did not mean that we had no differences. I once protested publicly some quite unqualified things he had said about Jesus. I am still close to Nurcholish's group.
The second was Abdurrachman Wahid, or as he was popularly called "Gus Dur". Gus Dur was of highest Muslim aristocracy. His grandfather was the founder of Nadlatul Ulama, with 40 million members the biggest Muslim organization in the world. His Father was one of the founding fathers of Indonesia and several times, a government minister. He did studies according to him, mostly by going to the cinema, in Iraq and Cairo. I learned first of him from his excellent articles on national and religious questions in the (Catholic) daily Kompas. Since the end of the 70s I met him often, he sometime came to Driyarkara. I remember in 1983 when incidentally I was put into the same hotel room with him in connection with a seminar, when he explained to me for two hours why the Indonesian Bishops Conference should accept Suharto's guideline that every organization in Indonesia had to be based on the five state principles of Pancasila and not on religion. He told me, NU (Nadlatul Ulama) would do so also. After three months young Gus Dur was, to my surprise, chosen to become head of NU (which position he held for 15 years, against all attempts by Suharto to dethrone him). In 1992 Gus Dur founded a Democracy Forum with intellectuals of all religious affiliations. I belonged to the inner circle of about seven core members. The forum angered Suharto while what we did was just meeting every two weeks, eating Chinese noodles and gossiping. In 1999 Gus Dur became president of Indonesia although at that time he was practically blind. After less than two years he was constitutionally deposed, because of this reason, but he stayed extremely popular in Indonesia. After he had to step down I bought him from Germany all nine beloved symphonies of Beethoven - he, being blind, had lost his CD's with Beethoven when leaving the palace. He was the most important voice for a pluralistic Islam. He always defended minorities. As President he gave official recognition to Confucianism as the sixth officially recognized religion in Indonesia. He died in 2008. His grave in East Java is now a place of pilgrimage were more than thousand people visit his grave everyday. He is now nothing less than a Muslim saint.
From Gus Dur I learned what kind of people Muslims were. I learned how they thought, how they laughed, what worried them and what more. He introduced me to the kiais, the traditional charismatic leaders of the pesantrens, Islamic boarding schools, mostly run by NU (there are now about 20.000 pesantrens in Indonesia). There I met Muslim leaders that had this big typically Javanese self-confidence that makes it easy for them to communicate. I learned how they joked (even the holy Qur'an was not off limits). Under Gus Dur young intellectuals of NU became the leading edge of intellectuals in Indonesia, open minded, pluralistic, democratic and communicative. Because of Gus Dur the formally strange world of the pesantrens opened up to Christians. Now young Jesuits and other seminarians usually, during their formation, would have a one-week live-in in a pesantren.
Gus Dur was, no doubt, a figure of national stature. In spite of his easy going ways - his best known, and always used expression was "how can you make a fuss over such a small problem" (in Indonesian: gitu aje repot) especially when more fundamentalist Muslims complained about things. Gus Dur loved to make them angry and he could do it because nobody could doubt his Islamic credentials. He himself liked to stress that one of his ancestors was one of the legendary nine walis that brought Islam to Indonesia, namely Syech Siti Jenar who was actually a kind al-Hallaj figure who claimed to have reached such a high state of Sufism that he did not have to pray at certain hours and even could eat pork meat. He was burned on the stake, according to Javanese tradition not because of these claims (they still are widely, though silently, held by Javanese), but because he made it known to others who had not reached his mystical stage. When in 1996 a progrom happened in the East Javanese city of Situbondo and all 21 Christian churches were burned to the ground, Gus Dur initiated the recovery. He introduced the young Catholic parish priest Benny Susetyo to the kiais that lived in the many pesantrens around Situbondo. Father Benny was received with open arms. The kiais expressed their horror at what had happened and pledged their help in rebuilding the churches. I have seen a photograph of a recollection in the Catholic church of Situbondo, the walls still blackened from the fire, still without a roof, where among the parishioners were 50 Muslim santris.
The title I gave this account of my experience with Muslims is "working with Muslims for a better Indonesia". Actually, working for a better Indonesia is what unites Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. We usually do not dialogue about our religious differences and beliefs, but how to solve Indonesia's problems, both on the national and on the local level. I meet Muslims, of course, as my students at our Driyarkara School of Philosophy where not only the seminarians of the archdiocese of Jakarta and five religious orders, among them my Jesuit fellows, do the first part of their studies for the priesthood. Since the School is open for every person qualifying for academic studies we have also Muslim students. At the master- and doctoral program 30 percent of the students are Muslim. They, as the others, are introduced into an attitude of enlightenment and are actually helped to dare to think for themselves. For religiously oriented students, Muslims and also seminarians, the experience that you do not have to leave critical thinking behind if you are a religious person can be exhilarating. I also teach occasionally at other academic institutions where the great majority of the students are of course Muslims. Since I have every year about 100 extra-curricular events where I have to speak, I have come to know a big number of the best known Muslim intellectuals of Indonesia, the leaders of Islamic organizations like NU or Muhammadiyah, and Muslim and other politicians. There I am involved in reflecting, sometime criticizing, what happens and what does not, but should happen, in Indonesia. The things I now talk most often about are democracy, human rights, social justice, but I also talk about religious pluralism, our state philosophy of Pancasila, Indonesian nationalism and the problems Indonesia faces in all these dimensions. I speak more often to majority Muslim audiences to a specifically Catholic or Christian audiences. Although I do not have any official position in the Indonesian Catholic Church, when Muslims need a Catholic for a seminar or discussion, or TV session, they very often ask me.
As regards Indonesia I am convinced that the still enormous problems of the country will be solved if Christians and Muslims can work together in a mutually trusting way. This is what I want to support. We still have problems, among them a kind of crumbling of traditional religious tolerance and a growing activity of Wahabi and Salafi aligned hard-line groups, I am still optimistic that Indonesia will stay a democracy where religious freedom is a reality and relations between us Christians and our Muslim sisters and brothers will remain positive.